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May 3, 2020

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

Global Leadership (or Lack Thereof) in a Time of Crisis

Cole McFaul

COVID-19 presents profound economic, political, and health challenges to the international community. This crisis both has the potential to dismantle the international cooperation mechanisms that have helped to ensure a peaceful and prosperous global environment over the past 70 years, as well as offering the chance to strengthen those mechanisms and construct ones that are better suited to dealing with the unique problems that face mankind in the 21st century.

The two largest economic and political powers, the United States and China are pivotal actors in the global response to COVID-19. But escalating hostilities and mistrust between the two powers has largely impeded cooperation between the two countries. The past four months have been marked by name-calling, scapegoating, and a general suspicion of the other side.

Both countries have failed to respond effectively in handling COVID-19. In December, Chinese officials in Wuhan muzzled initial reports of the virus, notably from Li Wenliang, slowing the ability of both the Chinese government and the international community to prepare and react to the virus as it spread. Then, Beijing refused to allow international and American scientists to enter the country to help study and contain the disease until February 10th, almost two months after the virus started spreading in Wuhan. Recently, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted that the coronavirus might have been spread to China by the U.S. army.

In the United States, the Trump administration and the Republican party have increasingly blamed China for the virus. On March 16th, President Trump called COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus”. Many in the Republican party and in popular media have followed suit, calling coronavirus the “China virus”. This xenophobic reaction stigmatizes both China and ethnically Chinese people living in the United States. Furthermore, the Trump administration has questioned the World Health Organization, citing Chinese influence in the organization as a reason to possibly pull vital U.S. funding from the organization.

So far, in the early months of the coronavirus response, leadership in both the United States and China have displayed a tendency to prioritize short term objectives. China’s decision to not allow foreign experts into the country until February 10th demonstrated the regime’s concern with its image as an independent and advanced state that does not need to accept outside help, as well as its distrust of foreign powers. The Trump administration’s xenophobic comments and scapegoating of China shows its single-minded focus on the domestic political consequences of the coronavirus.

The initial reactions of both powers demonstrate a narrow-mindedness that fails to address the massive problems the coronavirus represents to the world economy and global health. Instead of name-calling, rumor-spreading, and fear-mongering, the U.S. and Chinese governments must join forces to implement some semblance of global leadership. As the leaders of the two hegemonic world powers, Xi and Trump should be corresponding much more frequently and coordinating the two countries’ national responses to the crisis. From a public health standpoint, the governments of both countries should help facilitate scientific exchange between American and Chinese scientists and doctors to work to develop more effective treatments for COVID-19 patients, and to advance towards an eventual vaccine.

Perhaps more importantly for long-term global prosperity, the United States and China must coordinate together to develop a comprehensive strategy to restart the world economy. In 2008, the Group of 20 convened in Washington D.C. to strategize how to best recover from the Great Recession. Today, as we face an even greater economic downturn, neither power has made any discernible effort to plan for the future rebuilding of the global economy. The United States and China should partner together by building an international coalition of key powers to develop a path to economic recovery.

Finally, both countries should absolutely continue non-governmental interaction and exchange. Recently, Senator Tom Cotton proposed barring Chinese students from studying science and technology at universities in the United States. Not only is this rhetoric dangerous and xenophobic, it fails to advance American objectives by limiting scientific exchange, achievement, and knowledge. Furthermore, increased interaction between non-governmental segments of society should be highly encouraged to advance understanding and empathy between the two countries.

As U.S.-China relations continue to deteriorate, leaders in both countries increasingly see the relationship in zero-sum terms. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these feelings. Most recently, American officials have criticized and denounced Chinese donations of ventilators and personal protective equipment, and see them as an insidious ploy to increase the country’s soft power. But in times of crisis especially, the two countries must be able to look past short-term petty competition and make efforts to reach out to the other side to find mutually beneficial solutions that will allow the world to secure better economic and health outcomes. Without this appreciation for multilateralism and the possibility of win-win outcomes, U.S.-China relations will continue to deteriorate and the world will undoubtedly suffer for it.

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