Claremont, California – The most dangerous casualty of the new coronavirus pandemic may well be the U.S.-China relationship. Faced with the largest global crisis in a generation, the world’s two leading powers have spent their time bickering over who’s to blame for the spread of COVID-19 and who’s handled the fallout better. If left unchecked, the animosities unleashed by this crisis could propel the two countries into direct confrontation.
In Washington, anger toward the way China initially suppressed information about the virus is sure to fuel new punitive measures. At a minimum, Congress is likely to pass legislation further restricting Chinese access to U.S. capital and mandating reshoring of manufacturing activities deemed critical to national security and public health. Initiatives that had been temporarily put on hold, such as efforts to cut off the flow of technology to Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co., could quickly be revived.
Even though China has fewer cards to play, its leaders will respond in kind, while doubling down on efforts to promote technological self-reliance. A decoupling of their giant economies will not only cost both countries dearly. It will make them far less restrained in confronting one another.
Open enmity would be catastrophic. It could lead to a full-fledged arms race, proxy wars, a fragmenting of the world economy and an end to global cooperation on climate change, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and future pandemics.
Both sides would pay a heavy price. Losing a strategic contest with the United States would spell the end of the Chinese Communist Party. As for the U.S., waging an open-ended conflict with a nuclear-armed foe would demand even more astronomic levels of defense spending and divert precious resources from other urgent domestic needs, including health care. The prospect should give even the most ardent cold warriors in Washington pause.
A different course of action is urgently needed. In the wake of COVID-19, the U.S. should lay the groundwork for a new, more stable relationship with China. To do so, however, it needs to act quickly on three fronts.
First, leaders in Washington must agree on the strategic goal of U.S. policy. Is it to contain the growth of Chinese power, as realists argue? Is it to change the regime in Beijing, as advocated by those who view the China threat mainly through an ideological lens? Or is it, as pragmatists say, to push back against specific Chinese behavior, such as unfair trade and assertive foreign policy? To be sure, all three are intertwined. But a strategy that tries to pursue multiple objectives at once will not only lack clarity; it’ll be virtually impossible to execute with any reasonable expectation of success.
The most realistic approach to China should be centered on changing specific Chinese policies that directly challenge or threaten American vital interests. That means Washington first needs to identify a short list of high-priority issues such as the South China Sea, Taiwan, North Korea, trade, technology and cybersecurity.
Then it can pursue a two-pronged strategy of diplomatic engagement and pressure to seek substantive change in Chinese behavior. For example, demanding greater transparency in reporting public health incidents by Chinese authorities is both doable, mutually beneficial and absolutely necessary in defeating threats such as the new coronavirus.
In the same vein, a combination of delicate diplomatic negotiations and credible threats of sanctions against Chinese elites may persuade Beijing to rescind its recent decision to expel American journalists. Calibrating U.S. support for Taiwan in response to Beijing’s efforts to intimidate the island democracy could help reduce tensions across the Taiwan Strait and prevent a potentially dangerous direct military conflict between the U.S. and China.
Once the U.S. defines its strategic objectives, the country must regain the international leadership role it’s abdicated during the COVID-19 crisis. The Trump administration’s handling of the crisis — including, most recently, the president’s attempt to shift blame to the “China-centric” World Health Organization — has proved ineffective at home and needlessly antagonized U.S. allies and friends abroad, creating an opening for China to exploit.
Even before, a successful China policy was inconceivable without the backing of American allies or widespread international legitimacy and support. Washington’s unsuccessful attempt to persuade its European allies to ban Huawei’s 5G technology has already demonstrated that. In a post-coronavirus world, an unabashed unilateral pursuit of national interests will reduce the U.S. to a traditional great power, feared and resented widely.
Most countries trust and respect American leadership not simply because it is backed by power, but because that immense power is often exercised according to well-established international norms and for the common good of humanity. Re-assuming its traditional role will require the U.S. to recommit to a rule-based international order. Among other things, that means the U.S. will need to devote greater financial resources to supporting the United Nations and its affiliated agencies — the exact opposite of what Trump has done — and lead reform of the World Trade Organization to address China-related challenges.
Finally, a pragmatic China policy will have to find the delicate balance between restrained geopolitical rivalry and self-interested cooperation. That means both countries would continue to jostle for power and geopolitical influence but, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union did in the closing phase of the Cold War, limit the risks of direct military conflict by confining their actions within mutually accepted boundaries.
In the South China Sea, a flash point of likely military conflict, Beijing and Washington need to reach a set of understandings that will find the right balance between challenging China’s illegitimate maritime claims and avoiding a frontal military clash. Another boundary that needs to be set as soon as possible is to make certain categories of civilian targets — such as credit reporting agencies, the electric grid, financial institutions and air traffic control systems — off-limits for cyber operations.
Besides restraining their rivalry, the U.S. and China should actively cooperate on global challenges that can directly threaten their own security and well-being. Exempting clean-energy technology and products from their trade and tech wars, for instance, would help combat global climate change while improving both economies.
In terms of fighting the coronavirus and future pandemics, the U.S. and China should jointly be strengthening the WHO, in particular its incident monitoring and reporting system, rather than undermining it. Material support could also help an under-resourced WHO establish a global stockpile of vital medical supplies and improve the public-health capabilities of developing countries, the weakest link in defeating this and future pandemics. Washington and Beijing should be collaborating on debt relief and other aid for those countries, as well as on the race for a vaccine. The Trump administration’s threats to cut off aid to the WHO will impede such progress; it’s imperative that Congress ensure the U.S. maintain its financial commitments to that body.
Learning to co-exist, compete and cooperate at the same time won’t be any easier after the current crisis fades. But failing to do so would be an epic disaster for both countries and humanity. If the world is lucky, this pandemic will force the U.S. and China to remember just how much they still need each other.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
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