As the world grapples with the human and economic devastation being wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, not even the relationship between the United States and China is being spared. However, the US and China cannot allow their global competition and rising tensions to impede efforts to fight the pandemic.
There will be time enough when this global emergency is over to figure out the ways in which the Chinese Communist party’s (CCP) actions endangered the world by covering up the initial outbreak. But we are where we are, and China, the United States, and the rest of the world must focus on fighting the pandemic.
Unfortunately, neither the US nor CCP leadership seems willing to resist throwing mud at one another. Donald Trump, the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, and other elected officials have called Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” and one White House official reportedly called it the “Kung Flu”. The Republican senator Tom Cotton hinted (without evidence) that the virus could be a bioweapon created by the CCP.
In China, a spokesman for the PRC ministry of foreign affairs lied in suggesting that the US military could be to blame for the virus. Chinese government officials have echoed that sentiment while the CCP’s propaganda machine is busy promoting these conspiracy theories.
This blame game is undermining diplomacy between the countries. Instead of calling his counterpart to coordinate responses to the global pandemic, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, called China’s senior foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, instead to object to “PRC efforts to shift blame for Covid-19 to the United States”. And the Trump administration has reportedly attempted to stop the UN security council and the G7 from taking action against the pandemic unless the groups singled out China for blame.
It’s important to get the facts right. The virus started in China. In the early days, doctors tried to sound the alarm, but were not allowed to do their jobs. As the virus spread, the CCP censored many of those attempting to raise alarm bells. The CCP’s botched initial response to the virus probably made this pandemic far worse.
But the priority for every nation right now must be the pandemic, and tensions between the world’s two biggest economies cannot get in the way. Toning down aspects of the US-China competition temporarily in no way means that the United States should ignore the CCP’s dangerous initial response to the virus, nor does it mean that the United States should stop blunting dangerous Chinese behavior elsewhere. What it means is taking concrete steps to ensure that the competition does not inhibit the fight against the pandemic.
First, the United States must stop scapegoating China. Leaders need to stop referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”, trying to blame China for the outbreak and feeding conspiracy theories about China launching the disease on purpose. Halting this kind of rhetoric can help reduce some of the discrimination against Asian Americans that has been sparked by racist comments surrounding the virus. And while China will continue trying to spin this crisis to its advantage to win headlines, at the very least the United States can play the role of responsible leader rather than infantile finger-pointer.
We must ensure all the doors to cooperation on the pandemic are open right now
Second, the United States must ensure that no policy that is intended to blunt nefarious Chinese behavior will negatively affect the fight against the pandemic. In order to address genuine concerns, the United States has increasingly scrutinized Chinese investment and private sector cooperation in education, scientific collaborations and the technology sector. Sometimes, those actions can have unintended consequences: for instance, ProPublica reported that one scientist – who had lived in the United States for decades and left the country after being investigated for ties to China – is now developing a rapid coronavirus test in China. Whether it’s scientists sharing research to find a vaccine or companies partnering to produce necessary equipment, we must ensure all the doors to cooperation on the pandemic are open right now. The Trump administration’s move to lift tariffs on Chinese medical products like masks and sanitization products is a good step.
Third, the US and Chinese governments must work together to stem the tide of the pandemic. As tensions have risen in recent years there are fewer and fewer areas on which the two countries have pursued robust cooperation. But combating the pandemic is exactly the kind of challenge that requires the two nations to come together, from sharing lessons learned in their respective responses to searching for medical treatments to working together in multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization and the G20. And it means being open to support from one another: while China initially refused US help, reports now suggest the United States is declining China’s offers of sending personal protective equipment.
Fourth, don’t worry for the moment about China’s attempts to win public relations victories by sending aid to US allies. The United States must focus on actually helping US allies – such as coordinating travel restrictions to avoid the disaster when the Europe travel ban was announced – and being supportive of allies getting desperately needed help from anywhere it can, whether the United States, China or anyone else. Even if the United States has relatively little to offer and China is sending small amounts of aid as a public relations move, responding by trying to remind everyone that China is the cause of the outbreak will only make America look petty (and some countries are already finding out on their own that part of China’s aid is faulty).
If the United States and China are successful in fighting this pandemic – and doing so together – perhaps, at the end of all of this, the two countries just might end up building bridges that could be useful in tempering the more dangerous aspects of their competition.