The US and China need to relearn how to coordinate in crises

Image showing US and Chinese flags, along with a vile marked with 'COVID-19'

On December 31, 2019, the government in Wuhan, China confirmed a number of mysterious new cases of a pneumonia-like virus in the city. In the ensuing weeks, the virus spread throughout China and eventually the world. The virus, which causes the disease now known as COVID-19, has taken the lives of thousands and upended economies on every continent. The social and economic repercussions of the pandemic almost certainly will trigger a global recession, if they haven’t already.

Under normal circumstances, a crisis of such scale would thrust the United States into an international leadership role for mobilizing resources and rallying countries in a common direction. Such was the case after the devastating Southeast Asian tsunami, during the global financial crisis, amidst the outbreak of Ebola in East Africa, and on many other occasions in between.

It also had become increasingly common for Washington and Beijing to coordinate their respective responses to global crises. For example, synchronized U.S. and Chinese stimulus measures during the global financial crisis helped avert a depression. The speed and scale of the joint U.S. and Chinese responses to the Ebola outbreak in East Africa saved a great number of lives. Both countries also stepped up in their own ways to enhance U.N. peacekeeping capabilities in 2015 when the system was under mounting stress.

Chinese contributions often fell well short of American expectations and required more diplomatic effort to obtain than should have been necessary. Nevertheless, over time a pattern built up: When the world faced a crisis, the United States and China would set aside their differences and work together to fashion a coordinated response.

That is no longer the case. The spread of the coronavirus has held a mirror up to the bilateral relationship and the image that has emerged is ugly. Now, leaders in both countries are consumed by arguments over where the virus emerged and who is to blame for its spread, rather than on what must be done, collectively, to stop it.

China hawks in the United States have seized the opportunity presented by the spread of the coronavirus to tarnish the Chinese government’s image. In fairness, Chinese authorities brought much of the criticism upon themselves with their appallingly slow, non-transparent initial response, as well as their delay in responding to requests from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to send experts to Wuhan. Beijing also merits censure for obstructing Taiwan from acquiring information about the virus at the World Health Organization.

Members of Congress have asserted without evidence that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese bioweapons lab in Wuhan and then escaped. Prominent American voices have expressed hope that public dissatisfaction in China with the government’s response to COVID-19 would lead to the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party. And President Trump has begun referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” raising fears that such rhetoric will lead to a rise in xenophobia and racism. Naming, blaming, and shaming China appears to have taken precedence over pursuing joint efforts with Beijing to arrest the deadly spread of the virus.

Naming, blaming, and shaming China appears to have taken precedence over pursuing joint efforts with Beijing to arrest the deadly spread of the virus.

Not to be outdone, no less than Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian has pushed conspiracies that the virus may have been hatched by the U.S. military, a baseless claim that has been amplified in Chinese state media. This fringe conspiracy also has been echoed by Chinese ambassadors around the world. Leading Chinese commentators have advanced an argument that their governance system is better suited to cope with crises than democratic systems, in effect turning a global crisis into a source of zero-sum competition over ideological narratives. (These Chinese commentators seem to fail to appreciate that Taiwan and South Korea, two entrenched democracies, have been best-in-class in their responses, and that technocratic competence may be a better indicator than regime type of capacity for containing the spread of the virus.)

Bitterness on both sides is contributing to a downward spiral in U.S.-China relations. In such an environment, even events unrelated to the crisis at hand are being thrown into the fire and interpreted as proof of the perfidy of the other side. And in the process, a hard-fought pattern of joint U.S.-China action in confronting common global challenges has been broken.

I hold no illusions that there will be any immediate outbreak of enlightened leadership in Washington or Beijing to break the tit-for-tat cycle that has taken hold. If the United States and China had a functional relationship, it would make sense to call on both sides to pool capabilities to accelerate vaccine research and clinical trials, jointly mobilize industrial production of life-saving equipment like ventilators, and coordinate international assistance to populations most in need. Disappointingly, the best one reasonably could hope for in this current climate would be for American and Chinese leaders to focus on their own problems, rather than try to scapegoat the other.

Even so, such a low bar of expectations cannot become the new normal for the world’s two most powerful countries. As devastating as COVID-19 has been, there will be other crises that will follow. The United States and China both will suffer if they do not find a way back to a more productive relationship, one that allows for cooperation on global crises even amidst intensifying bilateral competition and rivalry.

When a new administration enters office, it will need to restore the muscle memory that had been built up in previous administrations for forging U.S.-China coordination to address and resolve crises. Although each crisis is sui generis, there are several guiding principles that can help orient efforts. These include arranging direct leader-level communication at the start of a crisis. Such communication, either by phone call or letter, should be used to signal the priority the U.S. leader places on joint U.S.-China action and to designate a U.S. official to act as the president’s coordinator for the response. In China’s top-down Leninist system, such signaling often is necessary to move Beijing’s lumbering bureaucratic gears into motion and to pin ownership on a senior Chinese official for serving as a counterpart to a U.S. representative in organizing Beijing’s response.

Leader-level communication needs to be followed rapidly by communication between the two designated senior-level coordinators and reinforced in daily communication between ambassadors in both capitals. The U.S. coordinator needs to have specific asks of concrete contributions that China reasonably could make, a plan for timing and sequencing of delivery of U.S. and Chinese contributions, and a clear awareness of how such contributions would augment broader global efforts. Once agreements are reached in principle on a coordinated approach for responding to a crisis, subject matter experts must be given authority to exercise judgment in execution of plans on the ground.

At the end of the day, U.S. leaders do not need to like or agree with their Chinese counterparts. But they do need to be able to develop a relationship with them that allows both countries to pull in the same direction at decisive moments when it serves mutual and global interests to do so. That minimum standard presently is not being met, and nobody in the United States or China is the better for it.