Could the Pandemic Ease U.S.-China Tensions?

Against a backdrop of tariffs, 5G, and weakening diplomacy, COVID-19 might be a rare chance for the two countries to come together—if they can listen to their better angels.

Workers produce face masks at a factory in Handan in China's northern Hebei province on Feb. 28. In early March, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative lifted tariffs for face masks and other medical equipment imported from China.
Workers produce face masks at a factory in Handan in China's northern Hebei province on Feb. 28. In early March, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative lifted tariffs for face masks and other medical equipment imported from China. STR/AFP via Getty Images

As the coronavirus circles the globe, it’s proving a startling reminder of just how interconnected our world has become. The virus has moved along our global supply chains, and it can be stopped only with global cooperation. But the war of words between U.S. and Chinese officials last month shows how the pandemic can bring out the worst in the two countries. While the rhetoric has abated somewhat, there is now an opening for both nations to reverse course, and they must act fast—particularly in working together to develop vaccines, proliferate life-saving medical equipment, and keep open vital global supply chains.

U.S.-China relations had sharply deteriorated long before the discovery of a mysterious virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December. Friction increased over long-standing points of contention such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. Other disagreements, such as those over human rights, cybertheft, and the future of Hong Kong, have lingered or worsened. Tit-for-tat tariff retaliation during the 18-month trade war has paused but not ended, while a cutthroat battle for primacy in areas like 5G and artificial intelligence, as well as the expulsion of journalists, has coincided with the breakdown of regular dialogue between the two governments.

It is hardly surprising, then, that when COVID-19 came onto the scene, it would be deeply politicized by both nations. A close ally of U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that the virus had been created by China in a biochemical laboratory in Wuhan. A Chinese government spokesman countered that the disease was brought to Wuhan by visiting U.S. Army personnel. A senior U.S. official publicly gloated that the crisis would bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. As outbreaks spread in California and New York, Chinese officials flaunted their schadenfreude. Accusations of cover-ups and incompetence are flying in a contest to demonize the other and show that their respective systems are more effective to cope with the challenges posed by the pandemic.

This is a contest with no winners. Propaganda and recriminations won’t defeat the coronavirus or stem the looming global recession. The blame game playing out between the world’s two major powers has real-world consequences. China’s own veteran ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, seemed to distance himself from his comrades’ conspiracy theories in a recent Axios interview, tacitly acknowledging that the U.S.-China relationship desperately needs de-escalation, not denunciation. He may have provided just the opening that both sides need to get relations on a better footing at a critical time.

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

Globally, there are now more than 1.2 million coronavirus cases and over 70,000 deaths. The hunt is on for treatments and vaccinations, and there is a desperate need in almost every country for medical supplies and equipment. Simultaneously, lockdowns have already led to the loss of millions of jobs worldwide, with hundreds of millions of people expected to be impacted as entire industries tighten their belts. Between the two countries, China and the United States have vast capital and human resources. To stave off global economic collapse, and help fast-track lifesaving medical research, they must come together now, both through bilateral collaboration and in leading a more effective global response.

Without a doubt, medical cooperation takes precedence. The two countries should immediately begin working together to develop and conduct clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine and treatments. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s robust technical assistance program on infectious diseases in China, which was dramatically scaled back in 2018 as a result of budget cuts, should be restored and expanded. So too should work under the 2016 memorandum of understanding in which the two countries agreed jointly to provide public health and disease control training in Africa—where in recent months the United States has sought to block China from building the headquarters of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Lastly, Washington should invite Beijing to co-chair an action task force on COVID-19 under the Global Health Security Agenda, a multilateral public-private initiative focused on combating infectious disease.

Improving research without restoring supply chains, however, makes little sense. Both countries must make permanent the tariff exclusions that they have already granted while lifting those remaining tariffs that are related to the medical and humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as patient monitors and hand sanitizers. They should lead the G-20 countries in pledging to keep open their supply chains and not to impose export or import restrictions on necessary medical equipment and supplies.

As this year’s host of the G-7 group of advanced economies, the United States should invite China to join virtual meetings to coordinate strategies to limit the damage from COVID-19 and prepare for rapid economic recovery. The Chinese government’s lack of transparency, politicized courts, and its authoritarian style of capitalism effectively rule out regular G-7 membership, but during this crisis, the scale of China’s economy makes it valuable to include Beijing in meetings to coordinate fiscal, economic, and health-related policies.

Washington has long warned against Beijing’s debt trap diplomacy in China’s Belt and Road projects, which have placed a vast debt burden on developing nations—exceeding 15 percent of GDP in countries including Cambodia and Ethiopia. Now, despite a looming health crisis and a faltering global economy, they must service debts and pay for projects their governments can no longer afford. The United States should work with the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and Japan to help China work out arrangements to relieve or forgive the massive debt it holds in the most vulnerable developing countries. The United States can assist in retooling existing projects to build desperately needed public health infrastructure, particularly given America’s strength in medical services, software, and expeditionary medicine.

A smaller but no less crucial move in mitigating the crisis would be for China to restore credentials to American journalists working for major U.S. media outlets in that country. Last month, China said it would expel journalists in retaliation for a U.S. cap on visas for state media reporters. But it is critical that diplomatic channels—not retaliatory ones—be used to address Beijing’s complaints. The free flow of reliable information is particularly crucial in dealing with a crisis.

These suggested steps, albeit modest, would go a long way in reversing the negative course in U.S.-China relations. Both countries have experienced and competent ambassadors supported by professional staff. A good starting point would be for the two teams to agree on a menu of options for bilateral cooperation that the leaders could discuss. Joint action would allow both countries to show leadership at a critical time in history, when many smaller nations are increasingly vulnerable. And each of these measures could build some needed trust between Beijing and Washington, setting the stage for progress on other issues. Washington and Beijing do not need to be best friends—but they could show that a crisis can also bring out the better sides of both countries.

Wendy Cutler is the vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute and managing director of the Washington office. She is a former acting deputy U.S. trade representative.

Daniel Russel is the vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

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