Shift in mindset needed so US can work with China to tackle coronavirus pandemic and other global issues

Instead of containment and conflict, the US and China need to engage constructively, accept intractable differences, and move towards co-leadership on global issues from climate and hunger to nuclear proliferation.

We have reached a critical inflection point in our relationship with China, made all the more urgent due to Covid-19. The virus and resulting pandemic are an unfolding story, yet several lessons have emerged. The first is that most countries – including the United States – were simply unprepared, even as the viral threat became well known.

We also know there is much to learn from countries that have responded relatively well to the pandemic: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and, yes, China. They have experienced relatively modest health and economic effects so far, thanks to some combination of extensive testing, monitoring, social distancing and quarantining.

Imagine how the world would celebrate if the US and China were to announce a coordinated and continuing leadership through a fully funded and staffed World Health Organisation. The WHO could then disseminate its research on the make-up and spread of the virus, profile of the most vulnerable, most effective mitigation techniques, medical supplies, hospital facilities and staff required, and work necessary to rapidly develop and distribute a vaccine.

Stockpiles could quickly be built up and accessed via global supply chains. If that model were in place when Covid-19 hit, the human and economic losses are likely to have been a fraction of what they will be.
Instead of working with China, we find ourselves doing the opposite, like many in the US, blaming the pandemic squarely on the Chinese. How did we arrive at this historic low point?

For decades after the US and China normalised relations in 1979, the US assumed a wealthier China would shift towards liberal democracy as Chinese people demanded greater freedoms and the right to select their leaders.

Over the past decade, the US has come to understand that its assumption was wrong and that China threatened its role as the undisputed global leader, economically. China began to be perceived as a strategic threat instead.

This led to a new US strategy of containment. Economically, we took initiatives to substantially increase intellectual property protection, reduce the trade deficit with China and repatriate manufacturing jobs. We also launched a trade war. We cut China’s access to some advanced technologies and challenged it in the South China Sea. We accused visiting Chinese students and scientists of spying, and tightened up on their visas. We attacked the Belt and Road Initiative as a debt trap designed to force China’s will and governance model on developing countries. We urged other countries to ban the use of 5G leader Huawei, on the theory that Beijing would access transmissions to spy.

Yet containment has accomplished little other than to increase tensions (with the exception of the long overdue intellectual property protection). In many cases, they had the opposite effect.

China’s economy, though slowed by the trade war, continues to grow significantly faster than America’s, fuelled by urbanisation, a rapidly growing middle class and a rising services industry.

The Belt and Road Initiative is generating substantial goodwill and economic opportunities, with China’s trade with Africa now nearly four times larger than the US’. China is positioned to succeed, given its advances in renewable energy, high-speed rail, 5G, advanced computing and artificial intelligence.

Every year, it adds a population of graduating scientists, technology specialists, engineers and mathematicians several times larger than the comparable US graduate pool. In nearly every way, containment has failed.
What we need is a return to constructive engagement that would lead to collective global leadership. For this, the US needs another fundamental mindset shift. There needs to be acceptance on both sides – particularly the US – that each country’s model is rooted in its unique history and culture.
The US model emerged from early settlers’ experience in Europe. Having escaped monarchies, a class-driven economic system and limited freedoms, the founding fathers designed a minimalist democratic government with maximum freedoms. The idea was to have America shaped and driven by its free enterprise economy, not the government.

China’s model was shaped by Confucian values with a focus on family and society. Its history of constant threats of invasions from the north, floods, famines and other disasters also led, almost inevitably, to an all-powerful central government. Implicit in the model is that, like dynasties, governments would endure as long as they had people’s support.

Unlike the US, where citizens expect some sense of control while selecting leaders through elections, China selects its leaders through merit, ongoing performance reviews and examinations. China has no popular election above local-government level but popular support for the government is among the highest globally, according to Pew Foundation research.
For thousands of years, China focused inward – in contrast to an interventionist US spreading democracy and protecting human rights. China still has among the most peaceful records of any major country in terms of involvement in foreign wars.

It is active globally to improve its economy for the ultimate benefit of its people. Despite assertions by China hawks, China has proven it has no interest in exporting its governance model.

Such is the unchangeable nature at the core of the US and Chinese models. If the two powers can accept what cannot be changed – and cannot be expected to change – the doors would begin to open for cooperation, which we need desperately.

Dealing with the pandemic jointly would be a great start. Many other global issues stand to benefit enormously, such as climate change, clean air and water, hunger, refugee crises and nuclear proliferation. China would welcome this development.

Whether the US is ready to accept China as it is, refocus its energy and resources on core domestic issues, and co-lead on global issues, remains a question. Far easier to ask if the world would celebrate such a partnership. It would.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the South China Morning Post.


  1. Connie Kain on May 8, 2020 at 4:16 pm


    I think you should send this article and your book to Biden to consider you for Chinese ambassador. Get an early start before someone undeserving gets the post.

  2. Marc Swaels on May 8, 2020 at 4:23 pm

    Yes, the recommended approach makes full sense from a rational standpoint.
    Unfortunately , as often stated, culture matters immensely.
    The US culture has been hugely successful for many decades and triggered a dogmatic belief of ” being unquestionably right “…forever. Whether you call it the US DNA or worse a religious-like conviction does not make much difference ….it just tells us that changing such a strong collective attitude reflected in the ways a large number of people think ( or don’t ) and react will take time beyond imagination.
    Change is NOT in the air in the US. Trump era is not an accident. It is the reflection of what deep America basically is and wants to remain. People do not vote with their brains…but with their emotions….deeply rooted in the PAST history of good old America rather than in a worldwide interdependent forward thinking vision….less predictable, hence requesting the willingness to cope with THE DIFFERENT ….viewed by a large portion of “good old US centric citizens” as necessarily threatening and thus to be avoided by all means.
    Since I am an optimist…. I wish to be wrong and still be alive to celebrate the kind of cooperation between China and the US you are promoting .
    Go for an ambassador’s role !!!!!

    • Charles Lagrange on May 9, 2020 at 10:09 am

      China is deeply concerned about the unpredictability of Donald Trump. It is true that President Xi Jinping has been “closing the door” of China for the last 2 years, but this unpredictability is just helping him to add another (bad) reason to intensify the lockdown. One could think that Donald Trump has used such unpredictability to negotiate a better deal during late last year confrontation, and if he has done it purposely, it certainly was a good negotiation strategy. But today, time has come to improve mutual understanding between the two giants and one could dream of a World where Donald Trump would establish a clear strategy vis-a-vis China……. and stick to it. What a beautiful World would that be!
      Dear Peter: thanks for your efforts to wake up the conscience of your compatriots.

  3. Philip Connelly on May 11, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    Peter, You have “nailed it” once again for those of us who are willing to accept the facts and the recent history between the USA and China. Unfortuntely, too many Americans have accepted the falsehood that China “stole ” their jobs and not the reality that American companies put profits and the welfare of shareholders over the welfare of the American worker. I don’t believe that these people will ever accept the reality especially with all the political leaders of both parties fanning the flames of the fires of prejudice. However, we must persevere in setting the record straight as best we can, Stay well, stay safe. Phil Connelly