The world’s two superpowers, the United States and China will remain competitors in many realms for decades to come. In parallel to confrontation, however, Chinese and American leaders also must realize that they share some interests that require cooperation. Addressing a global pandemic is one of them.
Unfortunately, both leaders in both countries have lately succumbed to some of their worst impulses. The Chinese government has been conducting a propaganda campaign — including even the expulsion of American journalists from China — to rewrite the origins of the virus and to blame the United States for its spread. The Trump administration has taken to referring to the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus.” Some U.S. officials have promised retribution for China’s role in spreading the virus internationally.
This blame game serves neither the long-term interests of the United States nor China. It needs to stop.
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union learned to confront each other on several issues around the world and at the same time worked out ways to cooperate when their interests overlapped, as in the cases of nuclear arms control, smallpox eradication and joint space research efforts. American and Chinese leaders must learn similar habits for managing competition and cooperation in the 21st century.
Fighting covid-19 together is a no-brainer. Working together on managing the coming global economic downturn is our next common challenge. Attempting to solve either of these two problems unilaterally will make both countries worse off.
Both President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping should begin by initiating confidence-building measures to set the stage for more regular diplomacy. Xi should remove his flame-throwing spokesperson at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, and find a face-saving way to allow the ousted American journalists to return. Trump and his team should stick to scientific terminology when describing this global virus. (In 2003, President George W. Bush referred to the new coronavirus, which originated in China and threatened the world, as simply “SARS.”)
Next, Trump and Xi should establish a high-level working group to engage in direct talks, air their differences, agree to new norms for public discourse, and — most importantly — develop a joint plan for combating the virus, our common enemy.
Framing Chinese and U.S. international efforts in response to the cornoavirus in zero-sum terms is counterproductive. Chinese aid to Europe does not undermine American interests. U.S. officials should applaud Chinese humanitarian assistance to Italy, and then provide the same for our ailing ally. Italy needs help from everyone. Likewise, Chinese officials should welcome, not block, American doctors seeking to learn more about the Wuhan outbreak. And the race for a vaccine for the virus is one that all should win, not just one country.
U.S. and Chinese leaders should also should provide leadership in multilateral arenas, especially including the Group of 20 — a vital organization for managing the 2008 global financial crisis — and the U.N. Security Council. Over the short term, as the two great powers in these multilateral institutions, the United States and China should be leading global efforts to share data about the coronavirus, coordinate international research, provide and encourage greater funding of the World Health Organization, and triage humanitarian assistance.
In the longer term, the United States and China must demonstrate leadership in multilateral forums to adopt new rules and norms for preventing and ameliorating future pandemics, including protocols for testing readiness, international standards for personal protective equipment, and the abolition everywhere of dangerous wet markets. Once this current pandemic recedes, we will need a global accounting of best practices and lessons learned for fighting this virus — not just national studies.
Working with Beijing to defeat a common enemy does not mean that we have to concede to China on other issues, stop deterring China in other arenas, or check our values at the door. But going it alone — against a disease with no nationality — does not advance U.S. national interests nor the interests of our allies and partners around the world.
After the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. and Soviet leaders, and especially American and Soviet scientists, learned that on nuclear issues, we were, as Siegfried Hecker characterized it, “doomed to cooperate.” The coronavirus pandemic should teach Chinese and American leaders — not to mention scientists, doctors and health-care officials in both countries — that even rivals are sometimes doomed to cooperate.