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May 3, 2020

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

Uncertainty: Sino-U.S. Relations under the COVID-19 Pandemic

Geng Zhao

After more than two years of mounting tensions, China and the United States signed a trade deal on January 15, 2020 aimed at relieving bilateral stress. Many people believed this agreement would establish a benchmark for stability to close the intense and economically damaging fight. However, they did not anticipate a crippling pandemic disrupting the global economy, and causing Sino-U.S. relations to plunge into great uncertainty once again. Given the current situation, as far as I am concerned, this kind of uncertainty is mainly manifested in the following aspects.

Tit-for-Tat Responses

The Trump administration and key congressional Republicans called COVID-19 “the Chinese virus”, while Chinese government officials, claimed the U.S. military brought the virus to China. Considering that both governments in China and the United States are under immense pressure, it is no surprise that some political leaders on both sides have been involved in defamation over the origins of the coronavirus. They are trying to distract from the tremendous challenge of responding to the combination of a public health crisis and a historical hit to the global economy. But this defamation has not risen to the level of official foreign policy. Since neither China nor the United States can play with fire and risk further destabilization of their economies, which would be the consequence of any new diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Fragile Supply Chains

The COVID-19 pandemic is making the decoupling of the Chinese and the U.S. economies a more reasonable prospect. Conventional benefits about globalization are that it created a thriving international marketplace, allowing manufacturers to build flexible supply chains by substituting one supplier or component for another when needed. However, this pandemic outbreak reveals that globalization also comes with risks. When China shut down due to the pandemic outbreak, the complex China-centered global supply chains on which so many American companies had come to rely were particularly vulnerable, suggesting that the United States must care about even minor Chinese economic policy moves. Moreover, according to figures compiled by Chad Bown at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the United States imports almost half of its personal protective medical equipment, including masks, goggles, and gloves from China, which increases the dependence of the United States on China during this outbreak. The unexpected fragility of supply chains will push U.S. officials to accelerate economic decoupling after this crisis to protect national security in the future.

World Leadership

The response to COVID-19 requires leadership at the global level to tackle the outbreak. But Donald Trump announced a suspension of U.S. funding on April 14, 2020 to the World Health Organization because he said it was slow to respond to the crisis and that the organization has been "China-centric." The United States also has shortages of essential equipment so that it seems impossible to take care of other countries at this time. On the other hand, China has become the dominant international donor of supplies and expertise to countries where the COVID-19 infection rate is still high, including Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United States. This comparison speaks volumes about how world leadership is changing. As for recovering economic development to avoid a global depression, the G20 held its first special summit in the form of video conference on the evening of the April 26, 2020 promising to inject $5 trillion into the global economy and use "all available policy tools" to restore economic growth. Both sides have gradually realized that cooperation and joint leadership to overcome this pandemic is the only way out.

COVID-19 might be a rare chance for the two countries to cooperate with a common interest. At this moment, both positive and negative interactions coexist, which creates uncertainty for bilateral relations. However, it cannot be inferred too early whether bilateral relations will develop in a positive or negative direction because the ensuing actions of both sides are still of great importance. China and the United States, two global powers, must hold missions and responsibilities to consider and deal with issues from the perspective of human beings while adhering to sovereign interests. The cooperation in areas of data disclosure and sharing, vaccine development, diagnosis and treatment scheme exchanges, and screening of specific drugs should be deepened to overcome the impacts of COVID-19 as soon as possible. At the same time, both countries should steadily implement the items agreed in the first phase of the economic and trade agreement, restore the communication channels closed and interrupted due to the pandemic, and stop a transformation into a larger scale "decoupling" trend.

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