What the World Could Use Now: a Reset Between the U.S. and China

The U.S. has reached a critical inflection point in its relationship with China, made all the more urgent because of COVID-19. 

The coronavirus disease and its resulting pandemic is an unfolding story, presenting new challenges each day, yet several lessons have emerged from it already. 

The first of these is that the vast majority of countries — the U.S. among them — were simply unprepared for the virus, even as the threat of it came to be well-known. We also know that there is much we can still learn from countries that have responded relatively well to the pandemic: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and, yes, China. 

Those nations have all experienced relatively modest health and economic impacts so far, thanks to some combination of extensive testing, monitoring, social distancing and quarantining.

Imagine how the world would celebrate if the U.S. and China — the two great economic powers — were to announce a coordinated and continuing leadership effort through a fully funded and staffed World Health Organization. (The U.S. State Department on July 6 notified the WHO it will withdraw from the agency over President Trump’s criticism of its ties to China.)

The WHO could then share and disseminate all of its research on the makeup of the virus, how it spreads, the profile of the most vulnerable, the most effective mitigation techniques, the medical supplies required, the hospital facilities and staff required, and the vital 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 the coronavirus hit, the human and economic losses would have likely been a fraction of what they now will be.

Instead of working with China, the U.S. finds itself doing the opposite, as many in the U.S. — from the president on down — have instead chosen to place the blame for the pandemic squarely on the Chinese. 

How did we get here?

How did the two superpowers arrive at this historic low point? For decades after the U.S. and China normalized relations in 1979, the U.S. assumed that after China became wealthier, the nation would shift its model away from communism and toward a liberal democracy. The theory called for the Chinese people to demand the shift to greater personal freedoms and the right to select their leaders. 

From the MarketWatch archives (April 28, 2020):U.S.-China relations are bad and getting worse, with major ramifications for trade and investment — and the U.S.’s presidential election

Over the past decade, the U.S. has come to understand that not only was its assumption wrong, but that China threatened the U.S. in its role of undisputed global leader economically. China began to be perceived as something other than a partner to nudge toward an ever more democratic future. It became, instead, a strategic threat.

This mindset shift led to a new U.S. strategy. Rather than partnership, it would attempt to contain China on multiple fronts.

Economically, the U.S. undertook a range of initiatives to substantially increase the protection of intellectual property. To reduce the trade deficit with China and repatriate manufacturing jobs, the U.S. launched a trade war. Militarily, the U.S. cut China’s access to some advanced technologies and challenged it in the South China Sea. Domestically, the U.S. accused visiting Chinese students and scientists of spying, and tightened up on their visas. The U.S. attacked China’s Belt Road Initiative as a debt trap designed to force China’s will — and ultimately its governance model — on developing countries. The U.S. urged other countries to ban the use of technology from Huawei, the global leader in 5G telecommunications equipment, on the theory that the Chinese government would access the transmissions to spy.

Those containment efforts have accomplished little other than to increase tensions (with the exception of protecting U.S. intellectual property, which was long overdue). In many cases, they have had the opposite effect. 

China’s economy, though slowed somewhat by the trade war, continues to grow significantly faster than the U.S.’s, fueled as it is by urbanization, a rapidly growing middle class and a rising services sector. 

Containment has failed

The Belt Road Initiative is generating substantial good will and economic opportunities, as China’s trade with Africa is now about $500 billion annually, versus $5 billion for the U.S. China remains well-positioned to succeed in the 21st century given its scientific advances in renewable energy, high-speed rail, telecoms with 5G, advanced computing and artificial intelligence. It also boasts an ever-growing population of graduating scientists, technology specialists, engineers and mathematicians that in raw numbers is many times a multiple of comparable graduates in the U.S.

In nearly every way, containment has been a failure. What we need is a return to a position of constructive engagement, and a partnership that would lead to collective global leadership. To get there, the U.S. needs another fundamental mindset shift.

The first stages of this shift require acceptance on both sides — but particularly in the U.S. It must understand that each country will always have different models, each rooted in its own unique history and culture. The U.S. emerged naturally from the early settlers’ experience in Europe. Having escaped monarchies, a class-driven economic system and limited personal freedoms, the Founding Fathers designed a minimalist democratic government with maximum personal freedoms. 

The core 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 the family and society, not individuals.

The history of China also contains a constant threat of invasions from the north, frequent floods, famines and other disasters that led almost inevitably to an all-powerful central government with a nearly unlimited scope. Implicit in the model is the sense that, like dynasties, governments would endure as long as they had the support of the people.

China’s international role

Unlike the U.S., where citizens expect some sense of control while selecting leaders through elections, China has selected its leaders meritocratically, through ongoing performance reviews and examinations. Although China does not have popular elections above the local government level, the support level of Chinese people for the government is among the highest globally, according to research done by the Pew Foundation. 

For thousands of years, China has focused inward — a stark contrast to the U.S.’s interventionist role to spread democracy and protect human rights. China still has among the most peaceful records among major countries in terms of involvement in foreign wars. And it is active globally to improve its economics for the ultimate benefit of its people. 

Despite assertions to the contrary by China hawks, China has, in words and actions, proven it has no interest in exporting its governance model to other nations.

Such is the unchangeable nature at the core of both the U.S.’s and China’s models. If the two powers could only accept what cannot be changed — and what they cannot expect to change about each other — the doors would begin to open for cooperation. We need this desperately, for who better to begin to solve global issues? 

Dealing with the threat of our current pandemic jointly would be a great start. There are so many other global issues that stand to benefit enormously from this cooperative model, too, such as climate change, clean air and water, world hunger, the refugee crises, and nuclear proliferation.

China would welcome this development. Whether the U.S. is ready to accept China as it is, refocus its energy and resources on its core domestic issues, and co-lead with China to solve these global problems remains an unanswered question. The far easier question to answer is whether or not the world would celebrate such a partnership. It would.

This article first appeared in MarketWatch.