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May 3, 2020

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

COVID-19 and the New Low of U.S.-China Relations

Cathy Sun

As the global crisis surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, U.S.-China relations hang in an ever precarious balance that edges closer to complete deterioration each day. The once stable relationship between the two great power rivals may be teetering at the edge of its coup de grâce, thanks to the hands of fate and a botched emergency response to initial containment. As the United States and China devolve into hostilities over responsibility and blame for the state of the global health and economic crisis, the real loser of this zero-sum game will be the world’s wellbeing.

While talks of economic decoupling between the United States and China dominated policy conversations prior to the onset of the coronavirus, the pandemic has largely mooted domestic debate and accelerated the end of economic interdependence. Overnight, the global supply chains dominated by China were fractured as exports and imports nosedived while travel industries and high-tech exchanges screeched to a halt. U.S. companies made wary by the trade war only found more cause to diversify manufacturing away from China, prompting relocations of operations and reduced economic dependence. Furthermore, the U.S. trade war tariffs and corresponding counter-tariffs from Beijing remain in place, even as businesses are struggling to stay afloat. The full extent of economic repercussions from the pandemic remains unclear, but at the very least, extensive decoupling and the rise of rivalrous spheres of influence is becoming a concrete possibility for the future of global relations.

At the same time, the raging blame-game over the virus has only amplified antagonistic tensions and bitter noncooperation between the two powers. In their attempts to deflect domestic and international accountability for poorly managed responses to COVID-19, China has resorted to heavy propaganda tools while the United States has turned to xenophobic rhetoric. As Beijing continues to impose harsh restrictions on the publication of research on the origins of the virus, state officials have falsely promoted conspiracies about the virus being developed and planted by the U.S. military. Meanwhile, the Trump administration in the United States has gone from downplaying the novel coronavirus as a Democratic “hoax” to labeling it a “Chinese” virus in a strategic pivot after an impressive series of botched policy responses. With the November presidential election on the horizon, Trump is likely seizing the pandemic as an opportunity to intensify attacks on China while framing criticisms of his policies as anti-patriotic.

Yet as both parties continue to accelerate hostilities, their responses to the coronavirus might also be building a new global balance of power—one without the United States on top. While China has become the leading donor of necessary medical supplies and pandemic expertise to countries such as Italy, Germany, Spain, and Iran, the United States has withdrawn contributions to the World Health Organization and refused cooperation at the global level. When the United States announced new border restrictions to travelers from the European Union (EU), China announced new donations of essential equipment and foreign aid to embattled countries in Europe. China’s strategic moves draw sharp and intentional contrasts with U.S. leadership, and underscore something central about the U.S.-China dynamic: when the United States fails to act, China will. While the United States is failing to live up to its status as the global leader in a time of emergency, China is seizing the power vacuum to frame itself as a legitimate authority in the international sphere. If the Trump administration continues to withdraw from global cooperation, the geopolitical long game may well tip in favor of China.

The greatest difficulty that remains is whether or not the two world powers can come together to address transnational threats of the COVID-19 scale even while competing in other areas of great power rivalry. While medical expertise sharing and strategic response planning to the ongoing pandemic is curtailed by mutual hostilities, their own people and the rest of the world suffer. Without joint leadership, the real losers of this unnecessary zero-sum game are the human lives lost daily to the prolonged presence of the virus. Finding common ground is essential to overcoming not only the challenges of this pandemic, but also issues of terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and conflict prevention. The fate of the world hinges on it—and both the United States and China would do well to recognize the limitations of their unilateral leadership.

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