The Chinese word for “crisis” consists of two characters meaning “danger” and “opportunity”. With the emergence of the novel coronavirus,we face both today.
Even before the emergence of the virus, the U.S. and China have been at a crossroads in the historic relationship – a relationship that is, without a doubt, the most important bilateral governmental relationship in the world today. The current administration’s stance towards China is clear: China is perceived as a threat to the current world order. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has recently heated up the China-rhetoric, saying the “Chinese Communist Party presents the central threat of our times,” and, “China wants to be the dominant economic and military power of the world, spreading its authoritarian vision for society and its corrupt practices worldwide.”
In spite of this, America and China have the opportunity to choose the unexpected path – the “road less travelled” that is more about addition and multiplication and less about division and subtraction. The latest global health crisis presents the two nations with an important opportunity.
The Old Path
The Wuhan coronavirus has brought illness, misery, anger, fear, boredom, and death to the people of China and in many other places globally. The outbreak casts a cloud over health, supply chains, and economies around the world, and has already hurt the world economy. If the virus continues to spread, the economic damage will increase rapidly. What the virus clearly demonstrates is that what happens in China does not stay in China. The U.S. and China must be engaged in helping prevent the spread of this virus and the global economic slowdown it may cause.
But the way the U.S. has approached the situation so far is not conducive to the cooperation that is presently needed. In America, while we dodge the political fallout from the impeachment of President Trump and face the embarrassment of the Iowa Democratic caucus vote, many are viewing the novel coronavirus outbreak out of the corner of their eyes, and it has not taken much to expose the underlying xenophobia in America towards China. China is also facing widespread criticism over its mishandling of the initial stages of the virus outbreak. Firstly, they have launched a massive propaganda campaign that would make Mao proud in an attempt to bring out a nationalistic spirit, praising health care workers as selfless and modest people devoted to the Communist Party. The Party has attempted to minimize errors while highlighting nationalistic pride.
Blaming foreigners for the nation's economic woes has long been an American pastime. As the U.S. 2020 presidential election grows near, we can expect that the China-boogeyman card will be played once again. Making China the “boogeyman” diverts American voters’ attention away from the actions and inactions of political leaders that matter.
President Trump’s anti-immigrant taunts, dating back to even before his entry into the 2016 presidential race and continuing to this day, will remain front and center in the ongoing American presidential contest. His stipulation that the construction of a wall along the Mexican border to stop illegal immigration and asylum seekers is the answer to our economic woes has been exposed as a faulty thesis by the coronavirus. Walls don’t prevent pandemics or economic troubles from reaching our shores. All politics are local and this new international threat of the coronavirus in a presidential election year provides President Trump the opportunity shift the blame for any domestic shortcomings to the Chinese dragon across the ocean.
Blazing a New Path
Both President Trump and President Xi could use a tried and true national crisis to disparage each other’s nations. The old American path is to view a struggling China as an opportunity to return to the century of humiliation and sprint past her. Certainly, a return of unipolarity for America would have momentary appeal to President Trump and Americans rocked by China’s rise, but it could yield long-term geopolitical ripple effects with enormous downsides in the long run.
Alternatively, our leaders could shock the world and be as bold as they are imaginative by not playing the game of see-saw, where one nation’s misfortune is the other nation’s momentary gain. Here is opportunity to turn the crisis of today into an opportunity that benefits the peoples of China, America, and all humanity.
The geopolitical reality for the U.S. is that a weakened China is more dangerous to the world than a prosperous and thriving China. The Wall Street Journal talks powerfully about how the coronavirus could tip China into a catastrophic economic meltdown sending tsunami-like waves across the globe. My fear is that rather than becoming engaged and offering assistance, President Trump will sit back with his MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat tilted on his head watching as the economic dominos fall across the globe.
So what can be done? Great leaders take risks and do the unconventional.
Presidents Trump and Xi should call the world leaders to a summit in neutral Switzerland and forge a plan forward that can lift all boats. Should both leaders act more like giraffes as opposed to turtles, sticking their necks out to manage this crisis, mobilize the world, and fashion win-win domestic and global solutions to the issue, then the two might well earn the equivalent of a 21st century “Nixon goes to China” moment, potentially winning a joint Nobel Peace Prize.
A Crisis Is A Horrible Thing To Waste
Clearly this proposal of international cooperation is a stretch for both political leaders involved, and is yearning for “imagination” from strongmen who suppress or punish speech and, and have a mutual history that is fractious, at best.
But just imagine the possibilities that await our world if we could collectively seize the moment.
America is not an island. We will not be free, safe, prosperous, and secure without engaging ourselves in the convoluted and contentious geo-politics of today.
History is riddled with the results of choices not made. If the remainder of the 21st century is to be healthy, the world requires bold leadership.
Imagine a crisis that produces an opportunity to develop a world that is not a zero-sum game, but instead a shared vision and common agenda for all humanity.