Charting a Dark Course: U.S.-China Relations in the Age of the Pandemic

Amid any chaos or turmoil, nobody quite knows what will come out of the ashes. The same can be said about the pandemic that has descended on the world. It has put even the most basic aspects of everyday life in an uncertain direction. Enmeshed in this uncertainty is the relationship between the United States and China. Already in peril before COVID struck, pundits and analysts are now trying to gauge how far U.S.-China relations have degraded and to what shape they may take coming out of the pandemic.

As of now, harsh rhetoric and blame have become ubiquitous in both countries. Chinese officials have spread conspiracy theories that claim the virus may have ties to the United States military, declared victory in defeating the outbreak, and propounded that their authoritarian, resource-mobilizing political system has demonstrated its superiority over the more decentralized, democratic system of the United States. In the United States, hardline voices have explored whether the virus escaped from a Wuhan bio lab and if cover-ups in the Chinese government compounded the spread. U.S. Senator Tom Cotton has even pedaled the notion that China’s leadership may have wanted the virus to spread beyond China’s borders because “They did not want to see their relative power and standing in the world decline because the virus was contained” in their own country

Whether genuine or politically expedient, criticisms being launched by both sides are fermenting public resentment and are bringing each country to the forefront of discussion as ordinary people’s lives are upended by the economic fallout of shutdowns. According to Pew Research, two-thirds of Americans now have an unfavorable view of China. Negative views are up 20 percent since Donald Trump took office in 2017 and remain at their lowest point in the 15-year history of the poll. Chinese public sentiment of the United States is also falling rapidly. Though difficult to truly gauge public opinion within China, David Wertime of Politico has noted that anti-American attitudes are increasingly being held by “educated, internationalized Chinese observers – the very group once inclined to look to America as an exemplar.”

Public sentiment of both will likely continue to deteriorate coming out of the pandemic. Calls for answers and determining who bears responsibility for the spread of the virus will grow, especially in the United States. The Chinese government, presiding over a weakened economy, may seek to distract the public by evoking nationalism and stoking anti-U.S. sentiment. Reuters reported on May 4th that an internal Chinese report being circulated among party leadership warned that Beijing faces “Tiananmen-like” global backlash over the virus, even indicating that the hostility coming out of the pandemic could “tip relations with the United States into confrontation.”

With this in context, it is important to illustrate the environment that will likely exist coming out of the pandemic. 

For one, U.S-China relations were already in peril before the pandemic struck. Antagonism was high and prospects for repair low. Tensions in potential geopolitical flashpoints, such as the South China Sea, were increasing while a battering trade war between the two was far from being resolved. As stated previously, U.S. perceptions of China had already been at 15-year lows. 

Second, there currently exists little public appetite for compromise. If anything, the public in both countries appear to be receptive of the rhetoric coming from hawkish figures in both governments, indicating that these hardliners have gained the upper hand in policy discourse. Compounding this is the fact that diplomacy is at an all-time low. Stoking intense levels of nationalism and resentment boxes in decision makers and diminishes the impact diplomats can have in easing tensions as they flare up. This creates an unstable environment because the prospect for confrontation increases while the ability to diplomatically maneuver out of a crisis decreases. 

Last, the United States is in an election year. As taking a hardline against China becomes more attractive in the United States, candidates may attempt to capitalize off of this by advancing harsh rhetoric, putting forward aggressive policy platforms, and casting themselves as leaders unwilling to be “soft on China.” The Trump campaign has already begun putting forward campaign ads portraying 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden as someone who is not hard enough on China. Joe Biden’s campaign has also launched ads accusing President Trump of being too soft on China in his response to the Coronavirus pandemic.  

These international realities, along with the current domestic political landscape in both countries, indicates that U.S.-China relations are on a fast track to unstable territories as the world slowly comes out of the pandemic. It will be increasingly difficult for both sides to tread the line between cooperation and confrontation. A century marked by strategic rivalry is virtually inevitable at this point, but war is not. Just as in any high-stakes environment or moment, the United States must restore and utilize its tool of first resort: diplomacy. Leaders should not allow rhetoric, culpability, and political expediency to chart the relationship on a dark course where nobody truly wants to go.

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