David J. Firestein Photo: Courtesy of David J. Firestein
As the COVID-19 pandemic, a black swan event that is exerting devastating effects on people’s health, social order, economy and even state-to-state relations, continue to rage on, voices calling for China-US cooperation are rising worldwide. How will the pandemic reshape China-US relations? Can China and the US stop the blame game and join hands in tackling the common threat? David Firestein (Firestein), president and CEO of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations shared his insights with Global Times (GT) reporter Yu Jincui.
GT: The US has, by far, the most confirmed cases of coronavirus in the world. It seems the focus of US politicians remains to blame China and the WHO for the current grave situation. Will this continue in the future?
Firestein: As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in the US has grown, a growing number of US political figures and journalists have sought to place the blame for the pandemic squarely on the shoulders of China and, more specifically, the Communist Party of China. In both the political world and the press and social media, pronouncements of China’s presumed “guilt” with respect to COVID-19 are now a daily, almost hourly, affair. Both Republicans and Democrats – and conservatives and liberals more generally – are now framing the matter this way, with Republicans generally considerably more negative on China than Democrats. The sheer volume of negative commentary regarding China in the US at this time is arguably unprecedented – perhaps even surpassing the post-1989 period, when the last paradigm shift (and enduring negative shift) in US views toward China occurred.
US public opinion regarding China has moved into territory not seen in over 30 years, with about two-thirds of Americans now stating that they view China negatively, which suggests that the message that China is largely or principally to blame for the current pandemic is, indeed, having an impact on how average Americans see China.
With respect to why this is so, I think the key differentiating factor – what makes the COVID-19 pandemic different from the events of 1989 or the more recent US-China trade frictions, for example – is that, in this case, there is a growing perception, fueled by the relentless “blame China” messaging noted above, that Chinese actions (or inactions) actually hurt the US in a direct and major way and even resulted in American loss of life. Given its evident effectiveness in terms of shifting American public opinion – and taking the heat off of US political leaders of both parties and in both the executive and legislative branches of the government – I think the current negativity we see toward China and the “blame China” messaging we now see proliferating across the US will continue indefinitely and certainly through the general election in early November.
In fairness to US authorities, there is a lot of emphasis on how to contain the virus and protect the American people. It’s just that, in the view of many observers in this country, this sharp and aggressive focus on the part of the US government on combating the virus and protecting American lives was too slow to materialize. It’s not that US political leaders aren’t talking about how to cope with COVID-19; it’s just easier for them, against the backdrop of steadily rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, to rationalize why they initially failed than to make the case that they’ve succeeded. For many US politicians, China is the easy, convenient and expedient scapegoat. Presumably, a comparable mindset is why at least one Chinese official, as well as some other voices in the Chinese social media, have similarly sought to lay the blame for the pandemic on the United States. The blame game is being played on both sides.
GT: Missouri became the first US state to file a lawsuit against China for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, demanding that China compensate for the losses caused by the coronavirus. It seems a "hold China accountable" campaign is underway in the US. In your opinion, what's the motivation behind the blame game?
Firestein: This “sue China” campaign we now see emerging in the US is good political theater but bad and ineffectual policy. If a US state can sue China for something like this, then what would prevent a Chinese entity from suing the US for, say, bombing China’s Belgrade embassy in 1999 or sparking the global financial crisis of 2007-08, among other instances in which US actions generated negative consequences for people outside the borders of the United States?
The slope gets very slippery; the “Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act” – the 1976 US law which holds foreign governments immune from being sued in US courts – exists for good reason. (For that matter, how many of those who are calling for “reparations” from China for what they regard as China’s role in the emergence of this pandemic take the same principled stand when it comes to, say, reparations for slavery in the US? Not many, I think.) One increasingly hears references made by US politicians to the idea of “holding China accountable”; interestingly, the references are often made these days as part of campaign fundraising appeals: “Donate to my campaign so I can hold China accountable!” That fact, I think, speaks pretty clearly to the motivation behind this type of framing.
In my view, all of us – Americans and Chinese alike – need to focus at this moment less on assigning blame and more on solving problems. People are dying and economies are reeling. That’s what we need to focus on right now. The sooner we do so, the better off all of us are going to be. There will be plenty of time to assign blame after the pandemic is brought under control.
GT: There are voices both from China and the US calling for cooperation between the world’s two biggest economies to cope with the COVID-19 challenge. How do you see the possibility of bilateral cooperation? What should the two countries do to overcome conflicts to join hands?
