Covid-19 and US-China Relations
Six areas to seek bilateral cooperation
Dr M. Usmani
Relations between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China were already very tense before the Covid-19 crisis. China’s assertiveness on the international stage since the 2008 financial crisis and especially since President Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012-2013 has helped cement a bipartisan consensus in the United States that a tougher and more competitive approach toward the PRC is required. In these trying times, the common threat posed by coronavirus could have provided an occasion for de-escalation of tensions if both capitals had decided to cooperate to tackle it together and alongside others. However, the pandemic has proven only to be a source of greater friction, rather than greater cooperation, between the two countries.
There comes a moment in all close relationships when both parties must decide whether they will work through their problems together, or if they will engage with those problems in a state of open hostility. The US and China — in the midst of a global health catastrophe and facing the worst economic crisis since World War II — have chosen the path of open hostility. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated and reinforced economic and geostrategic competition between the two world powers. Even before the pandemic, Trump was already blaming China for more or less everything that has gone wrong in the United States. Ahead of November’s presidential election, he appears to be doubling down on this strategy—in part to distract from his own horrendous management of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, despite the hullabaloo, the state of affairs has not beyond control. It seems that there will be some choppy seas ahead in US-China relations, worse than any previous troubles since 1979. The two countries are not yet heading toward exactly the same kind of cold war between the US and USSR where they led opposing alliance systems and separate economic blocs to wage a global ideological struggle, strategic rivalry and economic warfare. It is also an undeniable reality that China needs US money to get out of its coronavirus depression while the United States needs Chinese-made medical supplies to specifically fight the coronavirus as well as China’s products for its consumers and business in general. This necessity for cooperation is very real. So, both countries need to forego their hostility and must come up with a pragmatic strategy to resolve their issues. A ceasefire between Beijing and Washington on criticism of the two countries’ initial responses to coronavirus is required. Moreover, there should be a commitment to an eventual international investigation of what went wrong in all countries during the early phases of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite all accusation and blames the United States puts on China, it must be acknowledged that the latter is now a repository of useful knowledge about the virus and how best to control its spread. It also has a very strong scientific community studying the origins of viruses and their medical treatment, who can cooperate with American experts both to find a vaccine and to develop effective treatments short of a vaccine. This is true even if it turns out that the virus actually leaked from a scientific facility in Wuhan with insufficient safeguards. There will be time later to assess the early mistakes of China and others in greater detail, but the virus is out there now and must be tackled together. The World Health Organization (WHO) and other multilateral institutions like the G20 should be bolstered to help address the medical and economic challenges that are likely to spread around the globe, particularly in countries with weak medical infrastructures and poor economies that will almost certainly suffer massive debt defaults. Again, this remains true even if international politics and institutional weakness delayed the WHO’s initial response to Covid-19. It simply does not follow any logic (except a tortuous political one) that the proper response to any earlier failures by the WHO should be to cripple the major vehicle of international public health during a global pandemic.
Here are six areas of cooperation that the United States and China can pursue in both bilateral and multilateral settings that would serve their national interests and the interests of humanity, even if they do not necessarily fit the domestic political logics of leaders in Washington and Beijing. The list is suggestive and not intended to be exhaustive and can include cooperation among governments and non-governmental actors.
- Share best practices. The two sides should share and learn best practices for how to slow the spread of the virus, including mistakes to be avoided. While it might be too soon to expect Beijing and Washington to agree to a probe of their early mistakes, it would be very helpful if each side would commit in principle to conduct such a probe after the virus has been brought under control and eliminated. This is unlikely to be our last pandemic. We all need to learn lessons for the long run and it would reduce political tensions between the two nations in the near term to recognize the eventual need for such a probe.
- Cooperate on vaccine creation. The United States and China should work on vaccines together and should pledge to share any breakthroughs with each other and the rest of the world promptly when they are made. This can be done on a government-to-government basis or in cooperation between universities and companies. One sign of hope on that score is that Chinese and U.S. scientists, including at Columbia University, have managed to perform collaborative research on the virus despite the conflicts between the two governments.
- Prepare in advance for massive vaccine production and global vaccine distribution. Vaccinating everyone everywhere will be a massive logistical undertaking that will require great forethought before a vaccine is invented. Delays in distribution of even several months could easily cost astounding numbers of lives. If political fighting over who gets vaccines and when were to occur, it would be devastatingly destructive to international cooperation on any matter for years to come.
- Assist the poorest nations in battling the virus. Cooperate to remediate suffering in the developing world by boosting the medical response capacity in highly vulnerable areas like sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, etc. In 2014, the United States and China cooperated effectively alongside many other countries to address the Ebola crisis in Africa. The WHO should be a major actor in this cooperation regardless of any problems related to the organization’s public response in January 2020. And to the degree that the pandemic is accompanied by famines in some places, as seems likely, the United States and China should support the efforts of the World Food Programme to distribute provisions and eliminate distributional bottlenecks slowing the delivery of needed aid.
- Cooperate to manage debt defaults in the developing world. The possibility of systematic debt defaults in the developing world seems quite real and this could have ripple effects in the entire global financial system. More multilateral cooperation will clearly be needed. The G-20 responded rather well to the 2008 financial crisis and should be called upon again to address this global recession. The Covid-19 crisis should also provide an opportunity for global bankers to push China to join international development financing groupings like the Paris Club, which reduce conflicts among lenders when debt crises occur around the globe. Without cooperation on debt restructuring, the international economy could be severely harmed by beggar-thy-neighbour strategies among lending institutions. In this context, the many non-transparent, bilateral infrastructure development loans made by China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative could loom particularly large.
- Prioritize development of strategic reserves over economic nationalism. Nations are now more acutely aware of their dependence on foreign supplies of needed products in a world of globalization and transnational supply chains. But it should also be recognized that global trade has generally been a very positive factor for the world economy and that significant reductions in global trade will likely lead to more, not less, poverty and more, not less, vulnerability to disease and hunger. Two potential solutions to protect global trade would be the diversification of global supply chains so that a single country, like China, is not so essential to supply final manufactured goods. This would mean even more complex economic interactions around the world than we have today, but it would provide a much more efficient solution than each nation trying to produce many products entirely at home to reduce vulnerability. To supplement such a globalist strategy, individual countries should be encouraged to create larger strategic reserves of needed medical and other supplies as an alternative to simply moving all production of such products back to their own countries. Economic nationalism as an alternative to strategic reserves would carry huge opportunity costs for global efficiency and wealth and could also infect international security politics in destabilizing ways. Similar approaches to stockpiling of internationally purchased products for security purposes have long been used effectively in the energy sector.
In order to pursue such a constructive agenda, all countries should call a ceasefire on blaming others over the early outbreak and global spread of the virus. To help facilitate this diplomatic ceasefire, all countries should commit to eventual international investigations into how they responded to the crisis, including mistakes and misdeeds done along the way. The WHO should be involved in such an investigation, and the United States should be actively involved with the WHO to participate and help guide its involvement. For the reasons discussed above, it appears that neither the PRC nor the United States will likely be pleased to hear the eventual results of such an inquiry. But if they fail to cooperate now and continue to fight, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of additional deaths occur as a result, each country will suffer even greater losses to its reputation and diplomatic standing than it would by accepting in advance that it will receive some criticism. China and the United States should be behaving like confident great powers, not like insecure and tragically flawed players in an ancient Greek drama.