Coronavirus Strains U.S.-China Relationship — When Cooperation Is Most Needed

Feb 4, 2020
Originally published on February 4, 2020 7:04 pm
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The number of people infected with the coronavirus has passed 20,000. The World Health Organization says the risk of it spreading remains high. They are urging countries to share information to battle the deadly virus. But lack of coordination between two key players - the U.S. and China - is making that effort more difficult, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The sheer scale of the coronavirus requires an all-hands-on-deck kind of approach, sharing data and coordinating a response to what could very well turn into a pandemic. But that cooperation has been elusive for the world's two economic superpowers.

EVAN MEDEIROS: Right now, the U.S.-China relationship is suffering from a deep deficit of trust.

NORTHAM: That's Evan Medeiros, a former chief adviser for Asia on the National Security Council in the Obama administration. He says a certain level of distrust has always been part of the U.S.-China relationship. But a bruising trade war and significant strategic differences have exacerbated the bad blood between the two countries. Medeiros says even if its relationship is becoming more competitive, the coronavirus illustrates there are some issues where the U.S. and China need to work together.

MEDEIROS: As China becomes a global power, the U.S. and China are going to need to cooperate on big global issues like climate change, pandemics, global economic growth.

NORTHAM: Medeiros says there has been cooperation amongst U.S. and Chinese scientists, but cooperation at the government level feels a long way away. Beijing turned down an offer by the Centers for Disease Control to travel to China. Messaging by Washington has seemed mixed.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox Business News there might be a silver lining to the coronavirus.

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WILBUR ROSS: I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America - some to U.S., probably some to Mexico as well.

NORTHAM: The administration also issued its highest travel alert to China, introduced a quarantine and announced it would deny entry to foreign nationals who had been in China in the past two weeks. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson accused the Trump administration of spreading fear and panic. But Derek Scissors, an Asia economist at the American Enterprise Institute, says many other countries have also introduced travel restrictions.

DEREK SCISSORS: The Chinese are more sensitive to the United States closing its borders than any other country because we're the global leader. If Burundi closes its borders, if Belgium closes its borders, if Botswana closes its borders, it doesn't really matter.

NORTHAM: Scissors says the administration doesn't believe China has been forthcoming about the scope of the virus or the measures it's taking to contain it.

Scott Kennedy, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says historically, the Chinese have wanted to control the message. But Kennedy says the U.S. is justified pushing Beijing for more information.

SCOTT KENNEDY: The U.S. needs a lot more transparency from China, and we need that to be built in so that if we're going to continue to allow people to travel back and forth and do business with each other, we don't have a constant fear about the health consequences of that.

NORTHAM: There is one ray of hope. Beijing says it will consider allowing American scientists to join a team from the World Health Organization when it travels to China in the coming days.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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