China and the United States Are Both Losing the Blame Game

Pointing fingers over the coronavirus is a dangerous distraction from the crisis.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the coronavirus daily briefing at the White House on April 21.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the coronavirus daily briefing at the White House on April 21. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran for U.S. president in part against “tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing.” In 2000, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush made a point in declaring that China was a strategic competitor. And in 2016, before he became president, Donald Trump accused China of “raping” America. But if the last two weeks are any guide, the politics around China in the 2020 election cycle will make previous electoral contests seem like the seasonal flu compared with, say, a global pandemic.

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, U.S.-China relations were under serious strain. The fraying of trust on trade, technology, and military deployments has played out as Beijing has expanded its global footprint, raising questions about its ambitions to alter the U.S.-centered international order. Then came the coronavirus outbreak, originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which has sickened more than 2.5 million people and killed over 180,000. Let’s be clear: The Chinese government mishandled the outbreak, delaying its initial response for weeks and withholding information for six inexcusable days.

Officials and agitators in Washington and Beijing have seized on the virus to point fingers for the outbreak itself and to disrupt traditional patterns of global assistance and leadership. Yet in both cases, these efforts distract from domestic shortcomings in handling the pandemic. In Washington, this includes the regular rumormongering and selective leaking that the pathogen started in a bioweapons lab; in Beijing, it’s the fantastical notion that the U.S. military may have brought the virus to international military games in Wuhan. Over the last week, there have been charges and countercharges from the Trump and Joe Biden campaigns and their surrogates that the other team can’t be trusted to handle relations with China.

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Given the charged rhetoric, it’s particularly important to find a careful way of framing analysis of China and the coronavirus crisis.Beijing has much to answer for, but whether Trump, think tankers, and commentators like it or not, America’s national security, economic well-being, and social cohesion are intertwined with China’s.

China remains a significant manufacturer of personal protective equipment, medical devices, and a range of therapeutics. It is also a medical research powerhouse second only to the United States, including in the all-important area of vaccine development.

Given the charged rhetoric, it’s particularly important to find a careful way of framing analysis of China and the coronavirus crisis.

Meanwhile, as states and cities move slowly to restart economic activity, China—as well as South Korea and Taiwan—can offer best practices on what mix of technology, social distancing, and contact tracing has worked in different cities and locations. Chinese cities have used different app configurations to slowly permit employees to return to their places of work; while privacy and surveillance concerns will make many solutions there inapplicable in the United States, having a clearing house of potential solutions could be the first step to give U.S. localities a menu of policy options.

To be sure, China’s own opaqueness can make it difficult to fairly evaluate the situation on the ground, especially as it moves to further block foreigners from entering, but it would be in Beijing’s own interests—to truly sell success—to let credible outsiders assess the progress. As the warnings of a global outbreak that went unheeded have sadly demonstrated, we treat China as a distant “other” at our own peril. Americans should not repeat the same mistake as they try to pull the country out of the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic.

Policymakers should not let geostrategic competition and the shifting international landscape cloud their thinking about U.S. priorities for the next year. Yes, international institutions are under severe strain—including from a U.S. administration that would prefer to settle petty scores in the midst of a crisis instead of focusing on the urgent needs of today. And Chinese “mask diplomacy” of high-profile shipments of medical equipment and personnel designed for the cameras rankles most observers as naked opportunism. But these global trends are years and decades in the making and should not detract from cold calculations on what serves U.S. interests today: specific projects to protect the health and livelihood of Americans.

At the federal, state, and institutional level, the United States should adopt a clear approach to coordinating with counterparts in Beijing and elsewhere in China. A small group of senior officials from the Treasury Department, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security should lead this process. From Customs clearance to certification, enhanced coordination for personal protective and medical equipment should expedite getting urgently needed items to front-line medical workers. While individual research universities and companies have relied on connections across the Pacific in meeting the needs for testing and vaccine development, better coordination with China at the federal level will improve the likelihood of better health outcomes for millions of Americans. Given the reports about defective masks in Europe and outright fraud in the procurement of medical supplies, having knowledgeable officials from both governments involved in this process can help ensure quality items get where they are needed most to save lives.

As Congress considers another rescue package, coordination with G-20 members, particularly China, would help limit the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak; while the origins of this financial crisis differ markedly from that of 2008, those mechanisms can still be useful in giving markets and businesses confidence and tools to weather the storm.

As the United States moves from the immediacy of handling the health crisis to addressing the short- and medium-term economic fallout, central bankers, finance officials and regulators, tax authorities, and even small-business and labor administrators need to restart discussions with counterparts in Beijing to move the United States toward a sustainable recovery. Understanding the detailed financial policies of the world’s second-largest economy will help ensure greater success of the U.S. effort. The broader discussion about the potential desirability of reshoring manufacturing of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals should not prevent midlevel and senior U.S. officials from macroeconomic and finance discussions with their Chinese counterparts in the coming months.

Critics of dialogue with the Chinese government have pointed to endless meetings with little to show for it. But today, the objectives and need for technical finance and health experts to collaborate on specific projects could not be clearer. In past global struggles, the United States was able to prioritize the need to reach shared strategic goals over distaste for a specific government—Joseph Stalin in World War II, strongmen in South Korea and Taiwan in the Cold War, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan after 9/11. The current global health and economic crisis requires nothing less now.

Finally, in this age of disinformation and attack journalism, it is critical that writers, analysts, policymakers, and reporters separate truth from propaganda. Beijing’s high-profile donations of protective equipment and forgiveness of African debt are, in part, an effort to distract from the initial botched handling of the outbreak. At the same time, the Trump administration’s continual bugaboo about the naming of the “Wuhan virus” and recent threat to suspend World Health Organization funding are efforts to distract from the federal government’s dismal response to the outbreak. There is no moral equivalence here: An open democratic republic will, in the long run, outperform a one-party state.

But the U.S. government and its institutions will be judged by how they deal with the outbreak and its aftermath—not by a finger-pointing tweet. Time to show some self-confidence and not sully the country with the eye-for-eye tactics of the Chinese Communist Party. These efforts at distraction serve as stark reminder that leaks and half-truths demand rigorous examination before becoming global headlines or driving specific policies. This task will only become more challenging as the presidential campaign kicks into high gear in the fall.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials and  members of the foreign-policy cognoscenti have put dominating the news cycle above problem-solving and global coordination against the coronavirus. Now is the time to focus on what’s necessary to protect lives and restart the economy—not on dangerous distractions.

James Green, who worked on China in and out of the U.S. Government for over two decades, is the host of Georgetown University's "U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast" and a senior advisor at McLarty Associates.