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January 16, 2017

Responding To: Tangible Cooperation in 2017

Health Security Cooperation 2017: from Commitment to Actions

Yuqian Zhang

As an article of The Diplomat pointed out, “Right now uncertainty is the only sure thing.” President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration day is fast approaching, and the public still has no clear idea of how his campaign rhetoric and tweets will be translated into serious policies. First accusing China of “using [America] as a piggy bank” to gain trade competitiveness, then inadvertently breaking a 37-year diplomatic tradition with a phone call, Trump has cast a shadow on the future of China-U.S. relations with his dangerous caprice even before he officially takes office.

But despite high risk of trade frictions and political disputes, health professionals from both countries are expecting deeper cooperation on global health security. In June 2015, leading health officials from China and the United States renewed a memorandum of understanding on emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases for the next five years. One year later, in June 2016, the two countries announced a tripartite partnership with Africa that will lead to the establishment of the continent’s first center for disease prevention and control, showing to the world enhanced mutual trust and willingness to cooperate between the world’s two leading political and economic powers.

The year 2017 will thus be a critical year for China and the U.S. to further translate their common commitment to concrete, concerted actions. That global health security is a promising area for cooperation can be understood from two perspectives.

On the U.S. side, it needs China’s participation to complete a global safety net for health security to hedge the risks, including that of a potential bioterrorist attack. Two months ago, President Obama issued an executive order to advance the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), a “multi faceted, multi-country initiative” aimed at accelerating the partner countries’ capabilities to “prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease threats.” China, with all the importance, is one of the participating nations, namely “partner countries.”

As for Chinese side, the country expects to achieve greater diplomatic goals through the China U.S.-Africa tripartite partnership. At the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Johannesburg Summit in December 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a 10-point China-Africa cooperation plan, including one on public health in which he pledged to provide assistance in maternal and child health and assist in construction of health infrastructure. Xi’s emphasis on public health cooperation indicates that China has started to systematically use health diplomacy to serve its goals in global engagement. It is therefore highly motivated to promote China-U.S. partnership, which will also help increase its presence in Africa and beyond.

Translating commitment into actions is never easy, particularly when the external challenges are taken into account. Vice President-elect and Indiana Governor Mark Pence is known to consistently pursue far-right policies on women’s reproductive rights and is also widely blamed for making the policies that have led to high growth in Indiana’s HIV incidents. In spite of huge uncertainty, the world may see enhanced China-U.S. health security cooperation in 2017 in two specific areas.

One is enhanced response capacity. China and the United States are among the first countries that responded to the Ebola outbreak, and both sides voiced high recognition of their cooperation in the crisis. During the outbreak, a Chinese company was able to use its capability of rapid production under a licensing agreement to provide the Ebola-stricken countries with Zmapp, an effective Ebola therapy developed by U.S. scientists, when the U.S. company failed to quickly meet the demand. This may provide some wisdom to help develop a model in disease response to ensure timely provision of drugs in case of a health emergency.

Another is improved infrastructure for disease prevention and control in developing countries. Though the recent cases of cooperation were largely driven by global health crises, both parties have started to explore ways to enhance the public health capacity of developing countries, hoping to strengthen their capabilities to wage preemptive battles against diseases before they break out. A Chinese report says that China and the United States are considering establishing a center for tropical disease research and prevention in Sierra Leone, in which the two countries will collaborate on the construction of health facilities and the training of health workers. The current focus on building a tripartite partnership in China-U.S. cooperation will be significantly conducive to the development of the third countries and beneficial to global health security.

2017 is a year of both uncertainties and opportunities. China-U.S. health security cooperation will maintain its momentum despite possible political fluctuations, and will substantially benefit China, the United States and the world.

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