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Foreign Policy

Testing Time for US-China Relations

May 04, 2020
  • Mel Gurtov

    Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Portland State University

China US.jpg

With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping through the world, the US-China relationship is being tested once again.  The test is the same as always: is engagement with China still feasible despite ongoing friction and blaming, or is China the current and future enemy that the US must confront? Right now, the two countries are failing the test. While the US has a one-dimensional China policy, namely to “win” on trade, China is expanding its international outreach—one of many signs that whereas nationalists lead in Washington, internationalists lead in Beijing. In recent years, China’s internationalists have taken full advantage of the opportunity created by America’s retreat from multilateral organizations and security alliances, using its wealth not only to gain greater economic influence but also to silence critics and repress ethnic minorities. Trump administration officials chafe at China’s expanding international role but seem unwilling to put the country’s human and material resources into competing. They seem content to play good cop-bad cop: the president insists he has a good friend in Beijing while his chief subordinates assert that China is America’s principal enemy. 

Decoupling and a Red Scare 

There was a time not so long ago when a bipartisan consensus existed on China: China was a rising competitor, and although multiple issues were causing tension between the two countries—the trade deficit, energy, technology transfers, the South China Sea, Taiwan, human rights—those issues were manageable and best dealt with through quiet diplomacy. In Obama’s time, that meant as many as ninety bilateral forums for discussion of everything from the environment to military affairs. The new bipartisan consensus questions the idea that China is a valid negotiating partner, since it rejects the “rules-based international order”. Partisans of this view mock the idea shared by previous presidents that China would one day transition from economic reforms to political liberalization. Instead, China’s cyberhacking, spying, and limits on academic freedom have shown that it is an unchanging adversary. Hence, whereas “strategic distrust” between the two countries was regarded as characteristic of US-China relations in the Obama era,[1] now China is “the central threat in our times,” according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the object is to punish China for failing to measure up to US expectations. 

China’s leaders now have to deal with two threatening developments in relations with the US: economic decoupling and a Red Scare. Both have already had repercussions. On the economic front, comments from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence suggest that trade will be the lodestar of improved relations. China owes something for American beneficence in bringing about China’s extraordinary economic performance, according to Pence said in a major speech in October 2019. “Much of [China’s economic] success was driven by American investment in China,” Pence said; “we rebuilt China over the last 25 years.”[2] It is an argument that must have raised eyebrows in Beijing, where trade with the US is very important, but not so important as to surrender its way of managing trade to suit the US’ interests.  

The Red Scare is being orchestrated by Trump’s allies in the US Congress and in the right-wing media. Unlike previous agitprop during the Cold War, which focused on China as a military threat in East Asia, now the scare concerns China’s soft power. One element of it is the supposed threat Chinese influence peddling poses to American society; another is to overseas recipients of Chinese loans under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). People-to-people exchanges, Confucius Institutes, Chinese media outlets in the US, and scientists and other professionals of Chinese heritage, whether Chinese nationals or Chinese-Americans, have all come under suspicion and consequent restriction.[3] Chinese-Americans have been harassed and physically assaulted; Gary Locke, former governor of Washington State and US ambassador to China, has been called a PRC agent in a pro-Trump television advertisement; the Peace Corps in China has been closed down; and abroad, Washington has warned recipients of Chinese loans of the danger of falling into a debt trap, which could give Beijing leverage for economic exploitation and a potential military base. The debt problem is real in some developing countries, while others appreciate the loans or have no better choice, since the Trump administration allows for little competition, especially in Africa.  

China naturally rejects these accusations and criticisms, regarding them as the latest version of the “China threat thesis”. Beijing contends that China aims is to be a “responsible great power”, that it seeks to consult and collaborate (“C2”) rather than displace the US, and that the BRI provides much needed credit for crucial development projects. China’s rise, moreover, represents the fulfillment of a historic “dream” that does not pose a threat to any country. China’s official strategy papers do not identify the US as an enemy, but the US is widely regarded as the chief obstacle to China’s continued rise. The more US-China tensions rise, the more virulently nationalistic voices will be heard, in China as much as in the US, potentially drowning out the internationalists who still see value in a positive relationship with the US. As the venerable America watcher, Wang Jisi, wrote in 2018, “Some US watchers in China, myself included, find the country we have studied for years increasingly unrecognizable and unpredictable.” He cited various negative features of US politics as well as the longstanding US insistence on a “rules-based liberal international order” that Washington has neither defined nor lived up to. He warned that compared with crises in relations in previous times, “the current deterioration in relations may prove more permanent.”[4] One can easily imagine how hard it is for Chinese analysts like Wang, who believe in engagement with the US, to justify their position now.

