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Foreign Policy

Failure a Poor Option

Apr 03, 2020
  • Ni Feng

    Deputy Director, Institute of American Studies, CASS


When COVID-19 began to rage in the world, Sino-U.S. relations reached a critical point. After the United States continued its trade war against China on an unprecedented scale for a year and a half, the two countries finally, on Jan. 15, reached a phase one trade deal, which brought a degree of bilateral rapprochement.

Now, faced with a sudden severe epidemic, the world generally expects the two most influential countries on the planet, China and the United States, to set aside their differences and join hands in guiding the global response to a shared threat and providing stable expectations for global development and collaboration.

This was what they did in coping with the global financial crisis in 2008 and in addressing the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014. Judging from the interaction between the two countries so far on the coronavirus, however, the U.S. is sending some confusing signals.

On one hand, the United States conveyed its sympathy for the epidemic in China and expressed its willingness to provide support and cooperation. U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly stated publicly that the United States fully supports China’s efforts and is willing to send experts to China and provide assistance in other ways.

He also said it was impressive that China had built new hospitals in a very short time to handle coronavirus patients. He said this demonstrated China’s excellent organizational and response capabilities and that under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, the Chinese people will definitely win the fight against the epidemic.

Trump added that the United States has confidence in China’s economic development, will treat and respond to the epidemic with a calm attitude and is willing to maintain communication and cooperation with China through bilateral channels and the World Health Organization.

Many U.S. epidemiologists and policy researchers have called for support of China’s anti-epidemic actions and for China-U.S. cooperation. In addition, various sectors of American society have made donations to China. U.S. charities have provided Hubei with 16 tons of materials for containing the epidemic. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a commitment of up to $100 million for global coronavirus relief, of which $5 million has been paid to Chinese institutions. The National Committee on United States-China Relations, Inc.; the U.S.-China Business Council; and the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations actively collected medical supplies, such as face masks, and got FedEx to deliver them to China for free.

Professor Ian Lipkin, a leading epidemiologist at Columbia University, known as a “virus hunter,” came to China immediately after the outbreak to work on the problem with top academician Zhong Nanshan and other Chinese colleagues.

On the other hand, there are still quite a few politicians, strategic elites and media organizations in the United States that treat China from the perspective of strategic competition among great powers. They have not relaxed their pressure on China. Some of them even view the epidemic as an opportunity to curb China’s rise.

American scholar Walter Russell Mead wrote an opinion published in the Wall Street Journal, which carried the painful (some say racist) headline “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” recalling a time in the late 19th and early 20th century when a weak China was exploited by  the world’s great powers.

Recently, a U.S. think tank published a research report entitled “Protracted Great-Power War,” suggesting that the U.S. strategic competition with China should evolve from “vertical escalation to horizontal escalation.” The United States should actively expand its scope of competition with China and limit China’s scope of action in new areas — such as in space, in cyberspace and on the seabed — and curb its development in fields such as public opinion, the economy and biology.

With the joint encouragement of various anti-China forces, the United States has launched a new round of confrontation, greatly disrupting Sino-U.S. relations and bilateral cooperation in fighting the coronavirus epidemic.

First, although the World Health Organization has repeatedly emphasized that the epidemic is controllable and curable, the U.S. government has continued to make extreme moves to restrict travel to China and entry by Chinese nationals. It evacuated U.S. citizens from Wuhan, the epicenter of the contagion. All this has generated panic and raised barriers to China-U.S. interaction.

The United States has also condemned China for its anti-epidemic actions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the coronavirus outbreak in China was caused by its governance system. U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, baselessly claimed that the outbreak was caused by a leak of secret biological and chemical weapons, and that China might have a biological warfare program. Some mainstream media in the United States have published a steady stream of articles accusing the Chinese government of ineffective control of the virus and disruption of people’s livelihoods at home and abroad, striving to downplay the Chinese economy and smear China’s image.

Second, the United States continues to suppress China in business, science, technology and finance, with some high officials arguing for an economic decoupling. On Feb. 10, the Office of the United States Trade Representative issued a notice disqualifying 25 WTO-member economies from special and differential treatment, including China and its Hong Kong region. On Feb. 13, U.S. prosecutors charged Huawei with racketeering and conspiracy to steal trade secrets from six U.S. technology companies. On Feb. 14, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Pompeo warned European countries at the Munich Security Conference that the adoption of Huawei’s 5G technology enables autocracy that will undermine democracy and asked the United Kingdom to turn back from its stand allowing Huawei to participate in the construction of a portion of its 5G networks.

On Feb. 15, U.S. media reported that the Trump administration is considering blocking sales of GE’s CFM LEAP-1C engine to China. On Feb. 17, it was reported that the United States will try to cut off Huawei’s semiconductor supply and require all companies worldwide that intend to use U.S. equipment to produce chips for Huawei to obtain a U.S. license.

