(Foreign Policy illustration)
The COVID-19 pandemic is a life-threatening global security crisis that has infected more than 4 million people and claimed 300,000 lives so far. In this new global war, the virus is the world’s No. 1 enemy, and its spread is an unimaginable threat to humanity.
Saving lives is the top priority, but economic stability is also a common need of all countries. Working together against the virus is the only right choice. All differences in the world and all contradictions within individual countries should be put aside in the face of this disaster.
Over the past two years, relations between China and the United States have been seriously disrupted, and cooperation has encountered numerous obstacles. The current situation and the presidential general election in the U.S. in particular, have made it difficult to change the deteriorating situation in bilateral relations. However, the two countries must act in the underlying interests of themselves and the people of the world, and not give up efforts to stabilize the overall situation and seek cooperation and crisis management. This will prevent their relations from being subversively damaged and slipping into the bottomless pit of long-term confrontation. At a minimum, the two countries could cooperate in the following seven areas.
1. Eliminating things that interrupt cooperation
In the face of a public health crisis of a kind unseen in a century, China-U.S. relations are of vital importance, not only to each other but to the international community. Cooperation between China and the United States is indispensable to the fight against COVID-19 in both countries and beyond. As such, no one has the right to ruin these relations, which are the most important of all relations between the world’s major powers.
Although it will take time to reverse the momentum of the sharp deterioration of the Sino-U.S. relations in the previous period, we must not lose confidence. Insightful people from both sides must work together in calling on their respective countries to put aside for the time being whatever staggering differences they may have, to cool down any major grudges — at least in the six months running up to the U.S. presidential election — and turn the gun on the novel coronavirus. Both sides must make use of all kinds of positive factors and constructive forces from the official and private sectors and cooperate in the fight against the epidemic in areas acceptable to both, to enhance global confidence.
At present, it is of particular importance to eliminate all kinds of irrational and extremist interference to prevent bilateral relations and public opinion from being misled. A very small number of people in the United States are playing political games, putting the selfish interests of individuals and groups above the overall interests of the country and the world, turning the fight against the epidemic into a fight against China, and using toughness toward China as an electioneering tool.
It is clear that such a zero-sum approach to global challenges will not protect one’s own people; it will not help achieve one’s personal aspirations; and it could result in the loss of America’s global leadership.
2. Strengthening China-U.S. cooperation
The Chinese people sympathize with the United States in its fight against the pandemic and have the will and ability to work with it hand in hand.
It is recommended that Chinese and American leaders increase the frequency of their calls, release timely positive messages, eliminate all kinds of interference and deviations and navigate for Sino-U.S. cooperation against the coronavirus. Chinese and U.S. disease control and prevention authorities should establish regular or irregular communication mechanisms to strengthen coordination and cooperation in the areas of information communication, epidemic control, professional exchange, allocation of materials and the development of vaccines and special drugs.
Support should be given to exchanges and collaboration between medical institutions, higher education institutions, doctors and scientists in the two countries, and they should be encouraged to forge partnerships to combat the pandemic. Exchanges of assistance should be encouraged between friendly provinces and states of the two countries, and cooperation should be coordinated between enterprises in the production and marketing of medical materials.
China should continue to export or donate medical supplies to the United States through various channels such as enterprises, social groups, nongovernmental organizations and overseas Chinese.
Hundreds of doctors and scientists from the two countries have been carrying out professional exchanges via video links. China has provided the U.S. a cumulative total of 8.6 billion masks and a large number of other materials. The American people from all walks of life have also given China valuable assistance in moral and material terms.
With clear government support and assistance (or at least having it not raising obstacles) civil cooperation can be expanded, so that the people of both countries can see the value and hope in the China-U.S. relationship.
3. Working together to advance the global fight
The COVID-19 epidemic demonstrates that, in the era of globalization, nontraditional global security challenges can emerge at any time, with catastrophic consequences for all countries of the world, strong or weak.
Against this backdrop, both in the immediate future and long term, China-U.S. cooperation is even more indispensable and the global governance system is even more important.
On the basis of their experience in combating SARS, AIDS, avian influenza and MERS-CoV, the two countries should support the relevant agencies of the United Nations in playing a coordinating role, speaking out together and formulating a framework agenda for global cooperation to build international consensus and synergy in combating the epidemic.
China and the United States should promote the sharing of relevant scientific data and best medical practices with all countries. They should speed up the production and distribution of medical supplies, carry out international research and development on vaccines and special drugs and jointly develop, share and produce vaccines to meet the needs of the world’s 7.8 billion people.
