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May 3, 2020

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

Ebbs and Flows of U.S.-China Relations

Jiaqiao Xiang

From the first American merchant vessel “Empress of China” entering Chinese waters in 1784, to the unprecedented signing of the Joint Communiqué during the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979, from the avoidance of escalating confrontation during all Taiwan Strait crises, to the current unique challenge under the COVID-19 pandemic, the interaction and cooperation between the United States and China have shown remarkable growth, with periodic ebbs and flows. Starting from humble beginnings, U.S.-China relations have become the world's most important bilateral relationship of this century.

Throughout history, despite ideological differences and various conflicts, the United States and China have developed a unique form of mutual understanding: both sides expect the other party to act on their own terms of rationality. Collaborations, in general, outweigh the conflict.

Under the current COVID-19 pandemic, U.S.-China relations are facing new challenges. With the 76-day-lockdown lifted in Wuhan, China became the first to suffer and the first to recover from the pandemic. In the past few months, Chinese people have experienced probably the most unique Chinese New Year of their life. When the virus first spread, a question was raised in the famous Chinese website Zhihu (comparable to Quora): “If the pandemic broke out first in the United States, would the situation be better?” Back then, most of the answers were appraising the transparency of the United States, claiming the United States would do a better job. As the virus spreads, it turns out that both China and the United States failed to cope with the pandemic appropriately at early stages due to their own domestic problems. Chinese local officials were trying to keep the stability of domestic society, while the Trump administration in the United States was more concerned with the stock market and the upcoming elections.

Looking back, people started to realize that the Chinese government’s response was among the best compared with other countries, especially considering the fact that the government back then had much less information about the virus. The same tragedy, including lack of transparency in the early stages, limited access to testing kits, and a shortage of medical supplies happened repeatedly around the world, despite the early warnings from China since January 2020. Apart from expressing prayers and pity, “I have seen this episode” became one of the most popular comments under such news. China, at the cost of locking down a city of 11 million people, served as the whistleblower of the world, and sadly, most of the world wasted the precious time that China bought.

To divert the criticism, President Trump and other officials deliberately used the term “Chinese Virus” instead of coronavirus. As a response, spokesman Zhao Lijian made a bold claim on his personal twitter account that the virus was allegedly brought to Wuhan by the U.S. Army. The crossfire in diplomacy is just a microcosm of the distrust between the two countries, which is the last thing that the two countries should do now. On April 10th, 2020 the White House blamed VOA for “promoting foreign propaganda” when referring to Wuhan’s lockdown as a successful model. The White House also denounced the statistics from the Chinese government. Just as many COVID-19 fatalities were unidentified in China as in the United States due to the shortage of testing kits and disparities between federal and state government policies. The early numbers in Wuhan were underestimated as well. However, now is the time that the United States should cooperate with China and learn from China’s experience and mistakes for the sake of U.S. citizen’s lives, rather than focusing on ideological differences and politicizing this whole pandemic. After all, the right to life is a fundamental human right. China has shown the willingness to offer help to many countries, including the United States. Coping with the global pandemic requires global collaboration, and no country is on a lonely island.

Another challenge underlying the COVID-19 pandemic is related to national security issues, the key element in U.S.-China relations that often leads to conflict. On March 27, 2020 Donald Trump signed the TAIPEI Act to support Taiwan’s international relations, a relationship that the United States itself has not established with Taiwan. This fundamentally changes the legal foundation since the normalization of U.S.-China diplomatic relations. A quick history lesson from the Chinese perspective: after the hundreds of years of humiliation, the Chinese government under the CCP has always prioritized securing its national sovereignty, with Taiwan being a core national interest. The appropriate expression on the Taiwan issue was set as the premise of the formal establishment of Sino-American diplomatic relations during the negotiation in the 1970s. In the Joint Communiqué, the United States strategically acknowledged that “Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China, and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.” This expression has been confirmed by each and every administration, serving as the consensus for nearly half a century. However, the situation changed dramatically recently. The new act, which aims to strengthen Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with other partners in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as advocate for Taiwan’s membership in all international organizations that do not require statehood status, goes against the previous communique. The immediate negative effects are buried under the need for cooperation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future effects of the act are unforeseen. However, one thing is certain: this act will further complicate future U.S.-China relations, leading them into unknown territory.

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