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Foreign Policy

Opportunities and Challenges in China-US Cooperation

Mar 31, 2020
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

Lately, the United States has sent out mixed signals about China’s anti-epidemic efforts and the bilateral relationship.

On one hand, the U.S. was positive about China’s battle against the COVID-19 epidemic and the potential for cooperation to defeat the virus. During the phone calls between the leaders of the two countries on Feb. 7 and March 27, the U.S. side expressed confidence in China’s gains. President Trump said he would “see that the U.S. focuses on working with China to fight the outbreak without interference.” He also mentioned the importance to enhancing bilateral medical and health exchanges, including cooperation in the search for effective therapies.

President Xi Jinping took the phone call from his U.S. counterpart within 24 hours after the G20 Extraordinary Summit, which was viewed as a sign of his eagerness to communicate. President Trump said he listened carefully to Xi’s remarks at the G20 Leaders’ Summit and, like many other leaders, appreciated the views and proposals Xi put forward. The U.S. president also showed restraint in his remarks. He said he would stop using the term “Chinese virus” the day before the Extraordinary Summit. We have noticed that China has been firmly objected to being stigmatized.

On the other hand, the United States has been cautious when it comes to China’s anti-epidemic responses and is especially concerned about China’s proposal for solidarity and cooperation in the international community.

Western analysts have focused on the role of leadership. It was perceived that taking action globally in the public interest, as well as being willing to muster and coordinate a coordinated global response to crises, were as important as the wealth and might of a major power. Since the U.S. had failed to maintain the essential elements of leadership, China would “move quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by U.S. mistakes.”

At the same time, the top U.S. diplomats kept up their accusations that Beijing is waging a misinformation campaign about the origin of the coronavirus. At a press availability session after the Virtual G7 ministerial meeting on March 25, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo renewed his attacks on China’s political system and once again referred to the coronavirus as “the Wuhan virus.” The U.S. embassy in Beijing used the term “Wuhan virus” twice on its Weibo account.

The self-contradictory behavior of the United States reflects the awkward situation of the Trump administration. The federal government has failed to deal with the epidemic effectively. The number of novel coronavirus cases in the U.S. has continued to skyrocket, with no clear indication of when cases would peak. Medical institutions were faced with uncertainties and unexpected pressures. It became increasingly difficult for the government to end the financial panic and rebuild confidence.

The U.S. turned to its allies for help. However, the partners were busy fighting the virus domestically, and quite a few countries were reluctant to serve “America first” at the cost of their own national interests.

In this context, the United States became more dependent on working with China to conquer the outbreak. The country not only expected exchanges of information and experience but also needed China’s capacity to produce medical supplies.

Unfortunately, Trump was facing domestic political struggles. The Democrats were publicly pointing to the administration’s inadequate preparation and response. The president’s effort to rebuild confidence was also broadly challenged. On March 24, Trump signaled that he wanted to restart the economy by Easter, but ending strict social distancing practices could put millions of lives at risk. Forceful pushback came from Democratic and Republican governors, local officials and senior scholars.

With a lack of tools to deal with internal critics, the “Chinese virus” label was used as a way to distract domestic attention and boost Trump’s chances in the upcoming election.

It was expedient, then, for the U.S. president and administration to call for China’s anti-epidemic cooperation while at the same time continuing to move ahead in their major-power competition. But the U.S. government would find it impossible to walk the tightrope.

President Xi has underscored that the China-U.S. relationship has reached an important juncture. The outlook for the COVID-19 fight, as well as the shape of bilateral trade, will depend on both sides’ willingness to work things out.

The G20 Extraordinary Summit was a wake-up call for the international community. Common understandings and coordinated policies and actions against the epidemic are needed worldwide. Now is also a critical time for the United States to build a bilateral relationship with China based on non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation

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