The worldwide fight against the coronavirus pandemic will be harder to win unless the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and China improves.
That won’t be easy. Especially in light of a Bloomberg report that, according to a classified intelligence assessment, China hid the true scope of COVID-19 cases and deaths. While critics contend that the Trump administration’s initial response wasn’t ideal either, there is no equivalency: Beijing’s intended inaccuracies endangered not just China, but the world.
Nonetheless, lately there have there been signs that the two superpowers have attempted to communicate more constructively. Working together, however, is another matter. China may see this as an opportunity to try to position its governing model as better than the West’s. And yet some cooperation is needed to mitigate the growing coronavirus calamity.
Despite its lethal early errors, China may now be through the worst of its outbreak (based on suspect data, to be sure). America, conversely, must brace itself for a “hell of a bad two weeks,” according to President Donald Trump, who has finally reckoned with how virulent the virus is.
Working together will also be harder because Trump needlessly antagonized China and our allies by referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly insisted that similar language be included in a G-7 coronavirus communiqué. G-7 leaders balked, the statement was scrapped, and the U.S. needlessly alienated allies in a clear diplomatic misstep.
Even graver, a tit-for-tat spat that saw the Trump administration limit to 100 the number of U.S.-based journalists at Chinese outlets widely considered state propaganda was met with China kicking out 13 Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times journalists. This was once again a loss for the world, which needs independent reporting from China.
Fortunately, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have improved the dialogue. Trump has dropped the “Chinese virus” verbiage (although likely too late for the scores of Asian-Americans targeted with racism that may have been fueled by the president’s rhetoric). That’s a positive development as America scrambles to procure more medical supplies, and indeed on Sunday a flight from Shanghai carrying 80 tons of such supplies arrived in New York, the first of 22 scheduled flights. More will be needed — especially in countries struggling with basic health infrastructure.
“I don’t think you get a grip on this crisis in the long term without a coordinated global response,” Richard Gowan, U.N. and multilateral affairs director at the International Crisis Group, told an editorial writer. “You are going to need countries to join up their health cooperation, humanitarian assistance, if we’re going to bring this under control on a global scale.”
While the divergent, difficult U.S.-China dynamic will drive geopolitics for many years to come, the two sides must find a way to work together to contend with this crisis.
“At least in the short term,” Gowan said, “the two sides have to get a grip that without their cooperation, and that of other countries, they are going to make this disease much worse.”