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China and US must cooperate to lead world out of coronavirus danger

Both sides have chipped away at global coordination in recent years

| China
Donald Trump speaks at a news conference on the coronavirus outbreak on Feb. 29: recriminations and scapegoating do nothing to halt the spread of disease.   © Reuters

James Steinberg is a politics professor at Syracuse University and a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.

The international response to the COVID pandemic is a watershed moment in the evolution of the international order. At time when the value of global interdependence and international cooperation is already under assault from politicians and popular movements around the world, national leaders and international institutions face a fundamental test: can they turn back the growing tide of inward-looking, zero-sum policies to meet this critical challenge?

It would seem self-evident that the transnational nature of the threat, both to health and to prosperity, should trigger actions emphasizing international cooperation. Yet to an alarming degree, the response has been the opposite. For too many countries, the instinct has been to pull up the drawbridges and point fingers, seeking national solutions at the expense of international collaboration.

From the earliest days, China turned down offers of help from international organizations and foreign experts; refused to freely share complete information; and petulantly blocked Taiwan from World Health Organization emergency meetings.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, similarly, proposed banning travel, halting immigration and cutting off funds for the WHO, more focused on deflecting political fallout than developing an effective response.

Recriminations and scapegoating, from Trump blaming China for the virus' spread to China's foreign ministry spokesman's lurid hints that the U.S. Army might have planted the virus, play well to frightened domestic audiences but do nothing to halt the deadly spread of disease or sustain crippled supply chains and fragile financial markets.

Under any circumstances, this response would be deeply troubling. But it follows actions already tearing at the roots of international cooperation. Trump has advocated an "America First" policy, questioned the value of historic alliances, denounced "globalism" in a speech to the U.N., withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal and promoted economic nationalism over open trade.

Nor has the U.S. been alone in fostering autarky, or isolationism, and nationalism. In Europe, from Brexit to Hungary, leaders are turning their backs on regional integration. Commenting on the European reaction to COVID-19, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said member states had "looked out for themselves."

In China, leaders have stressed the need for technological independence through initiatives like Made in China 2025, while erecting discriminatory barriers against foreign investment and tolerating, if not encouraging, the theft of foreign intellectual property.

During previous crises, global leaders showed a much greater awareness of the benefits of cooperation and the ineffectiveness of going it alone. From the emergency G-20 summits in 2008-09 to the efforts of finance ministers and central bankers, coordinated strategies helped prevent competitive devaluations and devised global rules to build investor confidence.

During the 1997-99 Asian financial crisis, despite the U.S.'s initial reluctance to bail out Thailand, the U.S., regional leaders and international financial institutions responded as the contagion threatened major countries in East Asia and beyond.

Contrast this with the divisive March 25, 2020 G-7 foreign ministers' meeting: a U.S. effort to label the outbreak as the "Wuhan virus" derailed the release of a communique. A month later, a leaders' meeting was hijacked by the U.S.'s unilateral decision to suspend WHO funding.

An earlier virtual summit of G-20 leaders solemnly proclaimed COVID-19 as "a powerful reminder of our interconnectedness," but offered only a vague commitment to "do whatever it takes."

The news is not all gloomy. In mid-April, the leaders of ASEAN Plus Three -- China, South Korea and Japan -- convened a virtual summit to coordinate their response to COVID-19, going beyond direct health efforts such as securing vital medical supplies to deal with economic and political challenges, including the looming danger of food shortages.

As South Korea's President Moon Jae-in said, "This is a crisis that cannot be overcome by the efforts of individual countries."

But more needs to be done. In early April, a group of current and former national and world leaders called for a G-20 task force to develop an action plan to address both the health and economic dimensions of the crisis.

China and the U.S. together bear a special responsibility to pick up this call and lead the global response, just as they did in 2008-09. But to do so will require a fundamental rethinking about the direction of their relationship. Some have suggested a temporary truce or short-term palliatives, such as suspending recent bilateral trade tariffs and coordinating needed health aid to poorer countries.

It will be hard to sustain meaningful cooperation for this and other looming crises if each side treats the other as a rival and potential enemy competing for power and influence everywhere.

Our countries have differences in values and interests which will cause tensions. But COVID-19 shows why we must stop the dangerous downward spiral and establish a more stable, constructive long-term relationship. The U.S. and China need to spend less time quarreling about whether one country has undue influence in the WHO, the World Trade Organization and other multilateral bodies.

Instead, we should focus instead on how, together, we can rebuild the institutions and arrangements that our two countries and the world need to address not just COVID-19, but the broader challenges, from disease to climate change to economic prosperity, of the 21st century.

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