OP-ED: How Will COVID-19 Worsen the Ailing US-China Relationship?

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, joined by President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan. Courtesy of the White House

By Tenzin Chomphel 
Editor in Chief

The single most important bilateral dynamic of the 21st century will be that between the United States and China. This was widely known long before COVID-19 had put the Chinese government in a position of disfavor amongst the international community for accusations of failure to address the outbreak early and aggressively. Now, with this new and enormous challenge weighing down on the already strained context of the US-China relationship, the bilateral cooperation necessary to tackle serious global issues such as climate change has become that much more difficult to synthesize.   

From economic expansion such as the Belt and Road initiative, to its political involvement in supporting authoritarian regimes like that of North Korea, China’s foreign affairs are being interpreted by China hawks, government officials with an offensive inclination towards the country, as a challenge to the United States’ status as the leading global power. When the Trump administration launched its first tariffs against Chinese imports which subsequently began a trade war that would weigh down on the entire global economy, it signaled a pushback on the US’s part. Each aggressive action taken in this reach for power has displayed a downward spiral in animosity that makes the context of the COVID-19 outbreak all the more concerning. 

The core agenda of the Chinese government values two things arguably over anything else: political stability and economic growth. Approaching the end of the 20th century, China’s total economy was smaller than that of Italy’s. Since then, it has grown 25-fold and overall global poverty levels have been greatly reduced largely due to this growth. Congruently, this unprecedented economic growth has been used as an effective justification for the power consolidation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), most recently exemplified by the removal of term limits by China’s President Xi Jinping. The COVID 19 pandemic however, has highlighted one shortcoming of the consolidation of power by Xi: When something goes wrong, he must bear the largest amount of responsibility for it. This forced him to go on the defensive, temporarily isolating from the public eye, while his officials worked to quickly contain the outbreak from its epicenter of Wuhan where the tally has risen to nearly 4000 deaths.  

Over the course of the 21st century, the US response to China can be in many ways separated along the two party lines — with neither seeming to accomplish their publicly-voiced goals. Common opinions from the Republican party voiced frustration over American businesses not having the market access that they were promised as well as having intellectual property stolen, and from the more liberal-oriented side, frustrations over the human rights abuses occurring mainly in west China. Needless to say that while these frustrations are valid, the retaliation they have culminated in has been less than effective. 

President Clinton’s proclamation that China would democratize over the course of its market liberalization has remained to be the baseline strategy of the Democratic party until recently. Now, there is at least some form of consensus between the two parties that China’s uncurbed rise would produce some potential risks and thus warrants a response. However, the Trump administration’s handling of it has been some of the most hawkish we have observed in the history of the contemporary relationship. Rising Republican leader Tom Cotton exemplifies this sentiment, with rhetoric of “holding the Chinese accountable” for the virus, a tone that harkens back to previous exchanges between nations before a tumultuous conflict would ensue.

The US is not the only one engaging in fruitless finger pointing. The Chinese government has also turned this around on the US, claiming their military is what brought the virus to China. Numerous CCP officials have lashed out against the West’s ability to contain this virus, likely as a tactic to bolster Xi’s reputation domestically. This in turn has translated into China revealing their tactic of aggressive diplomacy to preserve their standing in the international order as well. China’s abundance of medical supplies are now being used as political leverage. The assistance is being provided to countries that pledge admiration of the aggressive containment in Wuhan, and also promise not to make any suggestions that China is to blame once the virus outbreak is more contained. Use of nationalism and xenophobia to quell public frustration is not a novel tactic of the CCP, but during a time where panic is heightened and mental bandwidth is lowered, it could present much greater risks than before.

This has culminated into the two countries being at an unnecessary level of conflict both for physical and moral authority on the global order. With China asserting its strategy of coercive diplomacy even before COVID-19, it is clear that, at the present moment at least, China does possess the same status as a superpower that the US once had during its 20th century peak. The US may seek to assert to the international community that its moral values are more “just” than China’s, but it has been translated into excluding China from prosperity and framing this as a zero sum game. The way to obtain this moral victory should not be by pushing down China, but rather by lifting up other nations. Instead, many global actors may now be viewing the two superpowers as a matter of who is the lesser of two evils. 

I am concerned about this eagerness between the two nations to jump to an offensive position against one another, and the global ramifications it will produce. The cost of their mutual animosity continues to rise, with much more harmful spillovers to the global community. It is possible to have dialogue on specific critical issues without sacrificing any grand-scale ideologies. It is also possible to co-exist without a total de-coupling. In fact, it may be necessary if the US and China are truly invested in addressing complex global issues such as curbing carbon emissions, or more recently providing adequate medical supplies and health restrictions where they are needed. 
The response to COVID-19 thus represents a perfect opportunity for the two powers to step up to the plate. With all eyes on this central issue, they can demonstrate that they are capable of more than just vague accusations against one another. That they are capable of being trusted internationally with the responsibility that comes with being a global superpower. But can they recognize the long term value of these imminent decisions, prioritize the health of both their citizens over saving face, and engage each other’s capabilities to most effectively respond to this pandemic? At least for now, I am not hopeful.

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