Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, May 28, 2020

COVID-19 and US-China Relations

                                                      Photo Credit: Fox News Online 

YS and two of his colleagues at Universitas Jendral Achmad Yani, Mariane Delanova and Rama Daru Jati, recently finished a paper on US-China relations in a post-COVID world. Below Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman discuss the main points of the paper, US-China relations more generally, and lastly the wider international political and security impact of COVID. 

BN: To start, let's get the big question out of the way. How do you and your colleagues see COVID-19 impacting US-China relations? What's your argument?

YS: In essence, it is my argument that COVID is leading to a decline in trust between the US and China. While it can be argued that ties between the US and China are deep and can withstand the breakdown due to COVID-19, I disagree. There won't be a complete breakdown, at least not yet, even with all of Trump's blustering–and both him and China know it—but in essence, we will see the beginning of a warmer Cold War. Rather than complete hostility/containment policies like the US pursued during the Cold War, it will be a limited containment, with more economic/political engagement than the US had with the USSR during the Cold War.

BN: How exactly does COVID "lead to a decline in trust between the US and China"? What are the key events, processes, etc., triggering the decline in trust?

YS: As I noted in my paper, the key is the politicization of the virus. On the one hand, we see China's victory laps in the US and Europe and its hamfisted attempt to shift the blame from its censorship and cover-ups and slowness to act initially; while in the US, both Trump and Biden are trying to show themselves as tough against China. Granted that this can be argued as just political rhetoric, but with rising distrust toward China within the US population, it will have significant effects in the aftermath of COVID.

BN: Is the virus a primary causal factor in the deteriorating relations between the US and China? Or just another major issue lumped atop of several major issues (trade, currency, BRI, South China Sea, Taiwan, Huawei, etc.) that plague the US-China relationship these days?

YS: The virus is basically the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, since it is basically threatens vital US interests—plus, this is an election year in the US.

BN: Is this downturn in US-China relations a short-term thing or something more protracted? After all, the election will be done and resolved—I hope—by early November. So what happens after that, in either a second term Trump or a 1st term Biden administration?

YS: This will last a while. Not only due to the election, but also, like I mentioned, due to various things that China has done. And the virus has made a number of countries around the world very hostile to China. And Biden will be tarred and feathered as weak against China should he win and decide to accommodate China. Even before the virus, during the Democratic Presidential Debate, virtually everyone on the podium bashed China. Maybe the Democrats don't mean it, but they are all aware that being soft on China does not help them at all. Yes, elections are poetry while governing is prose. But being soft on China will hurt Biden's presidency—similar to the accusation that Presidents Truman and Carter were soft against the commies.

BN: I think you’re on to something. In the US, increasingly the driving force behind souring relations with China is, in my view, a product of a new American political consensus that China is a growing threat (to the US, to US allies, and to the world order). Coincidentally, I've read a few pieces today on the possibility of an emerging Sino-US cold war. And those articles typically argue that the signs of a new cold war are grounded in objective facts—economic, political, security policies and statements China has said and done. But I think that misses the mark a bit. Almost all of those things, except for China's actions in the early days of the pandemic, have been present for years. What's changed is America's perception of China. Put simply, China is a looming threat to the US because key leaders in the US, on both sides of the political aisle, see China as a threat. The key question is why have those perceptions changed? I bet Obama wishes he had this consensus behind him as he tried to implement his Pivot to Asia.

I don't think it's a given that a President Biden goes weak on China, precisely because of this new American consensus on China. He'll probably attempt to reset the relationship. But there's no guarantee that will go well (See: the Obama-Biden-Clinton reset with Russia.) And if he goes weak on China, he'll get dragged back to a harder line eventually by both R's and D's and the larger Blob network.

YS: I will need more data, but I suspect this COVID-19 is what is causing the fall in US perception towards China. See the Pew Research graphic below. Of course, the trade war, among other things, has also influenced America’s increasingly negative view towards China. I think Trump's trade war does sour people's view towards China—more and more people now know that China is not a fair economic partner.

