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Foreign Policy

Bilateral Brakes Heating up

Mar 31, 2020
  • An Gang

    Adjunct Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University


As the COVID-19 epidemic envelops the globe, an international consensus has emerged that it will last a long time. To prepare for a lengthy battle, nations around the world are adjusting their containment strategies.

Even so, it will be difficult to push through significant adjustments in the absence of global cooperation. The current state of relations between China and the United States, unfortunately, will not help restore a spirit of international solidarity. On the contrary, the China-U.S. bickering in just the past couple of weeks, is sending signals that undermine international confidence.  

This round of China-U.S. contention originated with a controversial expression used by President Donald Trump and members of his administration calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus,” noting that it first emerged in China. As a result, China felt obliged to push back, and the subsequent wrangling has turned any possible cooperation between Beijing and Washington to contain the coronavirus into a zero-sum contest. 

The evolution of the event is as follows: When COVID-19 broke out in China, the Trump administration expressed sympathy and an intent to help. Despite that, many right-wing politicians and media outlets in the U.S. stigmatized China’s efforts to fight the outbreak. Their reason? Pure political opportunism in an election year.

When the outbreak spiraled out of control in the U.S., the Trump administration, led by the president himself, attempted to shift blame to China after Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, tweeted that “it might be the U.S. Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” for purposes of distracting people from the administration’s slow response and poor management of the outbreak, and for reinforcing the right-wing base for support in the 2020 presidential campaign.

China’s countermeasure provided an effective shield from the attack and the resulting stigma. The White House was convinced that China and Russia had waged an information war to frame the U.S., and was ready with a new round of vitriol. This time, the Trump administration accused China of being the “origin of COVID-19,” covering up facts, suppressing information, postponing responses and letting its citizens go abroad in the early days, resulting in a delayed response worldwide.  

The good news is that neither side intends to squabble endlessly over the name or origin of the virus. It will take time to work out a final scientific conclusion. Attacking each other over the virus does not help anyone contain the virus at home, but it will trigger a widespread backlash from the international community, which undermines their respective reputations and interests. At a time when so many nations are in the depths of a crisis, the international community urgently needs to activate a global cooperation mechanism. It is pathetic that the world lacks leadership.

This round of fierce friction has been gradually brought under control through diplomatic intervention, including telephone conversations between officials at the foreign ministry level on both sides, and especially a U.S. news outlet’s interview of Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai, who tamped down unfounded rumors. Trump announced that he will no longer use the expression “Chinese virus,” thereby reassuring Chinese communities in the U.S.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told the media that China’s transparency is “now much better” than it was with last several outbreaks.

This sharp turn arises from many factors. First of all, China staged a surprise counterattack in the realm of public opinion that lifted China out of its passive position to gain the upper hand for a time. It also scored some political points at home.

Second, as the COVID-19 epidemic spreads in the U.S., with ever-worsening signs, it is subverting the domestic agenda of the country and potentially affecting the 2020 election.

The Trump administration, with misjudgment, insufficient preparation and chaotic management must exert itself to control the epidemic and revitalize society in a short period of time. But this is inconceivable without the collaboration of China.

Third, since the intention of the right wing politicos to stigmatize China with racist remarks violates both ethics and science, it hasn’t won public support at home. Health experts, joined by specialized scientific research institutes, have refused to acquiesce. Members of the Democratic Party collectively protested. And even many Republicans have voiced disagreement. Additionally, the G7 allies do not support it. If the fight continues, Trump will only end up with more critical voices and verbal lashings for his lack of early, timely action.  

Beijing and Washington paused momentarily to stop bilateral relations from deteriorating further over the outbreak, rekindling hope for a united global battle against the coronavirus. 

On March 26, the G20 held a virtual summit chaired by Saudi Arabia (which currently holds the presidency) to reaffirm a coordinated global response to the crisis. Characterized by the cooperation of major economies, the framework was passed down from the 2008 international financial crisis. During that crisis, macroeconomic and financial policy coordination between Beijing and Washington — and the spirit of solidarity championed by them under the G20 framework —  played a vital role in steering the international community out of the crisis and ushering in a prosperous period.

