The cross-border spread of infectious diseases is a major threat to the survival and development of humanity worldwide. But relations between the two most important actors for safeguarding global health security, China and the United States, are strained. While the two countries jointly tackled the challenges posed by infectious diseases to international society in the past, they are failing to work together against the coronavirus pandemic — primarily because of U.S. hostility. A steady stream of unpleasant noises in the U.S. have created significant barriers.
Is China-U.S. cooperation really out of reach in the face of the novel coronavirus?
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the world has been hit by transnational infectious diseases on a number of occasions. Based on their shared humanitarian spirit and their common health and security interests, China and the U.S. expanded bilateral exchanges during those crises, worked with each other in practical ways. They gradually deepened their cooperation in preventing and controlling epidemics through multilayered institutional interactions between the two governments, their health agencies and their scientific research and academic communities. Throughout this process, political trust, multitrack interaction and mutual capacity building served as their three pillars.
Political trust has been the basis for Sino-U.S. cooperation in public health. Despite differences between the two in many areas, public health and epidemic control occupy rare high ground for bilateral cooperation.
After the SARS outbreak in 2003, the two governments realized that both countries had a common interest in preventing the spread of infectious diseases across borders and that the strengthening of cooperation would not only benefit the health and well-being of the two peoples but also provide stabilizing spillover effects to the international community.
Based on this consensus, the governments of China and the U.S. built long-term mutual trust in the field of public health and infectious disease prevention and management, as evidenced by the Sino-U.S. Emerging Infectious Diseases Program, the Sino-U.S. Global AIDS Program, the China-U.S. Collaborative Project on Chinese Children and Family Cohort and other bilateral agreements. The number of health-related institutions and research departments participating has continually increased in both countries.
Multitrack interaction remains a major model in Sino-U.S. cooperation. Since they began cooperating in public health and infectious diseases, the two governments and their medical communities have agreed that institutionalized exchanges and regular interactions are good. The Sino-U.S. Strategic & Economic Dialogue held since 2009 always took the prevention and control of major infectious diseases as one of its core topics and focused on promoting bilateral cooperation from a strategic perspective.
A series of dialogue mechanisms between China and the U.S., such as bilateral forums on healthcare and health cooperation, the Ebola research symposium dealing with global health security and the Sino-U.S. Health Summit were launched. More important, under the frameworks of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, China and the U.S. began sharing information, including research findings, and provided technological support and material assistance.
Mutual capacity-building has been one of the major fruits of bilateral cooperation. As the two most important economies in the world, China and the U.S. have unshakable responsibilities and obligations when it comes to the international governance of infectious diseases.
Since early this century, they have shifted their focus to research on infectious diseases, the construction of public health infrastructure, data sharing, professional personnel training and other fields. They have steadily raised the capabilities and professional level of hospitals, doctors and researchers in both countries on cross-border epidemics. The effectiveness of the cooperation model has been confirmed, whether in the fight against bird flu in China, swine flu in the U.S. or Ebola virus in West Africa.
However, as the U.S. now regards China as a strategic rival, the fabric is breaking down. They are failing to work together this time against the coronavirus. Rising anti-China sentiment in the U.S. has erected new barriers.
Since 2017, the United States has been adjusting its international economic strategy. Seeking to reduce its global obligations, the U.S. watches as China, its biggest “competitor,” naturally steps in to fill the void. For example, it is promoting decoupling with China at multiple levels. Since the trade dispute erupted, bilateral relations have suffered greatly. At the same time, cooperation in health and disease control has also been affected.
Case in point: In 2018, the U.S. closed the office of the National Science Foundation in Beijing and suspended its global AIDS partnership with China. Since then, both the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reduced the number of employees in Beijing. And now, in the face of the sudden outbreak, the U.S. government has stopped virtually all substantive cooperation with China.
Washington’s overreaction to the outbreak in China — along with the biased remarks and misdeeds of some U.S. politicians — has further undermined China’s trust, which was already deteriorating because of the trade war.
Since the coronavirus outbreak in China, the U.S. has ignored it as an opportunity for renewed cooperation. Instead, as the pandemic widened, U.S. politicians have hammered the “China threat” theory in an attempt to prevent the two countries from resuming systematic global cooperation and to make short-term political gains for themselves. Despite the phase one trade agreement reached by China and the U.S., Washington still does not show any desire to resume the cooperation mechanism.
The U.S. administration’s view of Sino-U.S. relations as exclusively competitive has encouraged the protectionist tendencies of the U.S. and impeded its ability to mutually build capacity with China. Rather than pursuing active cooperation with China as it did during the fight against SARS, avian influenza and other epidemics, the U.S. has appeared self-serving this time.
It has also delayed the delivery of its promised aid to China and even slashed funding for the WHO at a critical moment. Even worse, Republican politicians in the U.S. have launched a blame game to smear and stigmatize China in an attempt to shift the responsibility for the clumsy response of the U.S. government in dealing with the pandemic.
Still, there is no shortage of people in the U.S. who have expressed support for the Chinese government and people. The U.S. business community, friendship groups and private organizations have provided support for China’s fight in Wuhan and Hubei province. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has provided huge funding for China to use against the coronavirus. Others also have raised money or sent medical supplies to China.
Walter Ian Lipkin, a U.S. epidemiologist known as the “virus hunter,” traveled to Guangzhou, Guangdong province, shortly after the novel coronavirus emerged to discuss control strategies with Zhong Nanshan, an academician and head of a high-level panel of experts from the National Health Commission.
In the U.S., at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Congress, Jennifer Bouey, an epidemiologist and senior research fellow at the Rand Corporation, called on the U.S. government to express more goodwill and give more consideration to working with China at this tense and sensitive time.
In the long run, renewed cooperation is critical for both countries and for the international community as a whole. Mutual trust has suffered because of Washington’s competitive mentality. But the foundation for people-to-people interaction between the two countries remains and will continue.
In a telephone conversation requested by U.S. President Donald Trump, President Xi Jinping said that epidemics “should be dealt with jointly by all countries,” and that “countries should calmly assess the situation and then formulate and adjust response measures.”
It is true that solidarity and cooperation are the most powerful weapons for dealing with a pandemic. Viruses know no borders. In the era of globalization, countries’ interests are intertwined, and so they share weal and woe.
This is especially evident with China and the U.S. As Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the U.S., put it, the two countries share broad and important common interests despite their differences and divergences. Cooperation brings them benefits, while rivalry brings losses. With the rapid spread of COVID-19, more people have come to realize the importance of China-U.S. cooperation.
The University of California San Diego is at the forefront of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. The university’s chancellor, K. Khosla, had this suggestion:
“The Chinese people in Hubei province and elsewhere have made strong efforts and contributions to the global fight against the novel coronavirus. As the epidemic emerges and spreads, we are keenly aware of the importance of international cooperation in science and public health. Let’s encourage each other and make efforts for more cooperation and exchanges.”