And Now a Pandemic 

The US and China responses to COVID-19 present an interesting study in contrasts. So far as the two countries’ top leaderships are concerned, the parallels are remarkable: an early coverup, false accusations, belated acknowledgment of a crisis, assumption of “wartime” leadership, and attempts to revise history in order to show consistent and dynamic leadership. Both countries’ leaders seem determined to control the narrative in order to minimize responsibility for early failures.[5] On the implementation side, however, the differences between Xi and Trump are profound. Xi has changed the narrative from China being the source of the virus to China as a role model, citing the lockdown strategy and lauding China’s role as the major donor of virus protection supplies to impacted countries, including the US. Some analysts see in this dramatic shift of humanitarian crisis relief a shift in global leadership.[6] That may be an exaggeration—quite a few governments are critical of China’s “breach of trust”, as Chi Wang of the US-China Policy Foundation points out[7]—though Trump has done everything possible to make it so. He has shown extraordinary ineptness—not heeding the many warning signs of a looming pandemic, failing to make full use of his executive powers to ensure industrial production of desperately-needed virus protection supplies, refusing to appoint an overall coordinator of the counter-virus effort, and rejecting the advice of medical professionals on appropriate measures for prevention and treatment. While China is declaring the crisis over and people and business are returning to normal, the US response to COVID-19 is dysfunctional and the US economy is in freefall.[8] 

Just as importantly, whereas COVID-19 might have been the occasion for China-US cooperation in handling a global health crisis, it has become another irritant in the relationship, all the more so in a US election year. A variety of forces in Washington are conspiring against cooperation with China. Within the White House, so-called China hawks pushed Trump to act on the intelligence of an emerging pandemic, eventually producing a partial ban on travel from China. Reportedly reluctant at first to blame China and risk access to its medical supplies, and after initially praising Xi Jinping’s leadership, Trump went along with the hawks’ view, which embraced deliberate use of the provocative term “Wuhan virus” and then “China virus”.[9] From then on Trump took the lead in blaming China, contending, for example, that Beijing was weeks late in informing the US of the emerging pandemic. The right-wing media chimed in, eager to support Trump’s attempt to shift the narrative on the virus away from his own belated response. The new bipartisan consensus also played a role. As the head of the Harris Poll said, “The majority support here [in Washington] is for making China live up to its promises, regarding China as basically untrustworthy and having a tougher trade policy against them.”[10] 

No Easy Way Forward 

Trump and Xi might have recalled a nobler time when the US and China cooperated to treat and end the SARS epidemic, worked together on the H1N1 virus, and sent health professionals to Africa during the Ebola outbreak. But no such nobility exists today—the decoupling extends to public health.[11] Witness, for example, Trump’s response to a Hong Kong reporter’s question about US cooperation with China to combat the coronavirus: 

Look, I’ll let you know.  I’ll give you a good answer to that in a few months.  I want to just see what [the Chinese] do because it’s time for them to help us.  Okay?  It’s time right now for China to help us, and hopefully they do.  And if they don’t, that’s okay too. But we signed a deal . . . and we’ll see whether or not that deal is honored.  And I think it will be because I know President Xi, who I like and respect. . . . So I’ll let you know.  But, you know, for many, many years, China ate our lunch because we had people in this position that I’m in right now that allowed China to get away with absolute murder, and it should have never happened. 

So in the end, as usual for Trump, it’s all about trade. 

