Evan Medeiros, Wang Jisi, and Michael Green | April 26, 2020
Responding To: COVID-19 and the Future of U.S.-China Relations
The COVID-19 Crisis and the U.S.-China Blame Game
Evan Medeiros, Wang Jisi, and Wu Xinbo
The timing of the COVID-19 crisis is highly unfortunate for U.S.-China relations. It's really going to just accelerate this movement towards strategic competition. This should have been a period of substantial cooperation between the United States and China. If the U.S. and China can't cooperate on a global pandemic, what can we cooperate on?
Both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump are essentially looking to spread blame and distract from their respective failures.
On the U.S. side, I think we are going to see U.S. policy remain very focused on constraining China–even though the need for U.S.-China cooperation on the pandemic continues, and even though both sides are making efforts to implement the phase one trade deal.
On the Chinese side you see a growth in Chinese nationalism, a Chinese pride in the efficient and effective response on the part of China, and heavy criticism of the United States. I think you see similar nationalism on the part of the United States, this growing movement to blame China for a lack of transparency and blame China for the virus.
I think there's a lot of culpability to go around, but when you have instances where, for example, the Chinese military are criticizing the U.S. military for how it's treating infected U.S. military officers, it just adds to this action-reaction cycle of nationalism on both sides. And so I think we need to be very aware of changes in elite opinion, public opinion, U.S. policy choices, and then nationalism on both sides.
I think we have to stop the blame game. I heard in the news this morning Trump said on Wednesday his government is trying to determine whether the coronavirus emanated from a lab in Wuhan, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Beijing needs to come clean on what they know. I don't think that is a good sign. And some U.S. individuals and institutions are even trying to pursue lawsuits against China to compensate for their losses, which has caused considerable alarm.
In substantive terms, as Evan mentioned, it looks more difficult under the current circumstances for China and the U.S. to implement the phase one trade agreement signed between the two sides. We have the issue of how to solve the trade issues and unfortunately a range of parallel problems including those related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, human rights, and the South China Sea.
A more recent issue that causes a great deal of concern is America's effort to decouple its economic and technological engagement with China. Some U.S. officials and politicians are asking U.S. businesses to move out from China. Washington continues to sanction Huawei. The once-promising educational and cultural exchanges are faced with many difficulties partly due to the pandemic and partly caused by the downward spiral of the relationship. So I don't think we should be very optimistic about the immediate future.
If this was the Clinton administration I think they would see the pandemic challenge confronting both countries and the rest of the world as requiring collaboration in managing the humanitarian crisis and addressing global governance, rather than as a matter of China-U.S. geopolitical competition.
The Trump administration seized the opportunity of this crisis to pursue their own agenda for a geopolitical struggle with China, as well as the decoupling of the two economies. In point of fact China received very impressive support from the American society amid the crisis–from businesses, NGOs, and ordinary people.
If I have to blame somebody, I think it’s mainly this administration with a particular mentality on China. So will a different administration make a difference? The answer is certainly yes. As Evan mentioned, this crisis occurred at a very unfortunate time.
These reflections, drawn from an online dialogue, have been edited for length and clarity.
Wang Jisi, Evan Medeiros, Michael Green, and Wu Xinbo | April 26, 2020