Firestein: There are still voices in both the US and China – including our Foundation’s – calling for US-China collaboration on COVID-19 and a host of other global and international challenges. My colleagues and I at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations continue to believe that no major global challenge can be solved in the absence of robust cooperation between the US and China. That is certainly true with respect to COVID-19.
In my view, both China and the US made significant mistakes in the early stages of responding to the COVID-19 crisis; neither country has handled the pandemic flawlessly. Perhaps most obviously and fundamentally, neither side fully communicated to the general public the seriousness of the situation as accurately, openly or quickly as each could and should have.
Still, I am of the view that what matters most at present is not who is to blame for the current state of affairs, but rather, what we can do, together, to curb the spread of this virus and mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on the physical and economic health of the world’s population. To my mind, that is where our two countries’ focus ought to be. Chinese and American officials, doctors, think tank experts, academics and nonprofit professionals have much to share with each other – what has worked, what hasn’t worked, best practices, failures, ideas for getting the world economy going again once the pandemic is brought under control, and the list goes on. Every breath spent at this time, on either side, seeking to assign blame is a breath that could have been spent in the service of sharing a best medical practice or public policy, developing diagnostic methods and a vaccine, thinking through how to cushion the impact of the pandemic on the developing world (which still has yet to bear its full brunt), or a host of other practical issues. When a fire breaks out, the first thing one thinks about isn’t, “Who started this fire?”; it’s, “Who is still in the building and how do we get them out?” And that should be true with respect to COVID-19.
GT: Is the pandemic accelerating decoupling between China and the US? Some observers in the West think it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus pandemic started to show a rupture in Western relations with China.
Firestein: I have always viewed with some skepticism the notion that it is feasible for the US and China to “decouple” from each other, relative to the current level of bilateral engagement, to any truly significant degree. Even after a two-year “trade war,” the US and China still have one of the most robust bilateral trade relationships, by volume, in the world and in the history of the world; and the two economies remain deeply intertwined. But, for reasons I noted earlier, I think it is fair to say that the current pandemic threatens US-China ties today to a far greater extent than even the trade war or other significant bilateral frictions or crises have in recent years.
There is now a growing feeling in the US that reliance on overseas supply chains generally and China-based supply chains specifically is problematic and risky for the US; and further, that reliance on China for key pharmaceutical products and precursors (as well as other vital resources) is also imprudent. Though this thinking essentially rejects the validity of the economic construct of comparative advantage, it is on the ascendancy in this country, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues its deadly and economically devastating march.
For those in the US who regard the People’s Republic of China as America’s enemy, COVID-19 is the perfect “gift”: the opportunity to showcase how dangerous China ostensibly is relative to US interests and how harmful both engagement with, and especially dependence on China is for America. And this message has started to resonate with the general public to a degree that it wasn’t resonating before the onset of this pandemic. So, yes, the pandemic is doing what even the Trump administration’s trade war failed to do: it is, in the eyes of many, lending weight to the argument that decoupling with China is a viable, desirable and indeed necessary course of action for the US.
GT: How do you evaluate the US performance as the world’s sole superpower during the coronavirus pandemic? How will the pandemic affect US global leadership?
Firestein: In my judgment, the initial US federal response to COVID-19 has, at least to a degree, tarnished America’s image as the world’s sole superpower and undermined both American and foreign confidence in US global leadership; a considerable body of public opinion polling, including authoritative US polling, bears this out. That said, I believe it is also true that the strength of the US federal system, per se, has come shining through. Where the US federal government, particularly in its early response to the pandemic, underperformed, US states, cities and civil society picked up the slack and led the charge in many ways in responding to this crisis. In this sense, perhaps the greatest strength of the US system has been cast into relief: there are checks and hedges against federal failure, even with respect to as monumental a national challenge as this pandemic; and there are wells of talented leadership outside of Washington, DC, and outside of the federal government; and those resources can be brought to bear to steer the nation onto the right course even when the federal government itself is slow to do so. Even the bitterly partisan and polarized U.S. Congress has managed to act fairly quickly in the face of this crisis.
I certainly don’t think this pandemic will end the US’ tenure as the world’s sole superpower, nor will it elevate China to superpower status – a status China doesn’t want, in any case (at least as such status is defined by the US). I do think both countries have suffered some reputational damage globally over the last several months; but I don’t think that damage is necessarily irreversible. Desisting from hurling accusations at each other and instead working together to bring the pandemic under control as quickly as possible will go a long way toward reversing the damage that has been done.