China and the United States should provide testing reagents, vaccines and other materials to countries where they are lacking, promote the exemption of tariffs and simplify procedures for countries to import anti-epidemic materials and ensure unimpeded cross-border transportation. They should also improve the long-term mechanism for responding to global public health crises, so as to more effectively combat and prevent the epidemic and protect the lives and health of people around the world.
4. Maintaining economic and financial stability
The epidemic has caused a significant decline in the Chinese and American economies, as well as others around the globe, and social problems such as soaring unemployment have ensued. China and the United States have a common interest in preventing a great recession and financial crisis. It is necessary for them to strengthen bilateral and multilateral macroeconomic policy coordination, starting with the maintenance of supply chains and financial stability; to promote the implementation of the consensus of G20’s emergency video summit; to cooperate and join forces to save the market; to strengthen regulation and develop a digital economy; to prevent the spread of secondary disasters; and to strive to heal the wounds of the world economy, as well as their own.
China and the U.S. should maintain communication and coordination between their leaders and their teams of economic and trade negotiators to create conditions for the implementation of the phase one trade deal. They should strive to produce some results, including consultations on relevant procurement issues and explorations of the possibility of phased tariff reductions.
5. Activating dialogue and communication
The more than 100 dialogue and consultation mechanisms established by China and the United States have all been suspended, resulting in a significant narrowing of communication channels, a serious restriction of communication, political suspicion, disputes over public opinion and extreme words and deeds.
Confrontation without dialogue between China and the United States is unthinkable, abnormal and dangerous in the context of great power relations. To the extent possible, these platforms and mechanisms, especially the important institutional dialogues, should be relaunched and used — even if they are downgraded or can interact only via video link — to act as stabilizers and not to allow the China-U.S. relationship to slide without a bottom line.
6. Strengthening public communication
In the past, public opinion in China and the U.S. has generally supported the development of bilateral relations. In recent years, however, public opinion in the United States has been largely dominated by extreme anti-China forces from the conservative right wing, where hardline and groundless attacks against China have become politically correct.
Since the outbreak, all sorts of China-related arguments have become more radical and outrageous, even to the point of “anything but China.” Some people have stirred up public opinion against China to muddy the waters and even justify lawsuits against it for supposedly creating and releasing of the novel coronavirus. This has infuriated the Chinese people and caused a backlash in Chinese society.
To be most effective, cooperation between China and the United States requires a positive atmosphere of public opinion, which should be responsibly and rationally guided by both sides and not led astray by misguided tendencies and evil designs.
In the current sensitive period of international and domestic public opinion, dignitaries and government mouthpieces should accurately explain national policies to reduce internal and external misunderstandings and suspicions.
The mainstream media should make more objective and professional reports on the fight against the epidemic on the basis of science and facts and increase positive content about empathy, cooperation and hope for friendship among the Chinese and American people, so as to rectify and purge false information.
Scientific questions such as the origin of the virus should be left to scientists and professionals for impartial investigation and answers. Epidemiological issues should not be viewed from the perspective of great powers gaming, ideology or traditional security — not to mention avoiding politicization of the epidemic and economic issues.
The farce of holding China accountable for COVID-19 must be stopped. Both China and the United States should do their domestic work well. The U.S. should not make China a scapegoat in the election campaign, and both should discourage the downward trend of public opinion about the other.
People of vision from the two countries’ strategic and academic communities should have more exchanges and dialogues. They should be brave about speaking out objectively and rationally for the good of both sides and should jointly explore the right way forward for China-U.S. relations to be a positive influence on decision-making and public opinion.
7. Strengthening crisis management
During this special period, the United States should stop all kinds of irritating and risky actions against China, restrain itself in sensitive maritime areas and refrain from causing trouble on questions such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea. They should not underestimated China’s will and ability to defend its core national interests and to react strongly.
All types of crisis prevention and management mechanisms should be operational, including mechanisms for communication, coordination and cooperation between Chinese and American militaries. They should avoid sparking a conflict accidentally that could lead to tension and loss of control in bilateral relations.
China and the United States, now in the same boat, face their most pressing tasks to contain the epidemic, preserve lives, stabilize the economy and take care of people’s livelihoods.
As China has said before, cooperation between China and the United States benefits both countries and the world, while confrontation does harm to all.
The foregoing is an excerpt from a speech delivered at the third round of the China-U.S. Leading Scholars Dialogue, which was held in Beijing in 2020. It has been lightly edited for clarity.