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Foreign Policy

Whence China-US Relations?

Jun 12, 2020
  • Jia Qingguo

    Director and Professor, Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding, Peking University

During the first phase of the fight to contain the coronavirus pandemic, China and the United States took different approaches and got very different results.

When the pathogen first appeared in Wuhan, no one knew much. It was new. The Chinese government initially had no idea how highly contagious and deadly it could be. So it held back on drastic measures for fear of causing a panic. As the situation worsened, however, Beijing realized its seriousness and quickly adopted stringent countermeasures and succeeded in preventing the massive spread of the virus. So far, the containment seems to have worked.

Although the outbreak in China occurred two months before it hit the United States, the U.S. failed to prepare. It failed to learn from China’s experience. Its hesitation, combined with a weak and disorganized response, led to missed opportunities and allowed the infection to spread like wildfire. The epidemic dealt a heavy blow to America and to the world.

As early as late November, U.S. diplomatic and intelligence agencies had taken notice of the virus and reported it to higher authorities. But President Donald Trump did not take it seriously. It was not until the pandemic had exploded in mid-March that the Trump administration began to urge some kind of social distancing policy across the country. By that time, however, it was too late. Huge numbers of Americans were infected unnecessarily, and many died.

During the first phase of the pandemic, China outperformed the United States. Its success is even more pronounced if we take into account the big gap in national capabilities, especially in terms of science and technology.

China had some problems in its early response and in various aspects of policy implementation. However, the Chinese government was decisive, and the measures it adopted were science-based, coordinated and effectively implemented.

The central government locked down Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease in China, and then pooled the resources of the entire country to support the city. At the same time, it rolled out stringent measures to restrict person-to-person contact across the country, which helped bring the disease under control within a short period of time. China’s response fully demonstrated the authority and capabilities of the Chinese government.

The opposite is true in the United States. With President Trump’s lack of leadership, the federal government sent out conflicting signals on the nature of the virus and how to deal with it. It failed to come up with a concerted national approach to cope. Instead, it largely left the states to take care of themselves, resulting in chaotic competition for medical supplies during the early period of the crisis. Before the country was truly mobilized against the virus, catastrophic consequences had already there for all to see.

The U.S. has more than 10 times the number of confirmed cases and deaths reported by China. It is unforgivable for a country less populous than China, yet technologically superior, and aware of the coming problem for two months before it struck, to respond so incompetently. 

Although China outperformed the U.S. during the first phase of the fight to contain the pandemic, it is too early to tell which country will emerge triumphant in the end. During the first phase, China’s success depended on the sound judgement of the Chinese government after its initial hesitation and delay, and its strong capability in mobilizing the people and in implementing prevention and control measures.

However, the ultimate victory against the virus will depend on the development of effective drugs for treatment and on a vaccine. In this area, the U.S. enjoys a considerable advantage.

Some claim that differences in political systems explains the drastically different performances of China and the U.S. Reality is probably not so simple. During the first round of responses to the pandemic, East Asian countries generally outperformed the U.S. and Europe. And most East Asian countries do not use the Chinese political system. What, then, explains the difference in performance?

Four factors deserve attention: 

First, the peculiarities of the coronavirus. It is more contagious than many other communicable diseases. Consequently, containment requires massive and severe restrictions on human contact. This entails substantial restrictions of certain individual rights and freedoms and a detrimental impact on the economy. Therefore, policymakers’ decisions are particularly difficult when it comes to imposing measures to contain the virus.

The relative low death rate of this pandemic when compared with Ebola or SARS further compounds the difficulty. This explains the hesitation on the part of Western governments to adopt effective measures when they were confronted with the outbreak. 

Second, cultural differences. On balance, people in East Asian countries assign more value to collective interest as opposed to individuality. They believe that collective interests circumscribe individual interests, and only when collective interests are ensured can individual interests be taken care of.

