Coronavirus has hit the US harder than most countries around the world. A new think-tank made up of the country’s biggest China hawks is using the crisis to turn public opinion against Beijing. An American public living in fear over this crisis is particularly vulnerable to anti-China propaganda. The virus’ Chinese origin may also serve as a useful tool for a Pentagon that is looking to increase its footprint in the Indo-Pacific region.
A Cold War-era group was revived last year by neoconservative Frank Gaffney and former White House strategist Steve Bannon. The Committee on the Present Danger: China (CPD) launched just over a year ago in March 2019. The new CPD is the group’s fourth iteration. The first CPD was formed in the 1950s, the second in the 70s, both used to confront the Soviet Union. The third CPD was formed in 2004 to address the so-called War on Terror.
Members of the CPD refer to China as the greatest "existential threat" to the US. "The United States is likely to face in the foreseeable future a determined and aggressive superpower adversary, prepared and willing to use force, as well as nonmilitary forms of warfare, to defeat this country decisively," reads one of the CPD’s "guiding principles." Another principle says, "There is no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country." The Covid-19 pandemic is the perfect opportunity for this group to exploit the fears of Americans and push for a more hawkish policy towards China.
Steve Bannon played an influential role in President Trump’s campaign and the early days of the administration and pushed hard for tariffs on Chinese goods during his short-lived role as chief strategist. Bannon’s China ambitions do not stop with the trade war. "I think ultimate success is regime change [in China], and I realize in that regard I’m considered a radical," Bannon told NPR in May 2019.
Bannon has a podcast titled "Bannon’s War Room." Back in January, in the early days of the outbreak, Bannon changed the title to "War Room: Pandemic." In the show, Bannon rails against China’s response to the virus. Bannon frequently refers to the pandemic as a "Biological Chernobyl" and has said there will be a "Nuremberg-type trial" in Wuhan. Last week, Bannon appeared on Fox Business News and said, "Blood is on the hands of the Chinese Communist Party."
CPD Vice Chairman and founder Frank Gaffney is best known for his anti-Muslim writings, authoring books such as Shariah: The Threat to America. Gaffney often spread theories that the Muslim Brotherhood was infiltrating Western society from within, and was one of the most prominent figures who suggested President Obama was secretly a Muslim. In 1997, Gaffney was a signatory to a letter by the infamous neocon think-tank Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Gaffney played his part in justifying the 2003 invasion of Iraq, not only suggesting Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, but also suggesting he was involved in the first World Trade Center attack and even the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Since the CPD was founded, Gaffney has been hard at work hosting briefings and panels on the China threat. Gaffney often points to the plight of Uyghur Muslims in western China as an example of Beijing’s human rights abuses. The common allegation against China is that they have around one million Uyghur Muslims in re-education camps in Xinjiang. In a 2009 column for The Washington Times, Gaffney referred to a group of 17 Uyghur’s who were wrongly imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and set to be released as "another group of dangerous aliens Mr. Obama seems determined to unleash on the American people."
Gaffney made a living spreading Islamophobia and manufacturing consent for wars against Muslim majority countries. The death toll in Iraq alone is widely believed to be well over one million. For Gaffney and his colleagues, the Uyghur Muslims are nothing more than a geopolitical tool.
Like Bannon, Gaffney’s latest content has been focused on criticizing China’s response to the coronavirus. The CPD’s website links to a timeline of what they call "Chinese government propaganda regarding the Wuhan Virus." China’s government may have fumbled the early response to the virus, but the US government missed an opportunity to catch the outbreak early on.
On January 21st, it was known to the public that the first confirmed case of coronavirus was detected in the US, in Washington State, from a person traveling from Wuhan. A doctor at a Seattle flu clinic was ready to start testing samples after she heard the news. The doctor was denied permission to conduct the tests by state and federal officials. After waiting over a month, on February 25th, the doctor tested a sample without permission from the government and found a positive case. The outbreak in Washington state has killed over 500 people and could have been limited in that crucial time.
