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Foreign Policy

Can China, U.S. Emerge Unscathed?

May 05, 2020
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University

As COVID-19 sweeps across the world, its multifaceted impact on China-U.S. relations is increasingly prominent. A view held in some strategic circles in the United States is that China is using the pandemic in a disinformation campaign designed to elevate its own global influence. As China leads the world recovery, this thinking goes, it will exploit the opportunity to shape the post Covid-19 world.

China is on high alert against calls for “decoupling” from the U.S., and is concerned about the mounting pressure on the World Health Organization spearheaded by the U.S., whose ultimate aim is to undermine China’s strength and influence and derail its rise. Chinese observers believe the “anything but China” approach by the Trump administration has rendered all but impossible any effective coordination between the two countries.  

As things stand now, it seems each country’s perception of the other is on a downward spiral, and the consequences of the Covid-19 storm in China-U.S. relations should not be underestimated.

Economic and technological decoupling between China and the U.S. is likely to deepen. U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, White House Senior Adviser Peter Navarro and other high-ranking officials, publicly warned against over-reliance on China for medical supplies such as masks, protective gear and medicines — risks that were laid bare by the ongoing pandemic as a severe threat to U.S. national security.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been pushing American companies to withdraw from China, and the pandemic has been exploited by the China hawks to give credence to their decoupling theory. A recent survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai found that more U.S. companies are seeing decoupling coming.

On technological competition, the past few months have seen no letup in pressure on China by the Trump administration. The U.S. Department of Commerce is contemplating enhanced export restrictions on Huawei and other tech companies from China. The White House has also stepped up coordination between agencies, including the Department of Commerce, Department of Defense and others. Many countries have begun to take up AI and other cutting-edge technologies to cope with the pandemic, underscoring the importance of technology in safeguarding national well-being and security.

In the post-COVID19 era, economic digitalization may accelerate. National competition will rely more on advanced technologies, in particular emerging technologies. Against this backdrop, China-U.S. relations will become more complicated, revolving around technological competition.

Second, on the geopolitics front, tensions between China and the U.S. are on the rise. Despite the pandemic, authorities in Taiwan have shown neither goodwill nor intention to cooperate with the mainland. On the contrary, the forces advocating independence are using the pandemic to advance thier political agenda at the peril of cross-strait relations.

Meanwhile, relations between the U.S. and Taiwan have strengthened substantively. The TAIPEI Act, signed into law by President Trump, proposes a “unique relationship” between Taiwan and other countries, particularly the U.S. and Japan.

Membership in the WHO requires statehood, but in a preposterous suggestion, some U.S. congressmen and former officials are clamoring for selecting someone from Taiwan as director-general — a suggestion regarded as highly provocative of the Chinese mainland.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Susan Thornton warned that in recent years communication between China and the U.S. on Taiwan issues has significantly weakened. On top of the impact of the pandemic and the attendant economic recession, there must not be a cross-strait crisis.

In the pandemic environment, the U.S. is more sensitive to China’s every move, particularly as it views China through a lens of strategic competition. Washington is wary that China is attempting to expand its influence in Europe through so-called mask diplomacy, and sees Chinese supplies to European countries as a geopolitical challenge. Discussing the geopolitical implications, James Jay Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, said the U.S. should step up activities to counter China in Europe and Africa, and more vigorously contain China through the Quad Plus in the Indo-Pacific region.

Third, the pandemic aggravates competition over national governance systems and global governance. The crisis, in essence, boils down to a trust crisis and governance crisis. Former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd believes there is a visible trust crisis globally, meaning the lack of confidence in a given government or global leadership as a whole.

Admittedly, the pandemic is a severe test of political systems, the ability to mobilize resources and society and the ability to utilize new technology. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom, among other experts, believes that the Chinese government pulled off a forceful containment and prevention effort that showcased the strength of the Chinese system.

That acknowledgement has rubbed the U.S. the wrong way. While the Trump administration should have reflected on its lagging response and the inadequacy of its containment measures and social safety net, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made unveiled accusations against the Communist Party of China in successive speeches.

At the global governance level, the outbreak exposes how the UN and the WHO fall short of both resources and authority. President Trump accused the WHO of being “China centric” and withheld funding just as the global fight against the pandemic has reached a crucial juncture. Matthew Goodman, senior vice president of CSIS, said that the lack of substantial progress at the G20 Summit was the result of low willingness for international coordination, which to a large extent stemmed from tensions between China and the U.S.

A report released by the Center for a New American Security said that Beijing was remaking the UN in its own image, and was attempting to reshape global governance with Chinese ideas and proposals. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission of the U.S. Congress laid out a host of proposals, including banning Chinese people from senior positions in key international organizations.

Without doubt, this pandemic will have an enduring impact on the course of China-U.S. relations. While the two countries continue to fight the coronavirus, both need to step up their efforts to recalibrate and anchor bilateral ties. In particular, every effort should be made to avoid further confrontation on issues related to Taiwan. More important, the outbreak underlines that all countries are bound by a shared future, given their level of interdependence.

The world looks forward to coordination and cooperation between China and the U.S., the two largest economies. Both countries should recognize the reality that managing relations in a post-pandemic world is going to be a challenge, and they should speak and act with discretion and caution.  

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