May 1, 2020
IntelBrief: The Future of the U.S.-China Relationship in a Post-COVID World
Through a series of unforced errors and myopic policy choices, the United States is abdicating its position as a global leader, leaving a vacuum that China and other powers vying for hegemony are eagerly filling. The most devastating aspect of American decline is that Washington’s sullied image largely results from a series of self-inflicted wounds. The list is long, but a few notable examples include withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and leaving the 11 signatory countries to deal with China on a bilateral basis instead (Beijing’s preference); backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement and demonstrating to the world that the United States is unconcerned with climate change; and more recently, revoking funding from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the midst of a global pandemic. As the United States continues to cede openings to its adversaries—China, Russia, and others—these near-peer competitors are seizing the opportunities to slowly nudge Washington from the perch of primacy.
The reality is, the United States has been declining as a global power for some time now. The COVID-19 pandemic has merely exposed this hard truth. By forfeiting leadership on the most pressing challenges of our time, from mitigating climate change to championing human rights, the United States has allowed an authoritarian country, China, to dominate the narrative of the coronavirus response. Beijing has sought to gain access and influence through the provision of generous aid packages and foreign assistance. Through its economic success and aggressive international outreach, China is continuously challenging the Western narrative that democracies are more stable than other forms of government. Even as the testing kits, ventilators, and personal protective equipment delivered by China have been faulty or ineffective, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda efforts have sought to highlight China’s benevolence, especially as juxtaposed to Washington’s inability to streamline an adequate response.
When the first wave of the pandemic finally begins to ebb, leaders in Beijing and Washington will need to take stock of the current and future status of Sino-American relations. Tensions continue to simmer, and Chinese state media has continued with an aggressive propaganda campaign blaming the United States for the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, American lawmakers have pointed the finger at China, and called for a wholesale reevaluation of the relationship. Just recently, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), suggested that the United States should consider preventing Chinese students studying at American universities from pursuing research in fields including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and other technical subjects like machine learning, robotics, and automation.
But neither Washington nor Beijing have responded effectively to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, whether fair or not, most countries expected the United States to meet the challenge, not only by caring for its own citizens, which it has been unable to do, but also in galvanizing a global response that brought responsible stakeholders together. Instead, the United States' domestic response has been utterly inept, while its international outreach has been practically non-existent. Under the Trump administration, the United States has underinvested in diplomacy and the consequences are now painfully visible, with Washington accepting humanitarian aid from the United Nations, Taiwan, and even Russia. Still, an objective assessment might conclude that while both China and the United States failed in their respective responses to the coronavirus, Washington’s failure had more to do with the decisions of the current administration than the system of government itself. For China, the system of government was a primary factor in why the pandemic reached such catastrophic levels to begin with. With a renewed focus on soft power, diplomacy, and support to multilateral institutions, the United States has the potential to rebound from this catastrophe and restore itself to a position of global leadership. This will take time, and it is far from inevitable, but throughout history the United States has repeatedly demonstrated its resiliency. The post-COVID world will offer the United States both a litany of new challenges, but also opportunities to reshape (or potentially restore) the world order if its leaders are willing to recommit to its fundamental values of transparency, human rights, and respect for alliances and institutions.
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