China and America are failing the pandemic test

Covid-19 is confronting humanity with its most severe test since 1918, when an influenza pandemic killed more people than died in World War I. Yet the leaders of the world’s two largest economies, China and the United States, have failed the first round.

The initial reaction of both Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump was denial. Crucial time for testing and containment was wasted, and opportunities for international cooperation were squandered.

After costly national lockdowns, the two leaders engaged in propaganda battles with each other. China’s foreign ministry blamed the US military for the emergence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, and Trump called it the ‘Chinese virus’. Yet Covid-19 doesn’t care about the nationality of the humans it kills, and no global response will succeed without some degree of cooperation between the US and China.

Bilateral relations were already deteriorating rapidly when the virus hit. Trump’s 2017 national security strategy focused on great-power competition with China. Many Americans of both major political parties agree that Trump was correct to punish China for cybertheft of intellectual property, coerced intellectual property transfer, and unfair trade practices such as subsidised credit to state-owned enterprises.

Reciprocity does need to be enforced. If China can ban Google and Facebook from its market for security reasons, the US can take similar steps against Huawei and ZTE. Anger and mistrust fester in both countries’ capitals.

But what the Covid-19 crisis teaches us is that this competitive approach to national security is inadequate. And Covid-19 isn’t the only example. The information revolution and globalisation are changing world politics dramatically.

While trade wars have set back economic globalisation, environmental globalisation, reflected in pandemics and climate change, obeys the laws of biology and physics, not politics. In a world where borders are becoming more porous to everything from drugs and illicit financial flows to infectious diseases and cyber terrorism, countries must use their soft power of attraction to develop networks and institutions that address the new threats.

As technology expert Richard Danzig points out, ‘Pathogens, AI systems, computer viruses, and radiation that others may accidentally release could become as much our problem as theirs. Agreed reporting systems, shared controls, common contingency plans, norms, and treaties must be pursued as means of moderating our numerous mutual risks.’ Tariffs and border walls cannot solve these problems.

On transnational issues like Covid-19 and climate change, power becomes a positive-sum game. It is not enough to think of power over others; one must also consider power with others. On many transnational issues, empowering others helps a country accomplish its own goals. For example, all can benefit if others improve their energy efficiency or their public health systems.

All leaders have a responsibility to put their country’s interests first, but the important moral question is how broadly or narrowly they choose to define those interests. Both China and the US are responding to Covid-19 with an inclination towards short-term, zero-sum, competitive approaches, and too little attention to international institutions and cooperation. As I show in my new book, Do morals matter?, Trump has interpreted ‘America first’ too narrowly, stepping back from the long-term, enlightened self-interest that marked the post-1945 US approach designed by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

Cooperation is, however, possible between geopolitical and ideological rivals. For example, during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union both supported a United Nations program that eradicated smallpox. After the 2002–03 SARS epidemic, the US and China established a web of cooperative relations between national health authorities, and they worked together to combat the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Attacks by new viruses can come in waves, and the second wave of the flu pandemic a century ago was more lethal than the first. There is much we don’t know about the new coronavirus. There could be seasonal surges between the northern and southern hemispheres. When the global north has a respite, the virus (or a mutation) may move south, and then spread northward again with the change in weather. In any case, we must be prepared for a multiyear battle, which will require sharing information, developing and producing therapies and vaccines, and manufacturing and distributing medical supplies and equipment.

The current Covid-19 crisis will continue to test US and Chinese leaders. To ensure they pass it, both sides should de-escalate the propaganda wars that sow mistrust and inhibit cooperation, and articulate the importance of ‘power with’ rather than ‘over’ others. They should plan for future waves of the virus and establish bilateral and multilateral frameworks to enhance collaboration. And they should recognise that helping developing countries cope with Covid-19 is in everyone’s interest, because viral reservoirs anywhere will place people in jeopardy everywhere.

For both self-interested and humanitarian reasons, the US and China should announce generous contributions to a major new UN coronavirus fund that is open to all countries. And they should jointly lead the G20 in funding it.

Lastly, given how much humans still must learn from each other about this new virus, the US and China should restore the rich web of contacts among scientists and medical professionals that existed a decade ago. It would also be wise to form a binational high-level commission on Covid-19, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, to provide political cover and cut through bureaucratic red tape.

Chinese and American leaders botched the first round of their Covid-19 examination. But it’s not too late for them to learn how to do better.