US President Donald Trump seems to be promoting war with China, but what kind of war does he want? A cold war, a perpetual trade war, a war of words for re-election or something more? A new cold war is already unfolding, and pandemic control measures have advanced Washington’s vision of decoupling and strategic repositioning. The trade war appears endless while the war of words is accelerating daily, with Republicans and Democrats competing over who’s tougher on China. Trump has long blamed China for American problems, but the pandemic provides new opportunities . Contrary to science and intelligence estimates , Trump says he has seen conclusive evidence that the coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory , whether accidentally or deliberately, and that China misled the world on the source and severity of the outbreak and failed to implement effective controls. Trump claims this is a Chinese attempt to destroy his presidency and “worse than Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour”. Unsurprisingly, Chinese “ wolf warriors ” have mirrored US spin with their own blame game narratives. China has bragged of its containment efforts, striking many as poor form, and also promoted conspiracy theories . Some allege China is violating its non-intervention principle by issuing threats of economic coercion against dissenting voices in smaller countries, which are already struggling with an outbreak that originated in China. However, there have been reports that the “wolves” are being advised to tone down their howling. It is difficult to imagine anyone wanting additional conflict now, especially a hot war, given the continuing damage from Covid-19. The US hasn’t faced a military comparable to China’s in head-to-head conflict since World War II, and its engagements with lesser foes since then have produced no durable victories. China’s military strength is growing and the gap to the US is closing. While China has a “no first use” nuclear weapons policy , and while the US reportedly has advantages, such as under-ice missile submarines, nuclear war became strategically incomprehensible during the last Cold War. Yet, whether the deterrence mechanism from the stand-off with the former Soviet Union still operates is unclear, given modernisations of American arsenals and Russia and China’s new hypersonic delivery systems . Amid this uncertainty, a US Navy warship passed through the Taiwan Strait even as China held live-fire exercises in the area and the US remains determined to test China’s resolve in the South China Sea. Why is the US escalating its presence in South China Sea amid Covid-19? Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party, despite its fault lines, has never been stronger or more effective than it is today. Despite its heavy hand, whether in Xinjiang or Hong Kong , the party’s capacity to provide social or economic stability is currently unmatched by any comparably large actor in the world system. Consequently, it seems unlikely that Trump wants military conflict, although some believe this is precisely the time to strike, before American capacity irretrievable declines. Current circumstances – including a global economic downturn that could rival the Great Depression, degraded international coordination and global governance, and problems that predate the outbreak, such as climate change and inequality – indicate we live in a fraught moment in which inflammatory rhetoric could spark something worse than a cold war. A US-China hot war would provoke a global conflict, forcing smaller powers to pick sides. Distracted by Covid-19, few European elite are prepared to choose, despite mounting pressure to do so. With extensive economic ties to both China and the US, none can afford conflict, even in the best of times. Already the attempt to force a decoupling from China is in full swing in Washington. Some argue that China has similar campaigns afoot via the Belt and Road Initiative or, more recently, “ medical diplomacy ”. New Cold War? US Covid-19 blame game is pushing China towards Russia Throughout Trump’s tenure, he has tried to muster world opinion against China while also aggravating traditional allies. This has been most obvious in Nato, whether in his browbeating of European nations for not shouldering enough financial responsibility or risking losing Turkey to Russia before abandoning the Kurds . Reports indicate that Saudi Arabia has lost faith in the US, even opening discreet negotiations with Iran. While hawks in Europe still agitate for more confrontation with China, their position is not popular. But the spectre of war might change entrepreneurial calculus. In an opinion column, Mathias Döpfner, one of Germany’s most influential media CEOs, says it is time to choose sides and Europe must choose the US. While some business leaders and politicians in both Europe and the US talk about re-evaluating dependency on China for essential goods in the health and digital sectors, few seem eager to redirect investment from Chinese markets. Why Vietnam can’t replace China as the world’s manufacturing hub This too might change, as the Japanese pivot to relocate production chains away from China indicates. Meanwhile, Trump has just threatened to cut ties with China, saying he has no desire to communicate with Chinese President Xi Jinping at this time. Separately, a bipartisan bill in the US Senate has approved sanctions against Beijing over Uygur rights. While the growing US-China conflict benefits some countries, particularly those in the Global South eager to exploit both sides, none want a tipping point. All the same, we fear a downward spiral is under way, and the ability to control it is also in steep decline. Josef Gregory Mahoney is professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Maximilian Mayer is assistant professor of international studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.