The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated tensions between Beijing and Washington. It's time that cooler heads prevail, and Germany has just the right person for the job.
BERLIN — It's encouraging to see the tireless, selfless commitment of doctors and care workers across the world who are leading the fight against coronavirus. What's disappointing is that world leaders seem unable to do the same.
Particularly worrying is that the United States and China — which have both been hit especially hard by the virus — are continuing to stoke their rivalry throughout the crisis, displaying not only arrogance, but sometimes also xenophobia.
After the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, Washington immediately began speculating that it could spell the end for the Chinese dream. Donald Trump insisted on calling it "the Chinese virus' and boasted that he had the crisis under control.
China has responded in kind: Foreign journalists who criticize the regime's handling of the virus are labeled racist and even expelled from the country. Beijing has claimed that the fast spread of the coronavirus in Europe and the United States is the result of western decadence, while celebrating its own containment of the epidemic as proof that its system of government is superior.
The confrontation between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump is stirring up a new "crisis within the crisis." Careful, prudent action is the way to manage an emergency. In the absence of competent leadership, the situation can only get worse. Now the United States is having to face a crisis of leadership at the same time as combating the epidemic. The Chinese regime has managed to avoid this, and may well emerge from the coronavirus even stronger than before.
The United States has two options. It can carry on trying to stop China from gaining power, although this would be almost impossible, as China is fast becoming an equal partner on the world stage. Or it could seek to work together with China so that the two superpowers balance each other out.
The confrontation between Jinping and Trump is stirring up a new "crisis within the crisis."
So far there have been no positive signals of cooperation between Washington and Beijing. The two governments are tangled up like boxers in the ring, and can only be separated if someone else steps in. Otherwise the whole world will suffer.
But who can speak for the rest of the world? Who can put the brakes on this dangerous trend? Only a strong political leader who commands respect from other countries and has experience on the world stage. This person must have have a proven record in times of crisis and represent a country with a solid international reputation. He or she must have a working relationship with both Washington and Beijing, and — perhaps most importantly — have shown strong leadership throughout the coronavirus epidemic. Surely there could be no one better qualified than Angela Merkel.
Xi Jinping and Donald Trump on a Berlin Wall mural, April 28 — Photo: Jan Scheunert/ZUMA
The German chancellor is well respected in Beijing, but her relationship with the U.S. government is not entirely comfortable. Although she has a good reputation there, Trump is obsessed with his own superiority. He is sticking to his "America first" approach, and he makes sure the Germans know it.
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl wouldn't have been put off by this. He would probably already have spoken to Donald Trump and used his rustic charm to convince the U.S. president that he would gain respect both at home and abroad if he adopted a different approach with China.
Kohl would have shown Trump that he could enhance his own reputation by turning to China for help in this crisis. Because with help from Beijing, the American economy could kick into life again. Kohl would also have been able to exploit Trump's vanity, by emphasizing the president's great responsibility and historic role in the crisis.
Now is the time for Merkel to step up.
Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt would probably have encouraged more international cooperation throughout the crisis. He would have used his expertise in dealing with authoritarian leaders to appeal to the Chinese government and persuade it to abandon its triumphalist tone towards the United States. And former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher would probably have already returned from a secret mission to Washington and Beijing.
Angela Merkel has shown that she is capable of doing the same. Now is the time for her to step up. As an experienced diplomat, she could take matters into her own hands and encourage Beijing and Washington to hold proper talks. She could also call for the UN, the G7 or the G20 to be put on an emergency footing. It would even be possible to organize a special coronavirus conference, either independently or under the aegis of the UN.
This would be in Merkel's own best interest, and that of the EU, because these two world powers are both putting pressure on Europe. The United States is trying to win the EU over to its side and stir up anti-Chinese sentiment. China is being more subtle in its approach, offering support in the fight against coronavirus to Italy and other European countries, carefully selected to broaden its influence.
An already beleaguered Europe will be put to the test if the rivalry between the United States and China continues to grow. Reducing tension between these two world powers is necessary for Europe's unity and economic stability. That is why a diplomatic initiative would be a welcome step.
In a few weeks' time, Germany will take over the presidency of the European Council. Angela Merkel will therefore have an even greater responsibility to represent European interests, and more authority behind her when she approaches these two governments. The European Council presidency gives her a chance to step into the ring with the EU's backing. Let's hope she takes the opportunity.
*Christian Hacke is a renowned historian and political scientist
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