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May 3, 2020

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

The Need for a Constructive Relationship

Victoria Reiter

As more and more of the world falls into the throes of the current COVID-19 pandemic, there have, without a doubt, been severe consequences to nations’ economies and interstate relationships. This is especially true between the United States and China, whose relationship prior to the outbreak of the pandemic was already experiencing escalating political and economic tensions. Between grave impacts to the global supply chain and a difficulty in sourcing much needed medical equipment, there are various arguments as to how the United States and China should navigate their relationship during this time of crisis, with some suggesting decoupling and others suggesting the two states buckle down and work through their differences.

The obvious hits to the global supply chain generated by the COVID-19 virus suggest the need for countries to withdraw from their web of international relationships and become self-sufficient. The fact that China— one of the world’s major manufacturers of all kinds of goods and parts— was the epicenter of this novel coronavirus outbreak gave an immediate glimpse into the many consequences the U.S. and the international economy would face as a result of a disruption in the global supply chain. This was visible in sectors such as the auto industry. The disruption of business as usual at factories in Wuhan— one of China’s major automobile and auto parts producing cities and the origin point of the outbreak in China— had significant effects on the production of automobiles in factories in the United States. They encountered difficulty sourcing the parts they need to assemble their vehicles. Even before the virus itself reached the United States, its effects were felt on factory lines that slowed down or stopped due to a lack of parts imported from other countries, and on workers left hanging in the balance as to whether or not they would have work. This comes at an interesting time politically, when President Trump has already promised to protect the American automobile industry and its workforce, and has taken such measures as implementing tariffs and negotiating new trade deals to do so. It remains to be seen how the exacerbation of threats to the American industries caused by breaks in the global supply chain from COVID-19 will impact the administration’s plans to safeguard American manufacturing. Will it take more severe measures to decrease its importation of foreign parts and prioritize domestic production? Furthermore, how will a shift inward impact the U.S.-China relationship politically and economically? Would a further rupture in trade lead to more tensions, making some Chinese products unavailable when the United States needs them most?

This is exemplified by the current shortage of protective medical face masks in the United States. Although the government has tapped into its national stockpile of facemasks and medical equipment to supply healthcare providers, the United States is still facing a national shortage, with adverse consequences for healthcare professionals trying to provide service to patients.  In early March, however, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative lifted tariffs for face masks and other medical equipment imported from China, who even before the pandemic manufactured half of the world’s supply of medical masks. But what if China decided to react to this miniscule relapse in the Trade War less magnanimously? Luckily, China is taking advantage of its apparent recovery from its experience with the COVID-19 virus to extend a helping hand to other countries which are only now plunging into the throes of the disease. This includes China offering to sell ventilators, masks, protective suits and swabs to Italy when other EU countries wouldn’t, or Chinese billionaire and co-founder of Alibaba Jack Ma offering to donate 500,000 test kits and one millions masks to the United States.

The natural reaction of the United States — due to recent competitiveness with China and perhaps entrenched Cold War fears of a rival nation powerful enough to overtake its #1 position in the international arena— is to suspect that China is pandering to other countries to boost its reputation and credibility. Especially at a time when the international reputation of the United States is declining, it fears its rival gaining legitimacy on the world stage and the potential power shift this could entail, particularly in this moment as China prioritizes developing positive relationships with other countries as it moves forward its Belt and Road Initiative. But at a time when there is more than dollars or yuan or clout at stake, the United States should resist its instincts and push to improve its relationship with China for the sake of humanity. For one thing, of course, to facilitate the exchange of much needed medical equipment it would be hard-pressed to source otherwise so it can care for its sick. But for another, because the United States and China are both highly scientifically advanced countries, and working together through open dialogue and a free sharing of information, like that which had developed between the two countries after the SARS and flu epidemics, would likely expedite the development of medical knowledge and the potential creation of a vaccine against the disease. There is so much good that could come from these two powerful nations collaborating with one another, especially in this time of crisis, as well as so much futility that can result from continuous rhetorical disputes, including the adverse and at times even dangerous repercussions on the treatment of Asians and Asian-Americans in the United States. Therefore, it is essential that the United States and China take advantage of this fragile moment in history to set aside their differences and work toward a more positive and constructive relationship.

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