But I'd argue that COVID is the real game changer. While companies have been grumbling about China's industrial espionage, a majority of people didn't feel the pain/didn’t care. COVID-19 is the great equalizer, and everyone sees China as the culprit and China does not want to own it.

BN: Given what you've said, where does all of this lead? How does the US, its allies, and any other state that's now highly skeptical and suspicious of China deal with and respond to China going forward? Are we entering the early days of a "new cold war"?

YS: We will end up in a new cold war for sure, which might not a bad thing. While, yes, the risk of war (and nuclear war) will increase, I don't think it is all bad, though. China will have to learn to compromise lest it will find itself isolated. And the US will also have to start focusing on third world countries like it did during the Cold War.

BN: One of things I see—and it fits in line with your arguments about US-China relations—is that China is attempting to use COVID as a window of opportunity to boost its position in the world. I think that's a key here. That's driving some of the problems between the US and China these days.
The US sees China as the problem (the source of the virus, yes, but also that China downplayed and covered up the virus for weeks), and cannot stomach that Beiing has the nerve to say that it’s the solution.

For instance, China is now parading around the world touting its "success" in combating the coronavirus and offering medical supplies to needy nations. Many experts see this as evidence that China's using COVID to boost its soft power (Of course, we can question whether these attempts are working, but still..). On top of that, China's engaged with the US in a propaganda war, blaming the US for the virus. While many people outside China aren't moved by Beijing's narrative, I do think it's helping the authorities in China by quieting internal dissent and rancor. Which, in turn, strengthens the Chinese state and Xi's hand—essential things in China's competition with the US. More ominously, China's taking advantage of a distracted US and international community as a whole to seize control over Hong Kong. It's upped its control over Hong Kong over the last few weeks and the latest legislation will effectively wipe out any freedoms and sense of autonomy that the city-state has had. This is a problem by itself, as the US is worried about the fate of Hong Kong (economically and politically), but it also might signify larger ramifications. What's happening in Hong Kong could signal a new turn in China's approach to what it views as "rogue" territories, like Taiwan, if not a more significant change in posture toward parts of Asia. I'm sure alarm bells are going off at the US State Department, Defense, the CIA, hawkish think tanks, and so on.

YS: China is basically snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And Trump is doing the same: giving China platforms to tout its propaganda, by, for instance, behaving stupidly vis-à-vis the WHO. I understand that the WHO has acted badly in kissing Xi's behind, but by not pushing for multilateral solutions, Trump is basically allowing China to gain the moral high ground. Overall, it is like an old Tom and Jerry cartoon—they both tried to pass bomb to each other—but in this case, they are passing victory to each other and each refuses to accept it due to their own stupidity. 

BN: Before we wrap up this chat, let's look beyond US-China relations to what global politics and security and economics will look like in a COVID (and post-COVID) world. How do you see global politics and security being impacted?

YS: Aside from a short- to medium-term economic crash? People will start paying more attention to global health issue, at least for the next few years.

People are screaming about oil prices tanking, but once the pandemic passes, the demand of oil will rebound. It may hit $100/barrel for a bit, then expect fracking to revive and to push oil price back down. This, however, may hurt Russia badly, so I think we might see retrenchment of Russia. Already there are squabbles between Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus on the future of Russia in Syria.
Overall in global politics, though, I am not sure there will be that much of significant change.

BN: Richard Haass and Stephen Walt both argue that COVID will act as an accelerant on existing trends. I can see how health issues/capabilities in individual states will intensify the focus on domestic concerns, trigger a backlash against "outsiders" and "foreigners," and increase skepticism of global organizations and institutions, like the WHO and UN. All of that could, in turn, lead to a greater push toward nationalist politics, a decline in support for globalization and global institutions, and the world order will continue to crumble. Makes sense, right? However, I do wonder whether the deepening and pervasiveness of these trends will be temporary or enduring.

