The author is the author of “China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay”
Science fiction writers have fantasized about how the world’s rival powers would react if the Earth were invaded by aliens. Would they unite to fight a common enemy? Or continue the duel while the alien invader has destroyed humanity?
The coronavirus is not from another planet. But this crisis is closest to the scenario imagined by science fiction writers. Tragically, those who expect the great powers of the world to cooperate in the struggle are mistaken. The United States and China seem more determined to undermine each other than to work together. Since the outbreak of the virus in China, they have waged an escalation of the war of words and the diplomatic tit-to-state.
Washington has rightly attacked China for concealing the gravity of the initial epidemic. Beijing has taken umbrage at comments made by top US officials “Chinese virus”. Relationships, already on the brink of survival, are now on the brink of total collapse – just when the world most needs their cooperation and leadership. But there is still time for Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump to temporarily stop the decline in bilateral relations – out of self-interest, if nothing else.
Xi said even a brief respite could strengthen his damaged authority at home. His government mismanaged the initial outbreak. The success containing Covid-19 was then obtained at enormous cost. The revival of the economy depends on China’s main trading partners, including the United States, which has mastered the virus.
Even more urgently, Mr. Trump needs a quick victory in the war against the coronavirus. A protracted crisis and a severe economic crisis could jeopardize his re-election in November.
In addition to these political demands, the benefits of cooperation far outweigh the modest costs of the measures they could take to end the escalation of their conflict.
The simplest thing the two can do is to abstain for six months from taking any diplomatic action that could be interpreted as hostile. Each party should also offer symbolic gestures of goodwill to signal a desire to de-escalate. Beijing must reconsider its decision to expel journalists working for the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal or, at the very least, communicate to Washington privately that new press powers will be delivered to them quickly. As for the United States, to stop designating the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” would be a positive sign.
A more practical step is cooperation in the fight against Covid-19. Thanks to its ability to increase production of essential medical supplies, China can rapidly increase production. As a sign of goodwill, Mr. Xi should personally offer Mr. Trump millions of masks, test kits and protective gowns. In addition, China should share with the United States and all other countries the lessons and data it has acquired to contain the virus and treat its victims. This would help win the war against coronaviruses quickly and more effectively, globally. Washington and Beijing should also pool their resources and scientific talent in a joint program to find a vaccine and make it available to the world for free.
On the economic front, an interested collaboration will help calm the markets and limit damage. For example, a joint agreement to suspend all tariffs collected during the trade war for six months would boost investor confidence. More importantly, a six-month foreign exchange swap agreement between the US Federal Reserve and the People’s Bank of China could reduce the risks of a nightmare scenario. To meet the growing demand for dollars to meet the dollar-denominated obligations of its banks, Beijing may have to sell a large part of its holdings of the US Treasury. This action would further upset the financial markets.
This modest proposal, even if adopted, is unlikely to change the course of their geopolitical rivalry. But by cooperating to fight a common enemy, they can at least reassure the world that the quarrel can be waged rationally, without endangering all of humanity.