Third, politically the United States has been creating trouble and constantly discrediting China. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2019 on Jan. 28 and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act of 2019 on March 5. These provocative moves followed the adoption of acts relating to Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in 2019 by the House.

On Feb. 18, the U.S. State Department announced that it has classified five mainstream Chinese state media organizations as “foreign missions.” On March 2, Pompeo announced that the United States is placing a cap on the number of Chinese citizen employees that five Chinese news outlets operating in the U.S. are allowed to hire. That means the maximum number of such employees will be reduced from 160 to 100.

Pompeo has used various occasions of late to criticize China over its Xinjiang policy, religion, Confucius Institutes, the Belt and Road Initiative, the South China Sea and 5G.

What China and the United States should do now is work together to curb the outbreak.

Pandemics pose a threat to humans. In 1918 when the World War I was underway, the so-called Spanish flu epidemic broke out in Europe and the U.S., and it spread rapidly worldwide. In less than six months, the epidemic claimed 25 to 40 million lives, more than the direct death toll caused by World War I itself, which lasted 52 months. In the face of the scourge of influenza affecting the entire human race, the World Health Organization’s predecessor, the League of Nations Health Organization, was established and began coordinating the efforts of governments and people worldwide to combat diseases.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, China and the United States, as important actors in global health security, have worked together many times to jointly address the challenges that epidemics pose to the international community.

Since 2003, the Chinese and American governments have clearly strengthened their dbilateral cooperation in global health. After the SARS epidemic subsided in China in 2003, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson visited China and signed a multi-year bilateral cooperation document with the Ministry of Health to assist China in developing a more mature and systematic public health infrastructure.

In 2004 when the H5N1 avian flu virus appeared in China, the China National Influenza Center and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cooperated for the first time to improve the capabilities of the two countries in outbreak surveillance and data analysis.

In 2005, the Chinese and American governments launched the China-U.S. Collaborative Program on Emerging and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases, and in the same year established the China-U.S. Health Care Forum.

In 2006, China’s Ministry of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services further expanded their collaboration on biomedical research with a memorandum of understanding on research, technology, training and personnel exchanges.

In 2011, the Chinese government joined the United Nations International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, in which China and the United States cooperated to manage H5N1.

In 2009 when the novel H1N1 influenza virus emerged in the United States and Mexico and quickly swept the world, China and the United States moved fast to realize information and technology sharing and to promote international surveillance of the epidemic and related vaccine development.

During U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to China in November 2009, China and the United States reached a consensus to strengthen cooperation in the prevention, monitoring, and reporting of global public health issues, covering H1N1(Spanish flu), bird flu, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

In 2013 when a new strain of bird flu, H7N9, appeared in China, the country took the lead in developing a vaccine against the virus and shared it with the world. During the entire H7N9 outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in China and the United States shared data, conducted joint research and distributed virus detection reagents worldwide.

In 2014 when Ebola broke out in West Africa, China and the United States quickly launched medical assistance and field cooperation in Africa, including jointly assisting African countries to establish centers for disease control and prevention.

 However, since the Trump administration came into office, the United States has regarded China as a strategic rival and attempted to secure decoupling at multiple levels, including public health.

In 2018, the National Science Foundation in the United States closed its office in Beijing, and the U.S. suspended the China-U.S. Cooperation-Global AIDS Program. Subsequently, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced the number of the permanent staff in their Beijing offices as encouraged by the federal government.

Before the recent epidemic, the U.S. National Security Agency had begun to use “the protection of intellectual property rights” as a reason to block Sino-U.S. scientific research cooperation, and even arrested related well-known American scholars.

In this political climate, American researchers can only wish to obtain government support to assist China in fighting the epidemic. What’s more, some in the Trump administration want to use the epidemic as a tool to curb China’s rise, and even made the judgment that the epidemic will promote the return of manufacturing to the United States. These efforts of the Trump administration have severely blocked Sino-U.S. epidemic prevention cooperation and made the two countries more negative toward each other.

A virus does not stop at the border. In the era of globalization, the interests of different countries are blended and they stand together through thick and thin.

President Xi said during the telephone conversation with Trump on Feb. 7: “Curbing the epidemic will require concerted efforts of all concerned.”

As the epidemic continues to spread, more people of insight in the United States have recognized the importance of China-U.S. cooperation. On Feb. 28, The Washington Post published an article headlined “The U.S.-China collaboration on health collapsed under Trump. This is the cost.”

The article said: “For decades under both Republican and Democratic presidents, U.S.-China cooperation on health was nurtured and grew. There are huge opportunities that arise from strategic science cooperation — and huge costs if we fail to work cooperatively on risks such as emerging infections.”

The problem is that things are often independent of people’s will. It will be much more probable that Sino-U.S. relations will continue to deteriorate and slip into cutthroat competition if the opportunities for cooperation provided by the epidemic are missed. That will make not only China and the United States, but also the world, pay a heavy price.

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