Donald Trump has in many ways made good on his campaign promises to confront China. He’s waged a trade war, urged allies to restrict relations with the Chinese, and reoriented Washington toward long-term competition with Beijing.
Now, with the spread of a new coronavirus originating in China and rapidly descending on the United States, another front has opened in the struggle between the world’s most powerful nations. The global outbreak has served as a stark reminder that the human race is all in this together and that collaboration among countries is the only way out of this nightmare. But rather than focus on the demands of interdependence, a number of prominent figures in the Trump administration and Congress are seizing the moment to highlight the dangers of America’s dependence on other nations in general and China in particular.
As Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro and Senator Marco Rubio both told me, the crisis is an alarming “wake-up call” about American vulnerabilities in a globalized world—one that the United States has for decades played a leading role in sustaining.
President Trump has so far refrained from publicly criticizing Chinese leader Xi Jinping and, besides issuing travel restrictions, from taking antagonistic actions akin to the tariffs he imposed in response to China’s trade practices. Yet some of the nationalist hawks in his administration, who are engaged in a long-running struggle over China policy with the president’s more internationalist, dovish advisers, have been outspoken about how the public-health emergency could factor into Trump’s “America first” agenda. In January, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated that he didn’t “want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease,” only to then predict a possible victory: that the outbreak in China “will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America.”