The Seattle flu clinic serves as one example of the US government hindering its domestic response to the virus. Besides domestic failures, US foreign policy has impeded the world’s response to the virus. The Trump administration has maintained crippling economic sanctions on countries like Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and Cuba. The US even added sanctions to Iran in the midst of the crisis, one of the countries hit the hardest by the virus, with over 4,400 deaths.
"The Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in March as he announced new sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Despite insistence from US officials that sanctions do not affect medical infrastructure, studies show they cause shortages of medicines and medical supplies. The virus may have originated in China, but the US is the superpower that is weaponizing the outbreak.
Much of the rhetoric from CPD members comes from a self-righteous moral high ground. In a speech in June 2019, Bannon rattled off a list of China’s human rights abuses, and said stopping US financial support for the Chinese government and these abuses is the "highest moral imperative." But Washington has plenty of its own human rights abuses to deal with. From the economic warfare listed above, to the support for the genocidal war in Yemen, the blockade on Gaza, the shadow war in Somalia that regularly kills civilians, and the occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. These wars are directly funded by US taxpayers, not indirectly funded by voluntary investors like the abuses in China. The "highest moral imperative" for Americans should be focusing on ending their own government’s human rights abuses.
The Pentagon shares the CPD’s belief that China should be Washington’s primary focus. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has repeatedly called China the Pentagon’s "number one priority" since he took the position in the summer of 2019. The 2018 National Defense Strategy identified China and Russia as the "central challenge to US prosperity and security." The US Indo-Pacific Command just recently submitted a request for $20 billion to "deter Chinese aggression" in the region.
The main point of contention between China and the US militarily is in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Beijing considers Taiwan to be its own territory, and although the US does not have any official relationship with Taiwan, they are one of the island’s main supporters. Washington continues to sell weapons and other military equipment to Taipei. During the pandemic, the US Navy has stepped up its patrols through the Taiwan Strait. On April 10th, the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry steamed through the strait. The US ran a similar patrol on March 25th, an action Beijing denounced and called "very dangerous."
Since 2015, the US has been running what they called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea near contested archipelagos, the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. The latest FONOP was on March 10th, when a US Navy destroyer sailed near the Paracel Islands. Beijing called this action a "hegemonic act that violates international law, and … threatens the peace and stability of the South China Sea."
China and its neighbors to the southeast, like Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines, all have overlapping claims to the Paracel and Spratly islands. The islands are mostly small reefs, with not much territory, much of the dispute is over who has the right to fish the waters. The US has not taken any countries side in the dispute but instead decided to insert its Navy into the equation, with no clear goal other than provoking Beijing. China hawks will point to artificial islands built and militarized in these waters by Beijing as proof of China’s imperial expansionist goals. While China is certainly expansionist in its own way, the militarization of tiny reefs in the South China Sea is no threat to North America and is likely a defensive response to the presence of the US Navy on their shores.
Back in March 2016, Steve Bannon predicted war with China in the South China Sea. "We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years," Bannon said in a Breitbart radio show. "There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face – and you understand how important face is – and say it’s an ancient territorial sea. That’s a throw down is it not?"
In a segment last month, Fox News Host Tucker Carlson said that after the pandemic, "We’ll need to start treating China like the dangerous Cold War level adversary it has clearly become." Like members of the CPD, Carlson wants US companies to stop doing business in China and bring manufacturing jobs back to the US. While there is a conversation to be had about US reliance on Chinese manufacturing, treating them as a "Cold War level adversary" while our economies are so intertwined is reckless, and only invites more hostility.
China has some things to answer for, but the American people need to take a deep breath and not get caught up in the anti-China hysteria being spread through the media. The same way the PNAC neocons used 9/11 to get their wars in the Middle East, the CPD hawks are trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to get their war with China. After this pandemic, the last thing the world needs is a war between two major nuclear powers.
Note: This piece used research from Media Roots Radio, check out their two-part series on the CPD and other anti-China propaganda in the wake of Covid-19.
Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at Antiwar.com and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on US foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.