China-U.S. relations have been a topic of immense interest in the context of COVID-19. Many experts at home and abroad are concerned that the pandemic may push bilateral relations down a slippery slope toward a new Cold War or a partial decoupling — or, in the worse scenario, even military conflict.
Worsening relations do not serve the interests of either country or of the world. I believe it is imperative to inject more positive energy into bilateral relations under the current severe circumstances.
Relations have not improved over the past several months, even as the coronavirus spreads globally. Rather, bilateral ties have grown ever more fraught. If the current trend continues, the result will be too dreadful to contemplate.
In dealing with COVID-19, differences in the strategic priorities of the two countries make improvement of bilateral relations difficult. China has successfully brought the virus under control, and is now working to enhance the resumption of production. As it works to win the battle against the coronavirus, China’s strategic priority in the medium to long term remains the achievement of its two centennial goals — building a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2021, when the Communist Party of China celebrates its 100th anniversary, and building a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious by 2049, the centenary year of the People’s Republic of China. That means the country needs an external environment conducive to its domestic development, in which stable relations with the United States is an important element.
For the U.S., the top priority this year is the general election. Before the outbreak, Republicans were confident, as economic indicators continued an upward trend. The pandemic, however, has transformed the political and economic landscape of the country. It has exacerbated domestic problems, such as increased tensions between federal and local governments, and racial inequality has come to the fore, with massive demonstrations across the country. In the face of so many domestic problems, dumping blame on China is the easiest way some U.S. politicians can see to deflect domestic attention and win the election.
The pandemic is also being used as a pretext for far-right extremists in the Western world with a single-minded focus on bashing China. They have come up with many buzzwords, including “China responsibility,” “Chinese virus” and “mask diplomacy.”
At the same time, the spread of the virus has rapidly generated pessimism and anger around the world. As the virus is highly contagious and there are no definite conclusions on many relevant issues, misinformation runs wild. Misled by the rumor that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory, irrational and racist voices against China have been raised in some places. These also contribute to the growing antagonism between the Chinese and American people.
The pandemic may have the potential to reshape the global political and economic landscape. So far it has dealt a heavy blow to politics, social development and economic growth. In fact, before the pandemic broke out, many countries had already begun to reflect on the impact of globalization, driven in part by the downward trend of the world economy. As a result, the pandemic now fuels rising sentiment for deglobalization, protectionism and unilateralism.
But there are some positive elements in China-U.S. relations that don’t get public attention.
In the era of globalization, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of building a community of shared future for mankind, of which the developed world is an important part. Now is the time for China and the United States to work together to build a global community through concrete action.
The pandemic also provides Chinese and U.S. citizens with an opportunity to increase mutual understanding as they come together in common cause against it. When the virus broke out in China, American businesses, local governments and private organizations expressed their sympathy for the Chinese and offered considerable assistance. According to the American Chamber of Commerce in China, its 140 member companies have made donations in cash or in-kind contributions worth 510 million yuan ($721,000).
When the situation worsened in the United States, the Chinese government and private organizations sent as much assistance as they could. Some of China’s proven experiences in pandemic containment have been adopted by U.S. state governments and communities, and American citizens who received Chinese supplies also expressed their gratitude.
Chinese and American businesses have a strong interest in continued cooperation and are concerned about the deteriorating relations that threaten to undermine them. Despite pressure from the U.S. government, many American companies are reluctant to pick a side. Instead, they want to continue stable economic and trade ties on the basis of the Phase One agreement.
In short, if both sides remain rational, it is still possible to maintain the relationship at a relatively stable level. There will be rivalry and disagreement, but the relationship will not continue its dangerous course or move toward military conflict.
The first step is to strengthen cooperation between medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies. Currently, Chinese and U.S. scientists are working together to some extent on medical research; they are also working to develop medicines and vaccines against the coronavirus, and both sides have made breakthroughs. The Chinese government may consider building platforms for research cooperation to encourage scientists from both sides to leverage their respective strengths.
Second is to encourage economic cooperation within business circles which can be complementary and reciprocal. This year, China will continue to open its market wider to global investors. Global supply chains have been disrupted by the pandemic, but China is striving to restore industrial production, which helps U.S. businesses maintain stable operations.
The third step is to leverage the unique role of think tanks and private organizations at this extraordinary time. Since official communication channels are blocked, think tanks and NGOs in both countries need to engage in more dialogue to remove misunderstandings and build consensus.