As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect nations around the globe it provides us all with a disconcerting reminder of just how interconnected, yet separate, our world is. It’s opened up doors for some of the darker sides of humanity to rear an ugly head, such as the increase in xenophobic sentiment and subsequent anti-Asian words and actions seen in the U.S. and elsewhere, and while tribalistic behavior is in our nature when survival comes into question, the threat of the virus has conversely shown us that good can happen when nations, and people, come together for the greater good.
“This is a global pandemic. Our ultimate success in containing the spread of COVID-19 is to a large extent dependent upon how effective other countries are dealing with the outbreak,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We cannot claim victory unless other countries are virus-free.”
Yet, it’s also a time when the world’s two biggest economies seem unable to set aside their differences and work together. Relations between the U.S. and China have instead breached what is perhaps their lowest point since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Amid the crisis, the two countries have continued to engage in finger pointing and tit-for-tat struggles.
Murky water between the U.S. and China
Relations between the two nations had been sharply deteriorating long before the discovery of a deadly virus that would later be identified as COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, in late December, whether over long-standing points of contention such as Taiwan and the South China Sea or disagreements regarding human rights, cybertheft and the future of Hong Kong. Quickly disproved rumors regarding the origins of the virus began volleying between the two nations as tensions surrounding the pandemic began to mount, with leaders on both sides throwing blame at the other.
President Trump, for instance, took to calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” during press briefings in March — a term that many have been quick to condemn as racist and xenophobic.
“I have to call it where it came from; it did come from China,” Trump said when asked about his use of the label. “So I think it’s a very accurate term.”
While the inflammatory rhetoric has begun to die down, many are now urging both countries to use this time as an opening to reverse course, and fast — to come together to develop vaccines, proliferate life-saving medical equipment and keep open vital global supply chains.
This wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. government has conquered a vicious health threat amid competition on the world stage either, considering that the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated to eradicate smallpox, one of the great killers of the 20th century, despite being in the middle of waging a Cold War.
Coming together for the greater good
As pointed out by Foreign Policy, this is a contest with no winners, and the coronavirus as well as a looming global recession will not be stopped by paying any more mind to the blame game.
“We never want any escalation of tension between China and the U.S.,” said China’s own veteran ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, via Twitter. “Let's focus on positive things and on our common interests & mutual needs. Let's work together to respond to the global crisis, to save people's lives, to save the future of global economy and the global community.”
Tianakai has repeatedly acknowledged that the relationship desperately needs de-escalation, not denunciation in order to stave off global economic collapse and help fast-track lifesaving medical research.
Many high-level former government officials and experts on the U.S.-China relationship agree. Together, more than 90 such officials released a joint statement last week, organized by the UC San Diego 21st Century China Center and the Center on U.S.-China Relations of the Asia Society, urging cooperation between the U.S. and China to combat the pandemic. The statement, signed by UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla, among others, underscores how a massive international effort is required to develop and distribute tests, treatments and vaccines for the world’s seven billion people.
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"If the U.S. and China can show the world that they can put aside their secondary disputes and actively coordinate their response to the pandemic, they will be able to mobilize a global containment and eradication strategy,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. "Our government authorities can work together and provide hope to everyone that we will eventually eliminate this disease.”
“China has a huge surplus of supplies because they really ramped up during the height of their epidemic and now both the U.S. and China are making it difficult for that equipment to be shipped to New York City and other places where there's a dire need for it,” Shirk added.
Private organizations such as Committee of 100, or C100, have also expressed their hope for unity between the two countries. Members of the group of prominent Chinese-Americans working in business, the arts and academics have been able to leverage resources and relationships in China to connect providers of medical supplies and personal protective equipment to U.S. hospitals and states most in need, despite feeling heightened effects of discrimination for their Asian heritage during this troubling time.
The group says that we are living in a once-in-a-lifetime crisis that calls for cooperation and collaboration, not finger pointing and recriminations. “As we continue to be vigilant in preventing the spread of racism, to slow the spread of the virus and ultimately find a cure and vaccines, we must bring everything—and everyone—to the table, and not fuel anxieties and fears. Now is the time that we should all unite in a common goal of finding solutions to the shared challenges we face,” says President of the C100 Zheng Yu Huang.
“COVID-19 has shown how inextricably connected and undeniably interdependent we all are, no matter how much we may believe walls and borders may protect us. The United States and China must answer the call of leadership and work together to address this unprecedented challenge.”
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