In many ways, it depends on what happens in November. If Biden wins the election, I can see him using the pandemic, and the resulting health and political fallout, as a rallying point to re-energize global cooperation on several fronts, especially global health. But if he doesn't, then it will be more of the same for the next four years, with China having a free hand to shape the world order as the US pulls back and undermines the very order it created 75+ years ago.

The global economy could be an even bigger problem than global politics. US stock market bettors are gambling that COVID is just a bump in the road, given that the Dow is still over 25,000, but that's more hype than reality, I'm afraid. Small businesses are going to be routed because of COVID, as will stores that make the bulk of their money from in-person transactions. Tourism is going to take a deep hit. If sports teams around the world don't allow fans to attend, then many cities are going to be in dire straits over the next year or more. How long will it take for people to feel comfortable to live their lives as they once did (even when restrictions are fully lifted)? Because if they don't, that will create a huge economic drag--both in individual nations and in the global economy as a whole. And once countries start to open up again, will people who have been laid off or furloughed get their jobs back or find new ones? Maybe not, particularly as businesses adapt and refine themselves in a COVID world of fewer resources.

This is exactly the kind of world that needs a strong, unified, and competent EU, US, and global economic institutions to provide adequate leadership, technical expertise, and $. But these actors are unready and/or unwilling to act on their own or collectively as global economic leaders and problem solvers. Already, there is much talk about supply chains being rerouted away from China (to the extent that’s feasible). While that’s not surprising given this crisis, it’s not a good sign that global cooperation will rule the day.

YS: Health issues will be seen as important in Post-COVID world, though for how long is a big question. The Spanish Flu devastated the world for two years, with very high number of deaths compared to COVID-19, and yet we never think of it as important—heck people laughed at George W. Bush for stressing the perils of pandemics. Jay Leno, I believe, once quipped that when Bush's health secretary talked about the necessity of stockpiling tuna, he said he'd better off getting the plague. So, the one million dollar question is how long and how much devastation this pandemic will cause before it will have a long-term impact.

I see the EU (and the US, should Biden win) wanting to exert more influence in the WHO, given how its current arrangement does not help that much in preventing pandemics. There might be a greater push for international organizations to have more power to intervene in states. Of course, China will do whatever they can to block it, so, yes, at the end of the day, state power still matters more than institutions. I think China will win the battle for COVID but lose the war, especially if the US comes around and declares that it will give more authority to WHO to deal with health issues.
And I agree that the global economy is a wild card. It really depends on how long the pandemic lasts. And now we can only cross our fingers and hope that they will create a vaccine ASAP.

BN: Lastly, how do you see the study of and writings on IR being affected by COVID? Of course, already, there has been some work focusing on (1) the impact of diseases and pandemics on IR, and (2) what a post-COVID world will look like. Do you see any other new or previously underexplored areas of study popping up as a result of COVID? And if not, why not?

YS: Similar to post-9/11, we will see a rush in pandemic studies in IR. There will be renewed attention to how pandemic affects/upends international order (e.g. Justinian Plague that put the nail in the coffin of the revival of Roman Empire, the Black Death that destroyed the Byzantine Empire and heralded the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, Black Death's influence on the collapse of Catholic dominance in Europe, etc.). It is a neglected part of literature that perhaps scholars will take a second look at.

COVID will also renew the debate on whether authoritarianism or democracy is better at tackling crises. And as you previously mentioned, in your last blog post, neoliberal institutionalism will have to answer a lot of problems arises from this virus (e.g. lack of unity in EU, lack of international cooperation despite of decades of institution-trust building all over the world, etc.). Realists will have to account for pandemics and health issues more general in their research programs. Truly, there are a lot of new research projects that I can see from COVID. Of course, the question is whether we will see any COVID-fatigue and how the gatekeepers in the discipline will look at this.

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