THE question of "who" is responsible for coronavirus is slowly gaining traction.

President Donald Trump and the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo have both claimed that the Chinese government intentionally hid the severity of Covid-19. In one of his prattling daily sermons, Trump proudly adds he doesn't know what the 19 actually stands for. He prefers "Kung Flu". 

The finger-pointing at China was always inevitable. The collective history of the West in the last 100 year is someone must pay the piper. Why would a disease be any exception? The human story is replete with retaliations for sleights real and imagined. 

In 1887 Russian sociologist Jacques Novikow coined the xenophobic term "Yellow Peril" to describe a fear of non-white people from the Orient. The phrase was popularised by Kaiser Wilhelm II to capture the West’s psychocultural dread of the East.

Trump's nativist rhetoric in 2020 is nothing new. The 1868 Burlingame Treaty between the US and China opened the door for unlimited Chinese immigration to America. Tragically the 1871 Chinese Massacre saw 500 white men lynch 20 Chinese men. 

In America, "Yellow Peril" xenophobia and fear of blue-collar, white working-class job losses culminated in escalating curbs to Chinese free movement. The 1875 Page Act, the 1880 Angell Treaty and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act all cut Chinese immigration. The 1917 Immigration Act simply called the modus operandi for what it was - the "Asiatic Barred Zone Act" and remained in effect until 1943. 

The British Empire was no better. Asian indentured servitude took the place of slavery after its abolition in the early 19th century. Chinese labour was exported to Crown colonies, Dominions and territories but was always met with a xenophobic backlash. Between 1904 and 1910, 60,000 indentured Chinese people worked in gold mines in South Africa before most were repatriated due to racist hostility from white workers. 

The 1904 Cape Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1906 Asiatic Registration Act restricted the rights of Chinese workers to trade, land ownership and citizenship. Many Chinese workers joined the protests of Mahatma Gandhi and his passive resistance to the apartheid and repressive policies. 

Conspiracies about "the Chinese" is just the latest racist talk. It's only missing a Fu Manchu moustache. Arguments over the sanitation of wet markets is just as derogatory in its implication. Yet even after all this time, a fear of cheap Chinese labour, human rights and uncertain global ambitions are just the same as the turn of the last century.

The difference now is China's scale and military and economic strength. During the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and 1856–60 Britain unilaterally forced open the door to trade - drugs and all - in the name of "civilisation" and profit. Now, who holds the global cards and the real gunboat diplomacy? 

If Trump is in any way serious about his reprisal talk, it's going to take a global alliance. Consider the Boxer Rebellion of 1900: the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, a Chinese secret organisation, led an uprising to curtail the spread of Western and Japanese influence. It was intensely xenophobic, anti-Christian and anti-Western imperialism. 

On June 20, 1900, the "Boxers" began a siege in Beijing where the official quarters of foreign diplomats were located. The following day, the Empress Dowager Tzu'u Hzi of the Qing dynasty declared war on all nations with diplomatic ties in China. The 55-day siege killed 55 of 407 soldiers and some 135 were wounded. 13 civilians lost their lives with 24 wounded. Families were forced to defend themselves while starving. Nearly 20,000 died in total and an estimated 100,000 in during the uprising - mostly civillians. 

An Eight-Nation Alliance of Austria-Hungary, the British Empire, France, the German Empire, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United States, was dispatched in the name of humanitarian intervention. The 45,000 strong army secured victory with the signing of the Boxer Protocol on September 7, 1901. China was fined war reparations totalling  450,000,000 taels of silver - more than the Chinese government's annual tax revenue and worth hundreds of millions in today's money.  

The alliance was the first time a European coalition army was commanded by a single man, German field marshal Alfred von Waldersee. The stationing of troops in China, the execution of officials who supported the rebellion were all second to the global humiliation and bloody nose China received. 

In a century later and the storm clouds of conflict are stirring again. If Beijing is believed to have in any way lied, deceived or underplayed the facts about COVID-19, there will be another "clash of civilisations". Far from starting a problematic engagement, Covid-19 will ignite tensions which have existed for over 150 years. 

Civis Romanus sum was once the guiding principle for knocking back anyone who harmed a hair on a British citizen's head. The Don Pacifico Affair might be the lasting exemplar. Have we ever stopped to ask what would happen if the Chinese government elected to enact a similar principle if its honour was offended? 

What is more likely than not to occur with the accusation levied against China is one of three things. Nothing will come of the allegation, but the Chinese government will be looked at with increased mistrust. Alternatively, there will be some evidence of neglect, compliance or conspiracy leading a global response on part with the Eight-Nation Alliance. Or, China acts pre-emptively against one or two to secure its reputation, quash rumours - and to defend itself. 

As the Boxer Rebellion showed, existential threats often lead to surprising and unprecedented alliances. Before going down that route, we must make entirely sure of the facts of our finger-pointing. That requires looking at our own prejudices. The first decade of this century should surely be warning enough of what happens if wars are predicated on a "Dodgy Dossier". 

Alastair Stewart is a public affairs consultant with Orbit Communications. He regularly writes about politics and history with a particular interest in the life of Winston Churchill. Follow him on Twitter at @agjstewart