Covid-19: Further split in China-US relationship?

The Covid-19 crisis should have been a chance for the US and China to increase cooperation. Instead, the two countries have lobbed diplomatic volleys against each other in a show of one-upmanship. Now, their competition arena has widened beyond trade or tech, to the escalating coronavirus epidemic.
Air China employees wear medical masks for protection against the Covid-19 at LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal on 2 February 2020 in Los Angeles, California. The United States was first to announce a travel ban on travellers from China. (David McNew/Getty Images/AFP)
Air China employees wear medical masks for protection against the Covid-19 at LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal on 2 February 2020 in Los Angeles, California. The United States was first to announce a travel ban on travellers from China. (David McNew/Getty Images/AFP)

The Covid-19 outbreak forces countries to be on the same side in the “virus war”. But China and the US's diplomatic moves are edging them into competition mode once again, this time around leadership in fighting the coronavirus.

Chinese academics told Lianhe Zaobao that due to their deep distrust of each other, China and the US may have lost the opportunity to work together during this crisis.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, China and the US have butted heads over the US’s preventive measures. In end January and early February, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly criticised the US for being the first to evacuate their Consulate staff from Wuhan, the first to suggest a partial withdrawal of its embassy staff, the first to announce a travel ban on travellers from China, and for “spreading fear and setting a bad example”.

Staff from the US embassy walk in a cargo plane chartered by the US State Department to evacuate Americans and Canadians from China.(Courtesy of Edward Wang via Reuters)
Staff from the US embassy walk in a cargo plane chartered by the US State Department to evacuate Americans and Canadians from China. (Courtesy of Edward Wang via Reuters)

The White House disagrees. It said that it had expressed willingness to provide assistance to China, and even asked for permission to send a team of experts from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help fight the outbreak, but did not receive any response from China.

“When you’re cleaning up a mess, it’s obvious that you wouldn’t want others to see it.” - Prof Cheng Xiaohe

The New York Times disclosed in a report published on 7 Feb that the CDC had offered to send a team of experts to China, but Beijing had shown no interest at all. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had also made a similar offer two weeks ago, but China has ignored it as well.    

China wants to have control

The New York Times report suggested that China had rejected offers of help to conceal the embarrassing facts behind the outbreak. Based on views from current and former US public health officials and diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the report speculated that the rejection came from top officials in China who did not wish the world to think that China was in need of external help.

Professor Cheng Xiaohe of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China affirmed during an interview that there exist problems in China’s handling of the outbreak. He said, “When you’re cleaning up a mess, it’s obvious that you wouldn’t want others to see it.”

Prof Cheng pointed out that the epidemic is not a simple one — it involves the country’s stability, economy, and even the ruling party’s status. China hopes to take control of the situation.

Professor Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, attributed China’s hesitance to technical difficulties. He explained during an interview, “How many American experts are coming, and who will receive them? What is the scope of their observation and data collection? After Wuhan’s lockdown on 23 January, Wuhan was not prepared for this and was in a state of chaos… China was not well-prepared [to receive them].”

However, Prof Zhu also admitted that given the current progression of events, it is not China’s own issue anymore. China has to be open and transparent to the international society as “this is a basic diplomatic responsibility and obligation”. 

China thinks the US is gloating 

The conflict between China and the US does not stop there. From China’s perspective, various top-level officials in the White House have been making insensitive comments about China’s calamity.

For example, Wilbur Ross, US Secretary of Commerce, said that the outbreak “will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America”. Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, also said that the US will help Kazakhstan protect itself against the coronavirus outbreak in neighbouring China.

Observers said that while the US did offer help to China, due to the complicated relationship and structural contradictions between the two countries, the US’s insensitive remarks are within expectations. On the other hand, China made high profile criticisms of the US to deter other countries from doing the same.

"China has put in a lot of manpower and materials into fighting the epidemic... And the US response has been to create international panic." - Prof Cheng Xiaohe

After the epidemic broke out, the Chinese authorities clarified many rumours, but the theory that the virus was released by US soldiers at the Military World Games in Wuhan last year continues to circulate on China’s social media. Some analyses hold that with the swelling in China’s ground sentiment, establishing external targets will shift the focus and allow people to vent their frustrations about the epidemic.

Prof Cheng is of the opinion that while Chinese authorities do not want public opinions to be too negative, US's overreaction in handling the epidemic has roused China's displeasure and hence criticisms.   

He said, “China has put in a lot of manpower and materials into fighting the epidemic. It has implemented a lockdown, stopped the flow of people, and halted production, all in the hope of quickly eliminating the epidemic. But the US's response has been to create international panic.”

WHO
The WHO declared an international emergency over Covid-19, 30 January 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

Despite the WHO's declaration that the epidemic is a public health emergency of international concern, China continues to emphasise that the WHO does not approve of, and even objects to, travel and trade restrictions on China.

Prof Zhu points out that China’s knowledge and understanding of the epidemic has gone through several phases. At first, it hoped that the epidemic would not affect economic and social exchanges, but as the situation evolved, China has realised that it is not realistic to separate the epidemic from those aspects. He feels that China should also respect and understand the fear and concern of the international community about Covid-19.

... the US is mobilising resources around the world to help other nations fight the disease, which is 'American altruism at its finest' - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Health Alex Azar

US$100 million: A showcase of US’s leadership

After US President Donald Trump spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on 7 February, the US announced that it will pump in US$100 million (S$139 million) to help China and other countries fight the epidemic, and send 17.8 tonnes of medical supplies to China, slightly easing the friction between both countries. However, the competition for leadership in the fight against the epidemic is just beginning.

When announcing the US$100 million aid, Pompeo stressed, “This commitment — along with the hundreds of millions generously donated by the American private sector — demonstrates strong US leadership in response to the outbreak.” The WeChat account of the US embassy in China yesterday also posted the latest comments from Pompeo and US Secretary of Health Alex Azar saying that the US is mobilising resources around the world to help other nations fight the disease, which is “American altruism at its finest”.

mike pompeo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced US aid to China. (Leah Millis/REUTERS)

Prof Cheng feels that the US is seizing the opportunity to claim leadership in the fight against the epidemic, but China clearly does not like it, because “the main battleground is in China, and China is also the one bearing the consequences and paying the price”.

He said that although the epidemic calls for cooperation between China and the US, the second-guessing between them makes such cooperation difficult. “This epidemic would have been a chance for China and the US to strengthen cooperation, but looking at things now, both sides are not taking this opportunity to improve relations. On the contrary, there is now a further split.”