As the U.S. struggles to contain the spread of the coronavirus, China this week announced plans to reopen Wuhan, the city in central China where it first emerged. Observers are increasingly assessing the disparity between their performances through the lens of strategic competition. Here are three ways in which the global pandemic is shaping U.S.-China relations:
1. China wants the rest of the world to know its approach worked.
In a March 10 letter to the United Nations, China's ambassador to the U.N. conveyed his country's growing confidence that China has contained the spread of the virus. This week, in addition, the Chinese government reported a five-day stretch without any new local cases in Wuhan. And China is now dispatching covid-19 medical experts and equipment to Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Italy and France.
Beijing contends that its swift moves to control the outbreak restored political stability at home and prepared China to share essential global assistance. Will this narrative gain enduring traction? The answer depends in part on whether Washington can overcome its faltering initial response, which has spotlighted poor health care coordination between its national state and local leadership.
While America played a decisive role in fighting AIDS in Africa in the 2000s and countering the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the U.S. government has not contributed significantly to global efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, the Trump administration faces accusations that it offered $1 billion to a German pharmaceutical company for monopoly rights to a potential coronavirus vaccine.
Still, Beijing might have difficulty proclaiming a superior model of managing infectious diseases, for Asian democracies have had some of the most effective responses thus far. Taiwan and Singapore appear to have contained the spread of coronavirus; South Korea and Hong Kong have slowed the rate of infection. And China's apparent success conceals a draconian underbelly - the government lockdown effectively ground the economy to a halt and severely curtailed civil liberties.
2. The U.S. may seek to further disengage from the Chinese economy.
The Trump administration came into office strongly determined to reconfigure the bilateral relationship, arguing that China's state-directed economy has long undercut U.S. competitiveness. With its steep tariffs on Chinese goods - which remain at an average level of 19.3 percent even after the "phase one" trade deal - myriad efforts to thwart further inroads by Chinese telecom giant Huawei and use of export controls to prevent China from becoming a global leader in frontier technologies, the administration had already made considerable headway in unwinding U.S.-China interdependence well before the coronavirus broke out in Wuhan.
As the health, economic and social costs of the pandemic have grown, so, too, have calls from U.S. officials like White House trade adviser Peter Navarro to accelerate that process.
Medicine is likely to be an immediate focus. Global health expert Yanzhong Huang notes that China is the largest exporter of medical devices and the second-largest exporter of drugs to the United States - supplying, for instance, 97 percent of antibiotics in the United States. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) have introduced legislation that "would end U.S. dependence on China for pharmaceutical manufacturing," with core restrictions going into effect in 2022.
But the renewed push for economic disengagement is likely to extend well beyond medicine. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argues that the pandemic "has made clear we must combat America's supply chain vulnerabilities and dependence on China in critical sectors of our economy." China analyst Scott Kennedy concludes that "[d]ecouplers want to take advantage of this crisis to further their mission."
3. Global crises may spur intensified competition - not models of shared leadership.
Even as U.S.-China strategic distrust intensified between the onset of the global financial crisis and the end of the Obama administration, the two countries still engaged in fruitful collaboration. They launched the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center in November 2009, signed a landmark climate change agreement in November 2014, and inked a deal to promote greater cyber trust in September 2015.
Today, relations between the United States and China are sufficiently fraught that even a global health crisis with the potential to trigger another recession has failed to punctuate the downward trajectory. To the contrary, the spread of the coronavirus has proven to be an accelerant.
Top U.S. officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O'Brien increasingly contend that Beijing suppressed early information about the severity of the outbreak in Wuhan and targeted truthtellers including Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old doctor who warned of a potential outbreak in December and succumbed to the virus in February.
Beijing rejoins that Washington has racialized a global threat by calling it a "Chinese virus." A spokesperson for the foreign ministry even suggested the coronavirus may have actually originated in the United States. While the two countries trade recriminations and attempt to gain narrative leverage over one another, the rest of the world is reeling.
Had the United States and China collaborated more closely when the virus emerged, they may have identified its source more quickly; sounded an earlier alarm about its severity; and outlined best practices that the rest of the world could adopt to preempt its arrival and/or contain its spread.
Instead, China initially rejected assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. CDC, in turn, which once had "more than a dozen programs in China, including an emerging-viruses program," now has only "a handful of employees." In addition, U.S. tariffs have resulted in a precipitous decline in imports from China of medical items that America urgently needs to stem the further spread of the coronavirus within its borders.
The spread of the coronavirus has placed into sharp relief one of the most troubling disjunctures of the 21st century. Challenges of this magnitude place an ever-higher premium on cooperation between major powers - at a time when these powers increasingly adhere to nationalistic outlooks that view such collaboration with suspicion. U.S.-China relations offer the most sobering exhibit.
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Wyne, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute, is the author of an essay in the current issue of the Washington Quarterly, "How to Think about Potentially Decoupling from China." For other commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by political scientists from universities around the country, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage