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May 3, 2020

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

Facing the Facts on Coronavirus

John Rindone

The novel coronavirus pandemic of 2019-2020 has put a mirror to the U.S.-China relationship, and the current reflection is not good. Few would deny that the virus’s outbreak has accelerated a deterioration of bilateral ties. From both sides, official rhetoric and popular sentiment in the wake of coronavirus have exposed the structural tension and preexisting distrust besetting America and China.

At the same time, the enormous humanitarian crisis presented by coronavirus has forced the U.S. and China to reconsider the cases for bilateral engagement and cooperation, which have slid in recent years. Should America and China fail to reach a modus vivendi on scientific and macroeconomic collaboration in response to the coronavirus, it will be fair to question whether the two nations can cooperate on anything at all.

Ultimately, the coronavirus pandemic underscores that America and China’s bilateral dilemma persists in a global context. Although crises have always marked the history of international relations, multinational emergencies characterize our globalized world. While globalization both mandates and enables the international community to cooperate on common priorities, it also permits countries and regions to export their challenges abroad – willingly, or not. In other words, the benefits and risks of global interconnectivity tend to diffuse in tandem.

More than in recent memory, though not for the first time, the coronavirus pandemic has rendered this paradox of globalization the central axle of U.S.-China relations. On the one hand, American efforts to fight coronavirus not only borrow from China’s containment strategies, but also rely on the PRC’s industrial capacity in the personal protective equipment space. On the other hand, Americans can scarcely ignore two facts about the circumstances which engendered their present condition: first, subpar food-safety practices in China most likely facilitated the novel coronavirus’s initial outbreak, barring an even more disastrous origin; and, second, Chinese authorities deliberately interfered with the accurate flow of information in the virus’s earliest stages, frustrating domestic and international efforts at containment.

Without doubt, America’s own shortcomings have exacerbated contagion within its borders, and perhaps around the world. In addition, no one can or should overlook the Chinese people’s herculean fight against the virus, regardless of initial missteps, data issues, or political rhetoric. Nonetheless, globalization and China’s increasingly central international position have combined to expose the average American to China’s own domestic challenges more than an industrial subsidy ever could. U.S.-China relations now hang in the balance.

Consider the second fact mentioned above. China’s governing model features a systematic, though usually balanced tension between maintaining social stability and responsible administration, reinforced by bureaucratic incentive structures which punish bad news. By encouraging the deliberate suppression of information, this phenomenon unfortunately allowed coronavirus to proliferate beyond the point of international control. To that end, the virus has so disrupted the U.S.-China relationship not because said governing tension is novel for China, but rather because the virus’s outbreak has betrayed that domestic challenge’s latent and structural influence on a globalized world. Although the United States should not humiliate China over this fact, an honest account of the bilateral relationship must recognize it as a difficulty which, in an election year where Americans manifest growing awareness of their exposure to China, will require significant leadership to overcome.

Recent precedent can guide understanding as to how U.S.-China relations might change in this context. In 2008, America had its turn at exporting a domestic problem abroad, as globalization allowed America’s structurally flawed credit markets to imperil the world economy. China responded by increasing domestic control over its markets, because the crisis belied for it both the invincibility of American leadership and the wisdom of continued liberalization. This post-crisis perception that American hegemony no longer served its interests has informed China’s commitments to global governance reform and international investment initiatives ever since.

At the same time, China’s newly forward posture in international relations and the clarifying nature of the financial crisis combined to inaugurate a new type of Sino-American cooperation. The creation of the G20 Leadership Summit in 2008, the bilateral coordination of stimulus in subsequent years, and the climate agreement reached in 2014 all exemplify how the shakeup of a post-crisis environment can furnish new bilateral capacity and willingness for collaboration, even as China exited the American orbit elsewhere.

Like China did in 2008, the United States now faces the globalized context of the bilateral relationship, and America should recalibrate it in response. At minimum, coronavirus will intensify pressure on American companies to diversify their production away from China. In addition, the United States will also need to redouble its commitment to international institutions, lest China continue setting the pace of play, as it regrettably has with the World Health Organization.

Above all, however, America cannot abandon China at a time when China serves as both the catalyst for and potential solution to myriad challenges of globalization, such as the coronavirus pandemic. In other words, America’s needed rebalancing against China should not overlook the global need for scientific and macroeconomic collaboration in response to the virus. Instead, America should recall the “spirit of genuine friendship” with which President George H.W. Bush wrote to Deng Xiaoping in the aftermath of China’s previous international calamity, the Tiananmen Incident of 1989.

By eschewing a punitive response to China’s coronavirus shortcomings, and guided by humility regarding its own (though they are substantially different), America can still harness the current crisis to work with China in developing vaccines for both the coronavirus and the bilateral misalignments the crisis has laid bare. While America cannot ignore the facts, it should not surrender to them, either.

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