The COVID-19 pandemic stands out among other postwar global security crises in that the virus poses an equal threat to everyone regardless of race, national borders, ideology or governing system. The day after the G20 virtual summit, President Xi Jinping and Trump spoke on the phone and affirmed that China and the U.S. should cooperate to combat the virus.

The world must shelve traditional differences and build up a consensus for mankind. Only the great powers, such as China and the United States, have the ability, if anyone does, to decisively contain the pandemic and bring the world together to form a united front.  

The next concern is whether Beijing and Washington can engage in effective cooperation to fulfill their responsibilities in leading the global battle, something that depends on whether they can cooperate in a more profound way.

We have every reason to believe that since COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, Chinese and American experts in epidemic prevention and medical personnel have been communicating and exchanging opinions, and the trade in medical resources is growing rapidly as well. However, the governments have gone too far by politicizing the response to the outbreak. Political convictions have been deepened on both sides, in part because of the recent bickering, thus severely limiting and diminishing the possible positive influence of functional cooperation.

Alarmingly, the Trump administration places political arrogance above scientific awareness and a sort of right-wing political correctness against China, using the outbreak as a pretext. This, in turn, prevents the U.S. from providing an objective evaluation of China’s achievements in epidemic prevention. More important, it makes it difficult for the U.S. domestic health community to draw on China’s experience and information.

Beijing and Washington must overcome the distractions caused by the political footballs to achieve bilateral cooperation in epidemic containment. The U.S. must let go of its arrogance, especially considering the fact that it is in no position to maintain such an attitude, given the magnitude of the epidemic within its borders.

At present, the following approaches may help both sides achieve the goal:

To begin with, the ongoing “shift the blame” game and information distortion must stop. Then it would b advisable to capitalize on head-of-state diplomacy. This approach will help both sides temporarily shelve conflicts and guide public opinion to manage and control the crisis and restore confidence. The two presidents need to engage in more conversation for the purpose of working out concrete measures that both sides should implement in the spirit of the G20 summit, rather than just patching up bilateral relations.

Second, disease control and prevention centers and medical personnel from both nations should carry out more extensive, direct and profound information sharing and technical exchanges, and in a more spirited manner. This group of people, which has the widest anthropological perspective and professional ethics deserves full respect. Therefore, the governments of both sides should grant them ample space for discretion and refrain from administrative intervention. Meanwhile, media outlets from both nations should thoroughly report their deeds in a positive and objective tone.

Third, the two countries should establish a special trade channel for relief supplies and temporarily exempt those from tariffs — both for products and raw materials. Authorities in economic affairs and financial macro-regulation from both nations should be expected to pursue engagement with each other as soon as possible for policy dialogues on reducing the risks of a global great depression.

Fourth, as Beijing and Washington support the battle against COVID-19 in Europe, Africa and Latin America in their own ways, they should try to steer clear of the mindset of geostrategic competition. Even though the U.S. cannot afford to provide international aid owing to the lack of energy and resources at present, some U.S.-based NGOs and multinational corporations are capable of delivering it, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Boeing and Apple.

The U.S. military also has the ability to provide emergency rescues around the world, with resources such as hospital ships for use in the wake of natural disasters, along with many other examples. When the U.S. brings the domestic outbreak under control, these entities may offer help to the international community. China should expect this new direction to affect many things, because it's impractical for it to support the entire world in epidemic containment, even if it does operate a large number of production lines for containment resources and some Chinese medical personnel have been dispatched abroad. It is also advisable for both sides to coordinate the division of responsibility and foreign aid disbursement through bilateral channels, so long as it is not just wishful thinking.

A sense of emergency is growing inside the U.S. The international community is now filled with a festering discontent and disappointment at the U.S. neglect of its international responsibility. American strategists have argued in recent reports and comments that China is reordering the world by providing international aid for European countries, whereas the U.S. chooses to sit back and put its global leadership at stake. It is foreseeable that Washington will not work with China, even if China offers to save the day. Whatever the case, it is not a bad thing if both Beijing and Washington contribute to global combat in their own ways.

There will be no single winner in this pandemic, unless it is a place isolated from the rest of the world. Nations worldwide will only be able to beat the pandemic if they are united. The world can only hope for a set of effective guidelines when Beijing and Washington work out a mutually acceptable action plan for the outbreak.

