China hawks watched with hope when Trump ascended to the presidency in 2016. He spoke on the campaign trail of bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US and challenging China’s goal of global supremacy. He hired Peter Navarro, a strong critic of China, to run his trade council. Trump eventually hammered out a phase one trade deal with China in which the communist state agreed to purchase more US goods and curb its intellectual property theft.
The aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak would seemingly be the opportune time for Trump to double down on his China criticism for its inaccurate case and death reports, exports of faulty PPE and testing kits, and death grip on the medical supply chain, but Cockburn noticed that instead, the president has suddenly softened his stance on his adversary.
The president was calling the coronavirus as the ‘China virus’ during press briefings and in tweets, referring to the fact that the virus originated in the Wuhan province, but stopped doing so shortly after a call with China’s President Xi Jinping. He punted on a question during Sunday’s surprise press briefing about China’s defective medical equipment, saying ‘they’re not sending faulty things to us’, and he has yet to sign the much-touted ‘Buy American‘ executive order that would reshore parts of the medical supply chain.
It’s not clear why Trump has suddenly backed off his tough guy demeanor with China, but if Cockburn had to make an educated guess, it has something to do with the second phase of that trade deal mentioned earlier. The second part was intended to be a relatively small and quick follow-up, but has been pushed aside as the world deals with a pandemic. It’s quite possible Trump got an earful from President Xi during that phone call and wants to avoid angering China before world leaders can finally travel again to get this agreement squared away.
Whipping up the base now against China would certainly endanger any relationship with President Xi and make it much harder to negotiate any concessions on behalf of the Americans. But in the meantime, Trump will look like a sellout to voters who want him to make China pay for sending the ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘Kung Flu’ halfway around the world.