Virus Competition Is Wrecking China-U.S. Cooperation Hopes

Coronavirus efforts are a new battlefront—and Beijing is the only one in the game.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Jan. 28. Naohiko Hatta - Pool/Getty Image

As Washington shifted its worldview over the last several years to a sharp focus on China competition, even the most claw-bearing hawks generally left open the possibility of cooperation. Key transnational issues, such as climate change and nonproliferation, challenge all nations and require collaborative responses even among adversaries. While the United States and China compete fiercely, it previously seemed to most that enhanced rivalry should not preclude working together when interests dictated it.

But amid an unprecedented crisis as the new coronavirus spreads, cooperation is the last thing on either side’s mind. Fighting pandemic disease, which threatens every country, should be the paradigmatic example of a joint cause compelling U.S.-China cooperation. Unfortunately, it has been anything but. Where the need to fight the coronavirus might once have brought the United States and China closer together, today it is driving them further apart. COVID-19 is becoming one more feature of great-power competition, rather than an exception to it.

To be sure, the wider international response has not exactly been a model of cooperation. Governments have made decisions on borders, entry protocols, export bans, and population control measures largely on their own and with little consultation. The G-7 leaders convened a virtual, emergency summit on Monday that produced a statement filled with abstract pledges of coordination but bereft of any specific commitments. The G-20 leaders have not met at all. The coronavirus crisis may be worldwide, but the responses have so far been almost exclusively national.

Beijing has gone beyond sins of omission, however, to include ones of commission as well. It covered up the extent of the virus’ spread in Wuhan for critical weeks and then rejected the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s offer to send in an expert team. The Chinese foreign ministry attempted to deflect any domestic disquiet at the government’s response by slamming the United States, criticizing it for spreading fear and not sending help. Once infections dipped in China and rose outside it, Beijing began touting its response, emphasizing its top-down, we-can-build-a-hospital-in-a-few-days brand of autocracy, contrasting it with the slow response in large and fractious democracies such as the United States. Its officials, such as Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian, have begun peddling the outrageous falsehood that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to China, rather than the virus spreading outward from China. In the meantime, Chinese aircraft filled with medical aid conspicuously landed in Italy and Spain.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Washington’s response to the pandemic has also heightened the sense of competition, but for very different reasons. U.S. President Donald Trump early on closed American borders to foreign nationals who had recently been to China, and officials in his administration privately expressed a total lack of trust in the Chinese government’s reported number of cases. Now they watch with some trepidation as Beijing tries to turn its response—the claims of success at home, the offers of aid to others—into competitive advantage.

The backdrop of these responses has been the turn toward hard-edged competition between the United States and China. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, and detecting weakness in the United States, China increasingly abandoned its prior strategy of building economic strength while biding its time internationally. Beijing became far more assertive after Xi Jinping’s ascension to supreme power in 2012 and 2013, militarizing the South China Sea, embarking on an illiberal Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, bullying governments throughout Asia, employing coercive economic tools, and seeking technological advantage over the United States and others. The West’s best days, officials often said to their American counterparts, were in the past; China’s time has arrived. Sensitive to these developments, and far less risk-adverse than its predecessors, the Trump administration has elevated China as the No. 1 long-term threat to U.S. national security. It’s not hard to see why cooperation on the coronavirus is unlikely.

This jumbled state of affairs has two major implications for U.S. policy.

The first is that the notion of protecting islands of cooperation in a sea of U.S.-China competition will be profoundly difficult. It may be easier to forge a whisper of collaboration in areas solely the province of experts, such as nonproliferation regimes or North Korea policy. Yet in an area like coronavirus—where the Chinese government is keen to nip in the bud any hint of popular discontent—the temptation will be overwhelming for Beijing to portray the United States as a ruthless predator and itself as a benevolent savior. It may simply be easier said than done to oppose Chinese designs in the South China Sea, its Belt and Road Initiative, or its Uighur repression in Xinjiang while working simultaneously with Beijing to address global warming, stabilize the global economy, and stop pandemic disease—especially as the impact of those crises intensifies and the party’s leadership looks for an external actor to blame.

The second implication is that China’s approach to the coronavirus crisis marks the global response itself as a new area of competition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; two superpowers angling to better defeat a global threat and aid those suffering from it could produce a more decent outcome than if both tended merely to their own. Yet right now Beijing is the only one in the game. Washington’s failure to respond quickly and effectively at home—and its obvious struggles to make testing widespread—now focus the administration on protection at home rather than leading abroad. The United States is not leading international efforts in any obvious way, not providing assistance to the most vulnerable, and not vigorously pushing back against the ridiculous claim that Americans first spread the coronavirus. The U.S. response so far seems largely limited to Trump’s occasionally referring to “the China virus.” That won’t cut it.

Fighting the coronavirus is a mammoth, worthy undertaking in its own right. It is also quickly becoming a feature of geopolitical competition. Beijing’s preferred master narrative portrays a decisive, efficient, generous China that triumphs over disease at home and helps those still at risk abroad. It adds to that picture a plodding, declining United States that is flailing on the home front and inspiring little confidence elsewhere. The already-burdened Trump administration needs to wake up to this reality and respond, before events and mindsets harden further.

Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @RHFontaine

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