2020 started with promise for U.S.-China relations as the two countries signed a truce — a "phase-one" deal — in their brutal trade war. Hopes that it would provide a foundation for a cooperative, forward-looking relationship have been crushed as the COVID-19 outbreak has wreaked havoc around the world. When the U.S. government finally decided to take that threat seriously, the Trump administration, with the president leading the charge, identified the disease as "the China virus," sparking outrage in Beijing and setting off a diplomatic war of words.

The fight has extended to the media. Ostensibly, it began with a Wall Street Journal commentary with the inflammatory headline "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia" — a phrase freighted with ugly historical baggage — which prompted Beijing to expel three of the paper's journalists and demand an apology.

But the order came two weeks after the article appeared and hours after the U.S. State Department designated five Chinese news agencies — Xinhua, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily and Hai Tian Development USA — as "foreign missions," which means that they are considered arms of the Chinese government and required to register as such.