By contrast, people in Western countries place more emphasis on individual interests. They can be dismissive of collective interests, believing it is individual interests that define community interests, not the other way around, and that only when individual interests are protected can collective interests be advanced. That explains why at the moment of crisis, East Asian governments had greater leeway to impose social distancing more swiftly than their Western counterparts and why people in Eastern countries were more receptive to the imposition than people in the West.

Third, roles of the government. The government also plays a notable role in pandemic response. Governments in East Asia were more efficient and more effective than their Western counterparts in their efforts to contain the virus. Even between East Asian countries, some governments did better than others. The response of Japan and Singapore, for example, was below expectations. Whereas Japan’s performance was hampered by its desire to hold the summer Olympics on time, Singapore’s performance suffered from its initial failure to pay sufficient attention to the situation of migrant workers.

Fourth, the impact of ideology. Out of ideological bias, the West, especially the United States, was highly critical of China’s approach to fighting the virus. At first, China’s official coronavirus numbers were suspect. Later, China’s anti-pandemic measures were labeled totalitarian — a pattern they could not follow. Only when things became really serious did they adopt some of the measures China had implemented. Now some people in the United States say China has misled them. The truth is that they misled themselves.

The current pandemic has produced both positive and negative effects for China-U.S. relations. It remains to be seen which effect will prevail in the long run.

On the positive side, COVID-19 is a ferocious enemy whose defeat requires collaboration. Out of shared interest, the two countries need to enhance information-sharing and cooperation in the development of drugs and vaccines, provide each other with medical supplies such as masks and PPEs through donation or trade and lead and coordinate international efforts to fight the pandemic worldwide.

On the negative side, because of ideological prejudice coupled with resentment that was brewing before the onset of the pandemic, some extremists in both countries have taken the opportunity to find fault and demonize the other country. They speculate about each other’s intentions in the worst possible light and create various conspiracy theories, including accusations that the other side created or spread the virus intentionally. In the era of instant communication, this dark side of human nature is dramatically magnified, making it difficult for the two countries to work together.

In the face of the threat posed by the pandemic, the governments of China and the United States should have engaged in cooperation out of humanitarian considerations and their own national interests. They need to reject the influence of the extremists. Unfortunately, some anti-China people in the Trump administration and U.S. Congress are catering to those extremists, which makes bilateral cooperation more difficult.

The biggest obstacle to China-U.S. cooperation is twofold — one psychological and one political. Psychologically, both countries need to think about how they view each other. In recent years, the leading voices in U.S. foreign policy circles have held more extreme views of China, interpreting China’s words and actions from the worst possible perspective. Some Chinese also view U.S. intentions in a bad light. 

Politically, some people in both countries — either out of selfish political interests or exclusive focus on differences in ideology — deliberately exaggerate the negative rhetoric and action of the other side and even openly incite hostility and confrontation. They claim that China and the United States cannot cooperate and that conflict is inevitable.

As a result of their delusional remarks, the level of distrust between the two peoples has been growing. Some recent polls in the United States show that Americans’ negative perceptions of China are on the rise. This also might be the case in China regarding Chinese perceptions of the U.S.

Under these circumstances, the countries should make an objective and pragmatic assessment of the nature of their relations and consider the dire need to maintain good relations for the sake of the world. They need to take proactive steps to stabilize their relationship and promote cooperation.

Despite their differences, both China and the United States are stakeholders in the international order and aspire to a stable and prosperous world. Peaceful coexistence and cooperation is in their best interests. In the face of the pandemic, they must cooperate, from sharing their experience in fighting the coronavirus to developing medicines and vaccines and coordinating global economic policies to ensure economic stability. Only cooperation will help them increase the effectiveness of their pandemic response, ensure stable economic growth and embrace a better future.

The nature of China-US relations in the future will depend on whether the two countries can overcome some of the obstacles mentioned above. As things stand now, the most likely scenario is that they may cooperate to some extent but various frictions will complicate things. Let us keep our fingers crossed and pray that pragmatic cooperation will eventually prevail. 

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