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Foreign Policy

What Good is Confrontation?

May 10 , 2020

With the world fighting the threat of COVID-19, many are reminiscent of the “good old days” when China and the United States rallied behind a common cause and pooled their resources to get through difficult times. Strange that those previous episodes are remembered with nostalgia — the global financial crisis and the SARS outbreak, for example.

Past rough patches and hardships brought out the good in the human race, as nations managed to avoid succumbing to the convenient instinct for scapegoating, passing the buck or xenophobia.

But this time, things have taken a different course. The media are replete with laments and criticisms over the lack of cooperation and coordination between major powers. Political solidarity alone couldn’t’t save the day, but its absence has certainly compounded the feeling of loss and anxiety that has gripped the world lately.

China has been reaching out to the U.S. and appealing for cooperation. In his article published in The New York Times, Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai cautioned against acrimony, which sows the seeds of suspicion and confrontation. He called for the two countries to lead international collaborative research into treatments and vaccines, explore the sharing of pharmaceutical technologies, help countries with underdeveloped medical systems and contribute to better global health governance.

Now is a time for solidarity and cooperation, and politicizing the epidemic is not helpful. Attempts to stigmatize any country or region will do a disservice to the whole world and can only traumatize the people who have endured hardship to fight the virus for the common good. Viruses don’t respect any ideological or political line.

Lockdowns and mandatory social distancing have worked well when it comes to curbing the widening epidemic, which is based on the characteristics of the coronavirus. Substituting science with political propaganda is wrong and risks stoking an unhealthy kind of nationalism.

For the sake of humankind, the two countries must cooperate despite their differences and competition in some areas. It’s true that China and the U.S. may have more to compete over than in the past, as China become more developed and advanced in certain sectors. But the benefits of cooperation always outweigh confrontation. China may be a competitor, but it is by no means an adversary. The two countries must recognize and respect differences, and work to identify and foster common ground.

Thanks to trailblazing politicians like Henry Kissinger, differences in ideology, social systems and governance models were put aside, and diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. were established and flourished for many decades. In the same spirit, the two countries need to cooperate for broader common good in the face of their perceived or real competition.

Both sides must make extra efforts to keep bilateral ties on an even keel. Central to that endeavor is respect for each other’s core concerns, in particular those related to China’s sovereignty. Any U.S. legislation that emboldens separatists in Taiwan is gratuitous, as the Taiwan issue has been a fixture of China-U.S. relations since the 1970’s. China’s position has been firm and explicit: sovereignty is non-negotiable. That is an international norm, and the spirit of three communiques — signed in 1972, 1979 and 1982 by China and the U.S. — must be honored. It is not news that successive U.S. administrations practiced a sort of strategic ambiguity when it comes to Taiwan, but pushing the boundary too aggressively will cost the U.S. its own strategic lever.

The world needs responsible major powers to anchor expectations in times of turbulence — and all the more in confronting a pandemic. China and the U.S. need to work together constructively for the global good because a crisis of this enormity will inevitably overwhelm the national health system of any country. No one can go it alone.

It is all the more imperative that countries refrain from pursuing beggar-thy-neighbor policies and transfer resources effectively on a global scale from areas where the curve has plateaued to areas where the trajectory is climbing.

As the two key economies of the world, China and the U.S. can provide assistance bilaterally and through multilateral platforms like the G20, the WHO, the World Bank and others. The current lack of assurance and sense of flux drives such unhelpful actions between neighboring countries as blocking or seizing vital medical resources.  

According to a recent Pew poll in the United States, roughly 66 percent of respondents held an unfavorable view of China, compared with 47 percent in 2017. Both Democrats and Republican registered their highest unfavorable opinion of China to date, and the younger generation also increasingly holds negative views toward China.

These are worrying trends. The recent rise in China-bashing in the U.S. has its effect. Public opinion is shaped by what policymakers say and, in turn, public opinion will sway how policymakers act and strategize.

Even with occasional setbacks, China-U.S. relations have been moving forward in recent decades, and so the hawkish need to think twice about a fundamental question: What benefits could America possibly derive from a weakened cooperative relationship with China — or worse, a confrontational one?

Attempts to demonize or stigmatize China through tough and crude rhetoric is not helpful to the common cause of stopping the pandemic. Such actions will further undermine China-U.S. relations, the continued and sound growth of which will pretty much make or break the shared prosperity in the Asia Pacific and the world at large.

The current tidal wave of challenges in both conventional and unconventional dimensions are putting to test our wisdom and solidarity as a shared global community. The path we choose — cooperate or divide — will determine whether we swim or sink together.

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