COVID-19 has become the occasion for false accusations, conspiracy theories, and racist and xenophobic statements. Chinese and US nationalists are seizing on the virus and using the blame game to concoct narratives that feed mistrust and build up (or back) leaders’ reputations. The suggestion of the PRC foreign ministry’s Zhao Lijian that the origins of the coronavirus might be linked to the US military is a case in point. In the US, influential right-wing politicians like Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas see the coronavirus as an opportunity to impose new sanctions on China and institute a “buy American” plan as part of an overall economic decoupling. Some of their proposals, such as barring the import of drugs with Chinese pharmaceutical ingredients, have liberal support. Suspending US funding of the WHO on the argument that it is “in the pocket of China” and “pushed Chinese misinformation” (Trump on April 14, 2020), and accusing the Voice of America of propping up Beijing’s agenda through its reporting of China’s handling of the coronavirus (“journalists should report the facts, but VOA has instead amplified Beijing’s propaganda,” says one White House statement), are the latest Red Scare tactics.[13] Ranged against them are voices of reason, such as Ambassador Cui Tiankai[14] and former US officials and think-tank directors.[15] They recognize the importance of the moment and are appealing for expanded US-China cooperation on the virus. If COVID-19 has revealed anything, it is that only international cooperation can be effective at dealing with a global crisis, whether that be a pandemic, climate change, or nuclear weapons.    

The new anti-China bipartisan agenda may not have sufficient support to dramatically change US policy, but it will be an issue in the presidential election—with Democrats being portrayed as soft on China—and it will surely make its mark on the tenor of US-China relations for some time to come. That could mean a return of the Cold War to Asia. To avoid that outcome, we need to imagine a different future, one that sees a revival of a US policy based on competitive coexistence: seeking common ground where possible while addressing issues that cause friction through formal and informal diplomacy. Americans need to understand that China is not the USSR or Russia; China needs to understand how important respect for human rights and transparency are to Americans. Both sides need to understand how much they need each other to ensure a peaceful and stable world. Trust building is key, and the best way to do that is to find (or rediscover) cooperative paths to security. Disease prevention and mitigation, terrorism, climate change, the international economy, energy, maritime rules of the road, nuclear and conventional weapons-proliferation, and aid to developing countries are all areas where US-China cooperation is both feasible and vital to Asia’s and global security.  

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University (Oregon) and Senior Editor of Asian Perspective.  His latest book, America in Retreat: Foreign Policy Under Donald Trump (Rowman & Littlefield) is due out in July. He blogs at


[1] Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” Brookings Institution, John L. Thornton China Center, No. 4 (March, 2012).

[3] See, for example, the hearings before the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, “China’s Impact on the U.S. Education System,”, February 28, 2020.

[4] Wang Jisi, “Did America Get China Wrong?” Foreign Affairs, vol. 97, no. 4 (July-August, 2018), p. 183.

[5] On China’s side, for instance, academic research on the origins of the virus have apparently been squelched. See “China Clamping Down on Coronavirus Research, Deleted Pages Suggest,” The Guardian, April 11, 2020.

[6] Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, “The Coronavirus Could Reshape Global Order,” Foreign Affairs, March 18, 2020,

[7] Chi Wang writes that “China is not going to find it easy to step into the US’ global leadership role. The breach of trust that China exhibited in concealing the onset of the pandemic will have far-reaching implications on its aspirations for global leadership.” “How China is Losing the World’s Trust Following Its Cover-up of the Coronavirus Crisis,” South China Morning Post, April 13, 2020,

[8] Among the many such assessments, see Susan B. Glasser, “How Did the U.S. End Up with Nurses Wearing Garbage Bags?” The New Yorker, April 9, 2020,

[9] Eric Lipton et al., “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus,” New York Times, April 11, 2020.

[10] Josh Rogin, “The Coronavirus Crisis in Turning Americans in Both Parties Against China,” Washington Post, April 8, 2020.

[11] Peter Beinart, “Trump’s Break with China Has Deadly Consequences,” The Atlantic, March 28, 2020,

[13] Catie Edmondson, “China Hawks in Congress See an Opportunity in Coronavirus,” New York Times, April 10, 2020.

[14] See his op-ed, “China and the U.S. Must Cooperate Against Coronavirus,” New York Times, April 5, 2020.

[15] “Saving Lives in America, China, and Around the World,” April 3, 2020,

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