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Vanity trumps science and diplomacy

By Philip J. Cunningham | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2020-07-23 14:59


The desperate quality of failing US administration is painfully evident in the gross mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the frittering away of diplomatic goodwill, so much so that influential Republican strategists have taken the tack, "Don't defend Trump, blame China".

The sudden demand on Tuesday that China close its consulate in Houston, Texas, is in keeping with the erratic behavior of the embattled US administration.

What crazy new provocation will the US president come up with? Because it is certain there will be more in the months leading up to the election, which polls and pundits alike say he is likely to lose.

The expulsion of Chinese diplomats in Houston will bring to a close a long and productive chapter of US-China relations and raises fears about the rise of a new kind of McCarthyism in the United States based on a bigoted hatred of China. The Houston consulate, opened in November 1979, was the first consular mission to open during the honeymoon after the US and China established diplomatic relations, not long after Deng Xiaoping's visit to Texas during which he famously donned a cowboy hat. The positive energy of those heady, early days has been lost, replaced by something a lot more negative.

A tit-for-tat dynamic is already painfully evident as the world's two biggest economies tussle in trade and security affairs. Just as journalist expulsions have come to be expected in response to journalist expulsions, and withering diplomatic invective is met with the same, it can be expected that a US consulate may be closed in China in response.

At least part of the ire being exhibited by the US State Department under the belligerent leadership of former CIA chief Mike Pompeo is founded on diplomatic tomfoolery.

The US consulate in Wuhan has largely been running on empty since a mysterious coronavirus, first ravaged the central Yangtze River region. Now they want to return.

Pompeo's spokesperson and other underlings have asserted that "diplomatic immunity" should be extended to include "virus immunity" which is to say, US diplomats should be able to enter China any time they please without taking the same tests and preventative quarantine measures as everyone else.

Diplomats are traditionally accorded perks not available to ordinary citizens, such as diplomatic channels at airports, diplomatic pouch privileges, the right to rip up parking tickets and ignore petty violations of the law, but since when are diplomats free to put the health and safety of others at risk?
It is immoral, and not at all diplomatic, to put countless others at risk in this way.

The State Department under the incumbent US president has a poor record of compliance with public health guidelines and scientific protocol going back to the time when it arranged to evacuate US citizens from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in March. Passengers who tested positive for the novel coronavirus were put on the same flight as those who tested negative. Early documented transmission of the virus on US soil dates mostly to the botched "rescue" of US citizens who had been stranded in port or at sea on various commercial cruise liners.

What's more, US diplomats who boarded the Diamond Princess in Yokohama Port did not take adequate safety precautions, did not get tested on the faulty presumption that diplomats were immune to that "sort of thing".

The same sort of cavalier attitude evident in the US president's dismissive briefings on the virus threat was evident in the case of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which had one of the most serious virus outbreaks in the US military to date.

The captain of the ship, Brett Crozier, grew frustrated with the Navy's cavalier attitude toward the health of his sailors when it was painfully evident that the COVID-19 outbreak raging onboard could not be humanely contained at sea. Frustrated, he made a complaint outside Navy channels for which he was ignominiously dismissed and lost command of his ship. Even so, he was honored by his crew and in the court of public opinion for putting a higher value on human life than the Navy's face-saving protocol.

Unfortunately, the good ship America has no captain of similar moral fiber. The US president has alternated between promoting himself and denying science, leading to a botched response to the outbreak. Pompeo, an outright sycophant of the president, seems to share the belief of his boss that political privilege ranks higher than good science and common sense.

China has every reason to request that fresh arrivals from the US, which has seen more than 140,000 COVID-19 deaths and has for months been the epicenter of the pandemic, to submit to quarantine until possible infection can be ruled out.

But the US has a long history of setting rules and changing the rules but not playing by the rules.

It demands war criminals be tried in the International Court of Justice, but refuses to join, for fear US military personnel and others might be found guilty of war crimes. It ignores environmental protocols. It enforces its right to free navigation but denies the same to others.

If the US wants to re-people the China missions it abandoned like a sinking ship last January, it is only reasonable that diplomats, of all people, should support reasonable measures to contain the disease and respect science-based prevention and control measures introduced to that effect.

It can be expected that the said diplomats, given the courtesy of so many privileges already, would enjoy some of the best facilities China has to offer. A US university administrator who was quarantined for two weeks in Shanghai after a visit to Europe told me that the hotel was clean and comfortable, the food good and the wifi signal better than at home.

By most reports, the facilities used for the temporary quarantine of foreigners in China are superior to the equivalent in the US, where the sloppy, ad hoc response has left many stranded and without assistance.

What is the State Department asking for other than to fatuously insist that "American exceptionalism" be recognized even at the risk of endangering public health?

Science doesn't work that way and neither should diplomacy.

The author is a media researcher covering Asian issues. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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