Deep-seated grudges and a sense of disengagement and resentment between the two nations will not reverse the overwhelmingly negative trend in bilateral relations, even if the two countries can eventually find a way to work together against the coronavirus. 

The recent downward spiral of China-U.S. relations is not solely the result of COVID-19. Rather, it is the consequence of intensifying strategic competition beginning with Trump’s inauguration.

The first phase of the economic and trade deal between China and the U.S. seemed to slow the slide by leaving both sides some time to decompress and adjust. Unfortunately, the ensuing coronavirus outbreak has sent relations back to a course of accelerating deterioration. 

In other news, apart from the COVID-19 spat, there was the mutual expulsion of journalists. For an outsider, this looks like retaliation of great powers against one another, Cold War style, which only intensifies concerns.

The expulsions were not directly related to the outbreak but were eventually intertwined with it. Initially, driven by a strategy of competition with China, the Trump administration designated five Chinese state-run media outlets as “foreign missions” out of concern that Chinese propaganda outlets could infiltrate domestic politics.

After COVID-19 broke out in China, the Wall Street Journal published an article headlined “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” which brought back bitter memories for China, and it’s unhappiness spilled into the public arena. After the Journal refused to apologize, China revoked the press credentials of three American WSJ journalists as punishment.

Subsequently, the U.S. State Department announced that it would cap the number of staff members working in the U.S. offices of five Chinese state-run media outlets, slashing the total number of employees from 160 to 100. In the spirit of tit-for-tat reciprocity, China demanded that the U.S. citizens serving as journalists at five U.S. media agencies in the country surrender any press credentials that are due to expire at the end of this year. The journalists were also banned from continuing their work in the People’s Republic of China, including in the Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions. The U.S. holds that the Chinese reaction was disproportionate and is determining whether and how it should respond.

Beijing and Washington are on the verge of a warlike ideological struggle. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo distinguished the Communist Party of China from the Chinese people in his recent remarks on bilateral political ties. He pushed the West to jointly respond to the “intentional disinformation campaign” launched by China at the G7 videoconference attended by foreign ministers on March 25.

The U.S. response to the mutual expulsion of journalists is being masterminded by the U.S. State Department and reflects the personal will of Pompeo to a large extent. Whether the U.S. is set to continue provoking China and involving diplomats during the coronavirus pandemic will be an important barometer in predicting the direction of bilateral relations in the coming days and weeks.

Another area of contention is strategic security —  namely, the South China Sea dispute and the Taiwan question. Lately, U.S. warships and aircraft have asserted their presence more frequently in waters near islands and reefs claimed by China, with an increase in transit operations through the Taiwan Strait. There have been six reports of such trips since the beginning of this year.

The U.S. House of Representatives adopted the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019 not long ago, and Trump signed it the day before the G20 Summit.

Meanwhile, a senior U.S. official, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, suggested that the coronavirus outbreak in China will help bring manufacturing back to U.S. shores. The Defense Production Act invoked by Trump after the epidemic spiraled out of control is likely to speed up efforts to lure production lines of strategic resources related to public health back to the homeland.

Such actions have confirmed China’s suspicions: The U.S. considers the COVID-19 epidemic to be a window of opportunity to further suppress China’s competitive advantages. And it seeks to expand its containment of China and decouple when the latter is focused on preventing the spread of disease.      

In a manner of speaking, China-US relations have already passed the crossroad of options and are now headed for cutthroat competition and head-on confrontation.

But competition and struggle do not augur well for the future in light of the pandemic. Chances are that a more dangerous situation lies ahead, as the outbreak worsens inside the U.S.

Some may think the “brakes” can still be applied. But if you have traveled to a mountainous area, you will know that brake pads heat up when driving down a winding mountain road and can become ineffective. A worn out or overheated brake pad can be fatal. 

There will be many uncertainties in the future, but reality forces us to acknowledge them. Are China-U.S. relations predestined to fail or succeed? This is a question we cannot afford to ignore — even when following the development of the global COVID-19 epidemic — because, like the epidemic, this particular bilateral relationship concerns the future of the international order, domestic politics and the fate of mankind.

We are obliged to try to prevent the possible catastrophic consequences resulting from the current nontraditional global crisis as it affects traditional great-power competition. 

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