Under the leadership of U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the uneasy Sino-American relationship has undergone extensive deterioration due to a trade war, inflammatory rhetoric, the perceived threat posed by China to the liberal international order, and more. Still, it seemed as though the two countries might finally be headed toward a period of détente when they agreed in January to suspend their two-year-old trade war. However, hopes of this coming to fruition were quickly dashed by the novel coronavirus’ rapid spread across the globe.
Both countries have made grave mistakes in their handling of the outbreak, and have wasted no time in seizing upon the other’s shortcomings in an effort to assign blame beyond their respective borders. In 2014, China and the United States exhibited impressive levels of cooperation to successfully contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. For a number of reasons, there has been no such cooperation regarding COVID-19 .
An obvious cause is the heightened tension that has characterized Sino-American relations since Donald Trump succeeded Barack Obama in the White House in 2017. However, the strained pre-coronavirus relationship is but one factor in what could potentially be the greatest diplomatic crisis between the two nations since 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party rose to power. Due to a unique set of circumstances, the coronavirus outbreak has done damage to the great powers’ weak association.
Given the outbreak’s origins in Wuhan, China, it was clear from the beginning that the novel coronavirus had the potential to become a major obstacle to U.S.-China relations. However, by suppressing knowledge of person-to-person transmission of the virus for over a month, silencing doctors who attempted to warn the country and the world about the deadly illness, and allowing people to freely travel to and from Wuhan for weeks after the virus’ discovery, Xi’s government missed its only opportunity to prevent this potential from becoming reality.
Meanwhile in the U.S., despite early warnings, Trump and his administration repeatedly downplayed the coronavirus. Now, with coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. skyrocketing in recent weeks, Trump and his acolytes have resorted to pointing out China’s blunders in order to distract from their own slew of errors. They have also done this to tout their early decision to ban travel from China to the U.S. — the only significant measure they took to prevent a large-scale domestic COVID-19 outbreak before it was too late.
When the coronavirus is finally brought under control globally, China’s government must be held accountable by the world for its failure to act sooner. However, at this time, the U.S. government’s constant China-baiting is unproductive and distracts from the federal government’s still-slow response to help the American people.
President Trump and his allies’ labeling of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu,” — and their pushing of a baseless conspiracy theory that the virus came from a Wuhan research lab — have driven a deeper wedge between the two nations at a time when collaboration is a necessity. Moreover, this rhetoric has drawn the attention of the American media and population at large away from the Trump administration’s catastrophic response to the public health crisis — illustrated by a massive shortage of ventilators and other vitally important medical supplies — making it harder to hold the government accountable. Additionally, it has obscured Trump’s closing of the pandemic preparedness Global Health Security and Biodefense Unit in 2018 and his failure to take the threat of coronavirus seriously for weeks.
For their part, Chinese government officials and state-run media outlets have responded with a conspiracy theory of their own: that COVID-19 is a bioweapon that was brought to Wuhan by the U.S. Army or the CIA.
The name-calling and finger-pointing on both sides are only symptoms of the broader Sino-American rift that COVID-19 has widened.
Amid the pandemic, each nation has cracked down on the other’s journalists. On February 18, the Trump administration officially named Chinese media operations Xinhua, CGTN, China Daily, China Radio International, and the distributive branch of People’s Daily as Chinese government “foreign missions.” In retaliation, China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters the next day. Most recently, on March 18, China ordered all American citizens working for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal out of the country. Additionally, both countries have experienced an uptick in xenophobia and racism as a result of the coronavirus.
Furthermore, the Chinese government is exploiting its self-reported transmission rate that has nearly reached zero and the shift of the virus’ epicenter to the U.S. and Europe. It is using these circumstances to promote its style of authoritarianism as a superior form of government to democracy and position itself as an example to the world for how to overcome COVID-19. Such posturing is only adding to American anxieties about the supposed threat China poses to the U.S.-led liberal international order.
While a COVID-19 vaccine will no doubt eventually be discovered, a cure being found for the disease’s devastating impact on the relationship between the two most economically-powerful nations in the world is far from guaranteed.