Tenuous Sino-US relations have been further aggravated by the devastating coronavirus pandemic. The two largest economies of the world, which were concluding trade deals in January 2020, are now predictably on a collision course. President Trump has blamed China squarely for the so-called “Chinese virus” and seems adamant to hold it accountable for the contagion and the ensuing devastation of economies and human lives around the world.

The US perhaps considers it expedient to exploit this pandemic to bring China to heel and simultaneously pursue deeper geopolitical, geo-economic and geostrategic objectives. It is thus manoeuvring decisively to isolate, envelope and contain China. It intends to emphatically circumscribe its rise as a contending economic and global power. Pursuing his penchant for coercion, both at home and abroad, President Trump is likely to confront China simultaneously in multiple domains.

China is likely to become the prime and perhaps the swing factor in the 2020 US Election. President Trump and Joe Biden, the likely Democrat candidate, will criticise China’s handling of the pandemic’s outbreak. They will emphasise the rejuvenation of the US economy, the inequitable Sino-US trade balance, creation of jobs at home, moving manufacturing by major multinationals back to Continental USA, diversifying the global supply chain and even the need to decouple the US and Chinese economies. They will also insist on maintaining US’ unassailable military supremacy and its unmatched strategic reach (space included). China’s “encroachments” in its ostensibly declining sphere of influence will attract minute scrutiny, too. The US military is already letting its ominous presence be felt in the Indo-Pacific-South China Sea Region. Predictably, China will be required to prove to the world, beyond reasonable doubt, that its actions on the outbreak of the coronavirus were timely and in accordance with the best international practices.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, diversification of the global supply chain system has now emerged as a core and vital interest for the US’ security and its pre-eminence as the sole economic and super power of the world. It will ignore it only to its peril. Regardless of the costs to the multinationals, the US is likely to push through with it in a very proactive manner. It could offer massive incentives to them to move out of China, preferably to the US. The US seems adamant to pursue economic nationalism, but its feasibility remains questionable on many accounts. The diversification of the global supply chains will undermine globalisation and define new paradigms for it. Mixed and/or integrated supply chains are likely to emerge more rapidly now to temper China’s overwhelming domination of the system in vogue. Regardless of where the supply chains get re-anchored, the host countries will have to match China in terms of domestic consumption, industrial and manufacturing capacities, infrastructure, technologies, trained manpower and costs of production. However, the global supply chain is bound to be rehashed and reconfigured. If mishandled, it will spell economic mayhem across the seas and the continents. In any case, automation and Artificial Intelligence etc are going to revolutionise industry and manufacturing processes very rapidly and in time, make such global supply chains increasingly redundant.

The US could move proactively to blunt China’s challenge to its pre-eminence as a global economic power. In a worst-case scenario, it could impede the BRI proactively, rehash trade deals, freeze Chinese assets in the US, impose sanctions, lay embargoes, hike taxes and duties on imports/exports to and from China, stop sourcing and manufacturing in China etc. It could withhold the transfer of technology; as it blocks the supply of semi-conductors to Huawei. The US Treasury Bills that China holds may eventually become a very serious bone of contention between the two. Lawsuits for reparations for the devastated economies and human lives lost due to the pandemic could seriously roil the situation further.

The South China Sea has been the bone of contention between China, the US and regional countries for some time now. It reportedly contains untold trillions of dollars in oil and natural gas reserves and fisheries. Since 2013, the Chinese have shown their presence on Spratly and Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal, much to the dismay of the US and regional countries. Of late, the US military has been increasingly conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits in particular. It has clearly upped the ante by substantially increasing its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes into the region. The intent is clear; the US will seek to enforce an international order in the region, ensure freedom of navigation, assure the regional countries that China will not be allowed to “squeeze them out of the treasures that lie beneath the seas” and contest China’s claims to the South China Sea and the riches therein.

Prudent statecraft might have seen both the US and China meeting halfway. Together, they could have led the world’s recovery from the pandemic and the global recession and in finding a vaccine. That opportunity seems lost amidst hostile rhetoric. Campaigning in Election 2020 will indicate the future trend of geopolitics, Sino-US relations and possibly the road map for the recovery of the US and world economies.

Sagacity demands sanity, restraint and dialogue.