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Foreign Policy

Time for Sino-American Cooperation in Developing Asia

Apr 15, 2020


Click to read the latest COVID-19 special coverage

The world is facing nothing short of what scientists call “existential risk”, a direct and planetary threat to the very viability of the human species. As of this writing, at least a third of the world’s population has been placed under one kind of collective ‘lockdown’ or the other. No less than the United Nations’ Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has warned that the (COVID-19) plague is “threatening the whole of humanity - and the whole of humanity must fight back."  

And with the shuttering of many sectors of the global economy, we are increasingly facing the prospect of a Global Depression, the worst economic contraction in more than century. In fact, the prominent economist Nouriel Roubini has warned of a ‘Greater Depression,’ with “every component of aggregate demand…in unprecedented free fall.” Worst of all, is the human tragedy unfolding across continents. As a funeral director in northern Italian city of Bergamo lamented, “A generation has died in just over two weeks.” 

Unfortunately, the crisis has worsened, not only due to lack of decisive action by governments across the world, but also a precarious dearth of maximal cooperation among the world’s leading nations. As the pandemic spreads throughout the developing world—where healthcare systems are significantly more fragile and fiscal space so thin—the urgency for global cooperation is more paramount than ever. For a start, the Trump administration should lift extremely destabilizing and anti-humanitarian sanctions, which are wreaking havoc in heavily-hit nations such as Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. And the US and China should join hands together like never before, especially as developing Asia struggles with the greatest humanitarian and economic shock in a century.  

Trump’s Decisive Turnabout 

As the pandemic tightens its grip on the world, legitimate calls for accountability and inquiry into alleged cover up in the initial stages of the crisis have gone hand-in-hand with incendiary rhetoric against the disturbing backdrop of rising xenophobia in the West. The upshot is a suboptimal tit-for-tat exchange of blame and threats among major powers, which is depriving the world of much-needed time and coordination against a common enemy. 

Nonetheless, late-March saw a much-welcomed plot twist. The US President Donald Trump, who initially downplayed the pandemic threat and seemed far more concerned about the economy ahead of a re-election bid, has began to take the situation far more seriously. Trump’s turnabout was likely driven by scientific projections, especially a study by epidemic modelling experts at the Imperial College of London, which warned that millions of Americans could die if the crisis was not dealt with head-on. 

The White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, has warned of the likelihood of the death of up to 200,000 Americans in spite of the decisive measures being undertaken across the country. Not since the Korean War has America faced the prospect of such a humanitarian tragedy. Crucially, aside from endorsing sustained and effective lockdowns, the US president has also reached out to China to address the crisis both at home and, potentially, on a global scale.

Following a late-March phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the US leader struck a dramatically somber and conciliatory tone. “Just finished a very good conversation with President Xi of China. Discussed in great detail the CoronaVirus that is ravaging large parts of our Planet,” declared a visibly somber Trump over Twitter (March 27). “China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!”

On his part, during the fateful phone call, the Chinese president made it clear to his American counterpart: “Both sides will benefit if we cooperate, both will lose if we fight each other,” since “[c]ooperation is the only correct choice. I hope the U.S side could take real actions. The two sides should work together to enhance cooperation fighting the virus and develop non-confrontational.”

A Case for G2 Cooperation

The constructive exchanges between the two world leaders paves the way for what the late US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski termed as G2 (“Group of 2”) cooperation in a sustained and decisive manner.  With China having largely contained the crisis at home, it’s industrial behemoth has shifted to producing much-needed medical equipment, which is of existential necessity for countries across the world.

Desperately short of medical supply and basic equipment, Trump has activated the Defense Production Act, which facilitates war-time-like industrial-military complex cooperation for emergency purposes. At the same time, the US has commenced airlifting crucial medical supplies from China, the world’s leading production hub. There are as many as 22 scheduled flights between Shanghai and New York, with the first one bringing in “80 tons of gloves, masks, gowns and other medical supplies” according to The New York Times. 

But even if the US and China manage to contain this domestic crisis, the pandemic’s spread across the rest of the world will boomerang soon as globalization returns to a semblance of normalcy. What’s at stake is a classic collective action problem, whereby the shared crisis can’t be resolved unless there is a sustained regime of cooperation, especially among the biggest players. 

In Asia, the likes of Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have managed to prevent a large-scale outbreak through proactive preventative measures, including robust monitoring of flights from hotspots and turbocharged contact-tracing before any en masse, intra-community transmission. On its part, South Korea largely contained an outbreak without resorting to large-scale lockdowns, thanks to mass testing, targeted quarantines, and state-of-the-art public information campaigns. 

However, two problems remain. A large number of developing nations in Asia and beyond are massively underreporting the crisis, largely thanks to lack of test kits and, in some cases, the tantalizing incentive to coverup under besieged authoritarian governments. Meanwhile, lockdowns could also become extremely prohibitive for developing nations with weak economic foundations and tens of millions of informal sector workers, who live on a hand-to-mouth daily wage. 

And this brings us to the second problem. Even successful Asian countries could face a new wave of infections once they reopen their borders to heavily affected nations, including those from the West. Thus, they also have an incentive to assist and facilitate Sino-American cooperation against the pandemic. The US, China, and more developed Asian nations should pool their immense resources and best practices for the benefit of the most vulnerable nations in the region and beyond. Thus, the lesson is clear: we either hang together or get hung alone by this new plague. 

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