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May 4, 2020

Responding To: The U.S.-China Relationship Under Stress

A Crossroads: Challenge and Choice After COVID-19

Bryan Carapucci

This is a defining moment in U.S.-China relations, yet is also wholly uncertain. The outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan came to light just as the United States and China were finalizing Phase One of the trade deal in late December and early January. Three months later, any sense of progress on this front has long since subsided, as neither country could possibly keep up its end of the bargain when the virus has transformed into a global pandemic and has disrupted daily life in previously unimaginable ways. This breakdown also comes at a time when there is less trust in leadership worldwide, and countries are forced to look inward and think consciously about the reach of globalization in order to prevent the spread of the virus. As the entire globe remains immersed in this pandemic, the U.S.-China relationship will only continue to be tested in substantial ways.

At the government-to-government level, numerous developments in recent months have shown the darker underbelly of bilateral relations. Officials on both sides have spread vitriolic rumors and conspiracy theories regarding the origins of COVID-19, including U.S. Senator Tom Cotton’s remarks that the disease was created by the Chinese government as well as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s claims that the U.S. military was behind the virus. While Zhao’s claims were disavowed at least in part by Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai, these exchanges contribute to the trend towards aggressive rhetoric from officials on both sides. Even the media has seen the effects of this tension; the Chinese government’s recent expulsion of journalists from Beijing was reactionary to U.S. moves and part of a larger back-and-forth in restrictions on media personnel in the two countries.

On the people-to-people side, conditions are not too much better. Caught in the middle of a fractured bilateral relationship, the Peace Corps was terminated in China this year, ending a 27 year long legacy of U.S. volunteer assistance in the country. Though connected to the U.S. government and certainly not without its own issues or controversy, the Peace Corps was a dedicated and consistent medium in which American volunteers could directly interact with Chinese society and make some sort of an impact, however small. Its absence now means one fewer opportunity to promote stronger understandings on an interpersonal level between Chinese and Americans.

In the backdrop of all of this has been a rise in xenophobia among the American and Chinese publics that emerged after the COVID-19 outbreak. In the United States, this has taken the form of grotesque physical and verbal attacks against Asian-Americans, fueled by racist outbursts and gross ignorance. By contrast, China’s own xenophobic switch is not so much physically violent as it is a push against foreigners in general, amounting to some businesses refusing to serve non-Han Chinese, racist social media postings, and a ban on foreign entry. While both of these accompany xenophobic shifts worldwide, they have distinct impacts on the U.S.-China relationship in particular.

I do not reference all of these low points to paint an image of U.S.-China relations as irreparably damaged or hopeless. Rather, I want to be totally forthright in acknowledging that this is a difficult time for this relationship and possibly even its nadir. The positive elements that remain, such as the increase in scientific collaboration and informational exchange between the two countries on COVID-19, have largely been overshadowed by the negatives. Where the COVID-19 outbreak could have facilitated stronger cooperation between the United States and China writ large, it has instead only served to strain relations.

All of this being said, there is certain potential to improve relations moving forward. The March 27th conversation between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping was a step in the right direction. For one, President Trump agreed to step back on the “Chinese Virus” label that had incensed Chinese government officials and the Chinese public alike. In addition, the conversation exhibited that both sides are willing to work together to undo at least some of the catastrophic damage that has been done from COVID-19 because it is in both of their best interest to do so. Both countries will almost definitely feel a degree of economic devastation from this, with projections that China’s annual GDP growth could significantly slow for the first time in decades. Working together on this front would be mutually beneficial in solving some of these intractable economic problems and could even help expedite trade negotiations that had previously been left simmering.

The immediate future of U.S.-China relations is, at this point, still unpredictable, and challenges will no doubt continue to emerge that could further strain already tenuous ties. Despite this, a distinct opportunity exists to change course, and it starts with both sides acknowledging the benefits of cooperation. This must be done sooner rather than later. This is a challenging time that will either continue to push the two countries in opposing and antagonistic directions, or force them to work together to come out of it stronger.

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