Washington – The coronavirus pandemic is a global menace that respects neither borders nor geopolitical dividing lines. It thus seems to demand greater U.S.-China cooperation in the near term, even as its longer-term effect will likely be to heighten the budding rivalry. There is in fact a long history of the U.S. working with geopolitical rivals to deal with global problems of common concern. But that history also reminds us of something else that is relevant in the current crisis: Ambitious authoritarian regimes don’t do anything for selfless reasons, and they often use good deeds as cover to perpetrate bad ones.
The most compelling call for U.S.-China cooperation on the coronavirus comes from dozens of former U.S. officials and foreign policy experts, who signed an open letter organized by the Asia Society and the University of California-San Diego. The statement is sober and sensible. It does not gloss over China’s dishonest and damaging initial response to the outbreak, or ignore the blatant untruths Beijing has spread about the origins of the virus. It argues that given the gravity of the crisis, geopolitical rivals must nonetheless work together “to eliminate this disease at home and abroad at a cost that is affordable to all.”
It also points out that America has conquered a vicious disease amid a vicious competition before. The United States and the Soviet Union cooperated to eradicate smallpox, one of the great killers of the 20th century, even as they waged a Cold War.
Today, the prospects for beating the coronavirus will certainly improve if Washington and Beijing can share accurate information, compare medical best practices, and coordinate efforts to produce treatments and vaccines. And while there should be a diplomatic (and perhaps legal) reckoning with China’s responsibility for the world’s nightmare, the time for that reckoning is later, once the U.S. and other democratic societies have regained their footing. Yet the U.S. must keep its eyes wide open with respect to cooperation with China, and the anti-smallpox campaign is a cautionary tale.
The smallpox eradication campaign was a global effort, undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, that began in earnest in 1965. Close superpower cooperation was essential. The Soviet Union provided “most of the vaccine,” historian Erez Manela writes, and Washington provided “much of the funding.”
By the late 1970s, smallpox — which had killed perhaps 2 million people per year — was all but eliminated. This was a triumph for humanity, and an example of positive-sum interaction within the Cold War.
Yet the story was more complicated than we sometimes remember. The Soviets didn’t help spearhead the anti-smallpox campaign out of altruism; they did so primarily to demonstrate their scientific prowess, score points with third-world populations, and reduce cross-border transmission from states such as Iran and Afghanistan. It might create openings for communist expansion.
More importantly, Moscow took an incredibly cynical approach to the whole smallpox issue. Just as the eradication program was gaining momentum, the Soviet Union ramped up its biological weapons program, which featured smallpox and other deadly pathogens. “Throughout the Cold War, we considered viruses to be among the most valuable munitions in our arsenal,” one Soviet official later acknowledged. “Their ability to infect vast numbers of people with an infinitesimal number of particles made them ideal weapons for modern strategic warfare.” That program was a violation of the spirit of the anti-smallpox campaign, and of the letter of the Biological Weapons Convention that Moscow signed in 1972.
It wasn’t the only case in which the Soviets publicly committed to cooperation, only to defect behind the scenes. They cheated on the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty reached in 1972, a cornerstone of Cold War arms control, by creating a radar that could serve as the basis for a national missile-defense system. They also violated the Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons and pushed the limits of the SALT II arms control pact (which was not ratified by the U.S. Senate but still functioned as an executive agreement).
This penchant for duplicity was what Ronald Reagan had in mind when he reminded Americans that the Soviets “have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that.” He added, “I think when you do business with them, even as a détente, you keep that in mind.” A similar caution ought to accompany cooperation with China, another thoroughly cynical, Leninist regime.
China already has a record of exploiting the U.S. desire for cooperation on transnational issues to advance its own geopolitical ends. While Barack Obama was president, Beijing carefully held out the prospect of a climate-change agreement and cooperation on other U.S. priorities. China eventually delivered on a climate-change agreement (albeit one that pushed major cuts in its emissions years down the road), but the process appears to have dampened American pressure on other matters of contention in the bilateral relationship.
More broadly, just as Soviet officials talked up “peaceful coexistence” in hopes of undercutting Western support for a strong defense, Chinese officials have touted “win-win” cooperation to distract other countries from the win-lose nature of Beijing’s agenda. At a time when a bipartisan consensus seems to be emerging on the need to treat China as a serious rival, calls from the progressive left to roll back competitive aspects of U.S. policy and focus on cooperative ones are probably just what Beijing wants to hear.
It is also important to remember just how little help China has so far contributed. Beijing has made a great show of providing masks, tests and other medical supplies to countries in need. But many of these supplies have proved defective, apart from the fact that they were sold, rather than given.
Meanwhile, China has threatened — through its official press — to push the U.S. into “the mighty sea of coronavirus” by withholding pharmaceuticals. The Communist Party has withheld what would be most useful, accurate information about how the virus started and what proportion of the Chinese population it infected, because it can’t provide that information without undermining its legitimacy and prestige. Lingering in the background is U.S. officials’ long-held suspicion that China maintains an offensive biological weapons program, in violation of its international obligations.
This isn’t an argument against seeking coronavirus cooperation from China. It is good news that the Trump administration has toned down its “China virus” rhetoric, a label that is accurate but also counterproductive right now. The U.S. absolutely should encourage Beijing to share all it knows about the virus and methods for battling it. Washington should be transparent in discussing its own lessons learned. When a vaccine is found, it will need to be distributed globally.
Yet we should be clear that whatever cooperation China provides is likely to be incomplete and self-interested. Beijing will also seek maximum diplomatic benefit from any role it plays in beating the coronavirus. There is no reason to expect a departure from the broader pattern of deception and subterfuge often associated with authoritarian regimes. To paraphrase U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a coronavirus detente could well be a good idea, so long as we keep its limitations in mind.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.