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Foreign Policy

Better Relations Start with Concrete Things

May 10, 2020
  • Ma Xiaoye

    Board Member and Founding Director, Academy for World Watch

There is no doubt about the importance of relations between China and the United States. Unfortunately, in recent years, these relations have deteriorated sharply, despite the great importance attached to them by the top leaders of both countries and the special concerns of all other countries of the world.

The notion of decoupling economic and trade relations, or even comprehensive bilateral relations, has become increasingly intense amid the high-profile accusations made by both sides and the continual increases in punitive and retaliatory tariffs.

In a time of near desperation, the human community has been attacked by a devastating COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting huge losses of life and property, the slowdown of trade, the stagnation of consulting services and many other things are alarming. The consequences of a full decoupling of China-U.S. relations are indistinguishable from the prospect of the global pandemic running its course.

COVID-19 is the greatest threat to confront human society since World War II. The primary goal is to limit its spread, reduce the loss of life and minimize economic harm. Only in that way can the impact of the pandemic be mitigated — on countries, on the international governance system and on the international community.

This is the biggest political issue facing the leaders of countries and the international community, and it is also the highest-priority political issue before the leaders of China and the United States, and one of the utmost importance.

What can the two countries at the center of the global fight against the coronavirus do when facing major threats together? They must play a major role. How should they start practical work based on the overwhelming political consensus reached at the G20? 

First, the importance of data and information transparency should be recognized. COVID-19 is a novel virus, and not much is known about it. It is still in the process of mutation. Scientists, doctors and government administrators, among others, are working on a jigsaw puzzle, trying to learn more about the realities and patterns of the coronavirus so that the most effective actions can be taken with regard to prevention, treatment, testing and social organization. If politicians and government administrators who have decision-making power have only partial information, they will inevitably make decisions on the basis of assumptions, which will lead to greater social panic. Countries continue to blindly grope. Some data gaps are preventing everyone from getting a more complete picture.

At this stage, no country’s fight against the epidemic can be said to be without flaws. COVID-19 is likely to remain a threat to humanity for a long time. No country has a perfect answer. This is reflected in the fact that the basic statistics of COVID-19 cases in each country are continually being adjusted based on a growing clinical understanding of the virus. Advances in testing technology have also led to a rethinking of existing data. All countries should constantly adjust their existing quarantine and administrative measures according to their own and others’ evolving understanding.

Second, calls for China’s to be held accountable for its response to the outbreak, as well as demands for compensation, are not only a nightmare for China but created negative interference in the common fight.

Those calls, together with class action motions in court, reflect people’s anxiety in the face of the epidemic and have generated no small vortex of public opinion. International law appears to provide a platform for countries to deal with disputes over blame. However, there are not many well-developed cases to draw on in terms of standards of evidence. In fact, clear provisions are lacking when it comes to the complex relationship between sovereign immunity and international law — whose premise involves a delegation of sovereignty to the cours.

In international law governing private parties, some disputes between individuals and countries governed by collective tort actions are actionable and some are clearly non-actionable. Well-known examples of litigation in this regard are the way in which some countries, in dealing with individual transnational claims left over from World War II, had non-government compensation funds set up mainly by private individuals to compensate or indemnify individuals in transnational litigation, without their governments being legally responsible.

Setting aside the complexities of legal provisions and judicial systems and putting it simply: Is there currently a consensual transnational enforcement arrangement between countries with regard to accountability and claims? Is there a multilateral enforcement arrangement? If not, would it not ultimately require a negotiated diplomatic settlement between sovereign states? At least one U.S. state government has also begun transnational litigation against China, but a state can only claim rights through its general diplomatic agent — the federal government. 

Apart from diplomatic negotiations, how can the effect of the act of recourse by force be equated with the waging of war? Even if a state somewhat restrains its impulse to use force, will the target country for claims not assess and compare the large amount of compensation with the cost of war in cases where it is found to be in contempt of the judicial process and is unilaterally ordered to pay large amounts of compensation?

Not to mention the fact that recourse by force is tantamount to a total ban on flights plus an economic blockade. Is this what people with normal thinking want to see?

On the issue of transnational demands for reparations, humanity has had good experience and bad lessons to draw upon following the two world wars in the last century. This time, is humanity prepared to turn its back on past successes and push the world irreversibly in a different direction?

It must be noted that, aside the issue of supplying anti-epidemic materials, China cannot be absent from the global fight against the pandemic. From the perspective of learning lessons, tracking the spread of the virus and grasping how it is mutating, China needs to be there.

Third, a logical option for Chinese and American politicians is for the two countries to begin consultations and negotiations immediately. The global fight against COVID-19 requires transparency and data sharing. It takes extraordinary effort on the part of politicians for this simple wisdom to become reality. To follow what appears to be public opinion without taking responsibility is a sign of the elite’s abdication of responsibility. The worst-case scenario is that politicians are bent on winning a battle for supremacy, leaving behind the necessary conditions for humanity to win a larger war against the epidemic.

In the face of the greatest political challenge, politicians have few options. The reasonable option is to immediately start consultations and negotiations between the two countries to remove all possible legal and procedural technical disruptions to the exchanges, and then sharing information and establishing the necessary set of arrangements for the adjustment, review, joint analysis, and evidence-informed recommendations regarding survey data, experimental data, treatment data  and statistical variation data, so as to build the necessary foundation for the global fight against the epidemic.

These arrangements can either be public, with free access, or private and kept secret. This is both a necessary arrangement to remove populist interference from the cooperative fight against the epidemic and the key for the two sides to begin rebuilding mutual trust and to reverse the sharp decline in bilateral relations.

It is recommended that all countries concerned — not just China and the United States — begin formal private consultations. The international community must take concrete action on the basis of the consensus of the G20 Summit. China and the United States should assume the leadership responsibility that history has given them at this time and, through the efforts of politicians, turn a rational choice into reality. That choice is to lead all of humankind in the fight against the epidemic.

China and the United States may not be able to have the relations they’ve had in the past, but they cannot get far on an irrational path.

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