China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

The Coronavirus Epidemic: Challenge or Opportunity for US-China Relations?

The U.S. government has seized on the crisis to adopt harsh policies toward China. But there are glimmer of hopes from society itself.

By Bao Huaying for
The Coronavirus Epidemic: Challenge or Opportunity for US-China Relations?
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

In the past month, the United States has launched a series of harsh actions in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which has sickened over 64,000 people. Washington has evacuated U.S. citizens from Wuhan, denied the entry of Chinese citizens, and cancelled major U.S. airlines’ flights to China. This was quickly followed by similar responses in the international community. Countries like Australia, Britain, Japan, France, and Brazil evacuated their citizens from China. Over 70 countries issued bans or restrictions on entry by Chinese citizens and airlines around the globe have canceled flights to China amid the outbreak.

These actions soon cast shadows on the U.S.-China relationship, as the Chinese government fought back with strong criticism, accusing the U.S. government of “overreacting,” “spreading panic,” and “taking a bad lead.”

More seriously, the U.S. government has shown an increasingly severe and harsh attitude toward China amid the epidemic. On January 29, White House Trade Advisor Peter Navarro explicitly pushed back against the idea that the United States would remove tariffs on Chinese imports if the deadly coronavirus begins to weigh on China’s economy. During an interview on Fox Business on January 30, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said China’s coronavirus outbreak “will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America,” which was broadly criticized by Chinese government and media as taking the advantage of the crisis. Senator Tom Cotton went further, accusing the Chinese government of having a “long history of covering up and minimizing these crises.” He even latched on to a popular conspiracy theory, suggesting that the virus originated from a Chinese “super-lab” rather than the Wuhan seafood market.

Tough policies and harsh criticism from the U.S. government have been challenging the U.S.-China bilateral relationship to such an extent that Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, warned both sides to “guard against any political virus” in addition to the biological virus. Under current circumstances, U.S.-China relations will be negatively affected in three aspects.

First, the fallout may smash the hard-won U.S.-China “Phase One” trade agreement. Under huge pressure from the coronavirus emergency, China may find it hard to fulfill its commitments. The trade agreement requires that “if a natural disaster or other unforeseen circumstances beyond the control of the parties cause one party to delay and fail to perform its obligations under this agreement in a timely manner, the two parties shall consult.” This could potentially return the two countries to the difficult situation before the trade agreement was signed.

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Second, the coronavirus will not only hit the economy of China, but also that of the United States and the world. As the world’s biggest manufacturer and consumer market, China has never been relied upon by the rest of the world as much as it is now. Given the close-knit financial relationship between the United States and China, and the high dependency of the U.S. economy on China, the U.S. economic condition has grown increasingly consequential to China, and vice versa.

Last by not least, the harsh ban on Chinese nationals’ entry and an increasing fear and xenophobic reactions have been undermining U.S.-China people-to-people exchanges. “The ‘decoupling’ between United States and China in the name of epidemic prevention,” as commentator Yu Donghui of China Ratings Network commented,  has achieved something “that the U.S. ‘hawkish’ [side] has been trying to achieve for the past year”: breaking the ties of U.S.-China cultural exchanges. Breaking such ties “is difficult to achieve, and now part of it has become a reality,” Yu said.

Amid the coronavirus epidemic, however, we have also seen an opportunity for bilateral relations. In reaction to the outbreak, many quarters of American society have offered their support in helping Chinese people combat the virus.

With China’s permission, U.S. medical experts joined the WHO expert team traveling to China to help with coronavirus research. Academic cooperation on possible vaccines for the coronavirus has been carried out between Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and Fudan University in Shanghai. The China-Japan Friendship Hospital is leading a clinical study of Remdesivir, an American-developed anti-viral drug developed by Gilead Sciences to treat Ebola, for the treatment of COVID-19 in Wuhan. Meanwhile, a large amount of donations — including free medical supplies — has been provided from the American civil society to China. Statistics from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences show that as of February 2, 2020, 188 foreign companies had donated 1.096 billion yuan ($157 million) to China, of which American companies donated the most.

It is noteworthy that U.S. President Donald Trump has consistently shown an appreciative, supportive, and cooperative attitude toward China since the outbreak of the virus. Among his tweets:

China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!

And, a few days later, this:

We are in very close communication with China concerning the virus. Very few cases reported in USA, but strongly on watch. We have offered China and President Xi any help that is necessary. Our experts are extraordinary!

Substantial cooperation between both sides would be valuable, as the coronavirus is consequential not only to China, but to the whole world. Public health concerns should take precedence over the political backlash. As support and cooperation have been presented from the American society and the president himself, there may be an opportunity to promote the bilateral relationship by defeating the virus hand-in-hand.

Bao Huaying is the Chief of Division for International Exchange at Beijing Foreign Studies University, China. Currently she is a Visiting Fellow at East Asia National Resource Center, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University in Washington D.C.