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May 3, 2020

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

A Friend in Need is A Friend Indeed

Cindy Wang

As a kid, growing up and learning English, I have always been amazed by how different cultures develop expressions that represent the exact same meaning. And “a friend in need is a friend indeed” was one of the first phrases I learned, which corresponds to the idiom “患难见真情” (Huannan Jian Zhenqing) in Chinese, as my teacher told me. Nowadays, as I sit in my house all day wondering what would happen next to the world, these two phrases suddenly come to my mind. Indeed, this pandemic is not only shaping how interpersonal relationships function but also putting bilateral relationships between countries to test. China, as the country where the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out and as one of the first countries to resume regular social activities, has naturally become the center of this global crisis and tension. From the country subjected to travel ban by many countries to the one supplying PPE to the global community, the role China is currently playing is crucial not only for dealing with the current crisis but also in shaping the future of international relations.

On the other hand, with almost a million confirmed cases and over 50,000 deaths, the United States has entered a struggling stage of battling the coronavirus. Nevertheless, at this critical point, the administration’s attitude towards China has been perplexing since the outbreak started in the United States. Starting with President Trump calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus”, blame has been put on China for being “unable” to control the disease and leading to its global spread. Meanwhile, racist sentiments continue to spread within the United States, as Asians residing in America are experiencing an increase in hate crimes. In response, China has been taking a strong stance, with a series of diplomats vigorously defending any accusations.

However, this hostility seems to be covering the underlying, interdependent ties between the United States and China. Despite the blame on China and the growing racist sentiment, the United States transported 17.8 tons of medical supplies to China early in February. In this current urgent moment, the China in the midst of recovery is also donating PPE to the United States, as many Chinese elites are shipping supplies while the production in China resumes. During the heated accusations and finger pointing, this mutual exchange of helping hands seem to be actively ignored in the official narratives. In a way, this connection is signifying the difficulty as well as the futility of cutting off ties and making of imaginary enemies. On the other hand, it also reveals the nature of the reality of U.S.-China relations: it is almost impossible to completely isolate the two, yet it is also impossible for the two countries to be “best friends.”

Is this detached global ties and isolation going to be normalized after the pandemic? Or would this be an opportunity for the global community, including the United States and China, to realize that every country is so closely tied together, and lives will not be normal without global connections? How multilateral relationships are dealt with during the pandemic is going to set an undertone for the future. Either way, what the United States needs, along with the international community under the impact of COVID-19, is to handle this crisis correctly to avoid more loss of lives and economic decline.

First, it is absolutely necessary to learn from each other’s lessons. China was able to effectively control the spread of COVID-19 because of its strict control of isolation. Setting the real number of confirmed cases dispute aside, the current resumption of social activities demonstrates a strong, positive result on the taken measures. Strict stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and the closing of non-essential businesses are absolutely necessary for containing the spread, as demonstrated by Germany, whose confirmed case number is way lower than fellow European countries due to their strict measures. Indeed, complex domestic and political issues are involved for the United States to make decisions to take such measures, but enough lessons from China, along with several countries that have experienced the horror and helplessness when faced with the growing case numbers, should be enough for the administration and governors to set aside any political agenda, and focus on helping their constituents cope with economic hardship while keeping them safe.

Second, efforts should be put into clearing the way for a global support system. When the global moment of factors are also limited due to the pandemic, there should not be political barriers to gain access to crucial supplies like PPE. As China is recovering from the COVID-19 crisis, its role as a major manufacturer would help produce ample medical resources that are needed for the battle in the rest of the world.

Third, although currently still dealing with the crisis itself, the United States should start considering collaboration with China in dealing with a potential global outbreak. If as experts say, coronavirus is truly going to spread to almost all corners of the world, both countries should take leading roles in helping countries with less equipped medical resources to get prepared, lowering the global impact to the minimum.

Obviously, there is a lot yet to be done. Maybe we can never tell whether the two countries would be true friends in this global crisis, but it is truly time to get united to face the battle.

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