by Lin Li
The global economy, politics, as well as daily life, ground to a halt after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Worldwide, infection rates rose to staggering heights; leaving a striking amount of casualties in its wake. Despite this situation, the chronic rivalry between the US and China continued, with further pessimism on the rise and little hope of cooperation anytime soon. As is now usual, Lin Li virtually met with Professor Jia Qingguo for an interview on US-China relations during and after the pandemic. Originally conducted in Chinese, the interview, and its subsequent translation are made by the interviewer.
The failure to cooperate against COVID-19
At the outbreak of the pandemic, the world expected China and the United States to work together in stemming its spread. However, the opposite is true. Instead, the mutual suspicion between the two countries escalated further from an initial trade war to become a war on all but the kinetic front; with little hope of such rivalry diminishing in the near future. The reasons for this situation, Jia Qingguo believes, is because the political environment in the United States sustains a highly emotional consensus on the government’s tough stance towards China. Such sentiment led to the ideological and political differences between these nations to become more pronounced. As a result, the population of each country tends to see the one as the polar opposite of the other.
‘After the outbreak of COVID-19, the US government poorly implemented measures against its spread. Out of domestic political considerations, it tried to pass the buck to China, which led to more negative interactions between the two countries. Moreover, in the heat of the U.S. presidential election, both sides of the campaign intend to play tough on all matters related to China. This situation is not beneficial for the bilateral relationship. Of course, that does not mean there is no room for improvement. Domestically, consensus on China is based on very particular perceptions of the country,’ Professor Jia argued. ‘These perceptions may not be entirely in line with reality. If China does a good job in explaining itself and adjusts some policies, I think it is still possible to change the American public’s position on China.’
Jia Qingguo believes that, globally, the response to the pandemic has been lacking in leadership. With the US finding itself bogged down in the fight against the pandemic, the virus further exacerbated previously existing suspicions against China. In such a situation, it is difficult to find any grounds for effective cooperation. ‘The Chinese government has been expressing its willingness to cooperate and has made great efforts, actively helping other countries to fight the virus. As President Xi Jinping said recently at the Extraordinary G20 Leaders’ Summit, China believes that the best way to fight the global pandemic is through international cooperation.’
China and the US: more alike than one would think
‘I do not think that China and the United States are that different in nature,’ Professor Jia argued. ‘Although the two countries have different ideologies and political systems; both do advocate democracy and freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy. In fact, these three elements are all listed as China’s official core values, although there is still a big difference in how these values are put in practice. Both China and the United States are also beneficiaries of the existing international order. Both countries hope for stability, peace, and international prosperity. They also advocate free trade and the need to jointly address global challenges such as climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, and international crime. In fact, one could argue that the two countries are more similar than many may believe. If we can emphasise these common values and interests, without focusing on the ideological and institutional differences, the bilateral relationship could well be stabilised again.’
Professor Jia contends that the United States and many Americans remain doubtful about Chinese intentions, indeed in part because of their perceptions about the country. For example, realists assume that when a great power rises, it will expand and challenge the existing power. This so-called Thucydides Trap assumes that, as China rises, the country will challenge the US; thereby provoking a confrontation. Others believe that the United States is able to change China to its liking. This latter group is very disappointed that China has not made the changes they expected it to make.
The effects of COVID-19 on China-US relations
According to Jia Qingguo, the pandemic has both positive and negative effects on China-US relations. Its negative impact is taken by extremists on both sides as an opportunity to vent their discontent and to speculate on the other side’s culpability. Riddled with undertones of a conspiracy, such assessments feature accusations of intentionally creating or spreading the virus, thereby even advocating war.
At the same time, the virus has become the common enemy of the two countries, the fundamental interests of which require cooperation to fight against this enemy together. This mutual fight requires both China and the US to strengthen their information-sharing processes, to enhance bilateral cooperation in the development of medication, to provide anti-epidemic supplies to each other through donation and trade, and finally, to coordinate international cooperation.
Nevertheless, Jia Qingguo believes that the chance for cooperation has been diminishing as a result of negative interactions between the two sides. In the post-pandemic era, both countries should reflect on what the main reasons and factors are for the deterioration of the relations, as a basis upon which to formulate more reasonable policies.
Obstacles for China-US cooperation in fighting the pandemic
‘The two biggest obstacles in China-US Cooperation in fighting the pandemic are psychological and political. Psychologically speaking, both countries are faced with the problem of how to perceive the other properly. In recent years, the mainstream of American foreign policy has taken an increasingly extreme view of China, always interpreting China’s words and deeds from the worst possible angle. China also has some speculations about the intentions of the United States from the perspective of the ideologues and offensive realists. Such mindsets make it difficult for cooperation to be sustained. Politically, and based on the different interests and value orientations, there are people on both sides who deliberately exaggerate the other side’s negative rhetoric and actions; even inciting confrontation as inevitable. In so doing, the level of distrust between the two countries is growing. It is likely that Chinese people have similar views on the United States.’
Under such circumstances, Jia Qingguo continues, people on both sides should objectively and pragmatically assess the China-US relationship and take positive measures to stabilise and promote cooperation. Both countries are stakeholders in the international order and hope for world stability and prosperity. Peaceful coexistence and cooperation are in their best interests and feature as the foundation of this bilateral relationship. China and the US could strengthen their cooperation, for example, by exchanging anti-pandemic experience, collaborate in developing medication, and coordinate economic policies in order to stabilise the global economy. Only through cooperation can the two sides effectively overcome the pandemic and improve the relationship.
The lowest point in the past four decades?
‘Whether it is the lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic ties forty years ago depends on how you measure it.’ Jia Qingguo argues, ‘I think politically and security-wise it certainly is. But when it comes to the economy and other aspects, I think we still made much progress. Nevertheless, a further deterioration of the relationship is in the books. The Trump administration seems determined to stir up some kind of crisis in the relationship in order to improve the President’s chances for a second term. China also has domestic public opinions, so when the United States closed the Houston Consulate, China felt that it had to close the Chengdu Consulate in response. Indeed, if the United States decides to take certain measures, the Chinese government may find it necessary to respond in kind. As a result, the relationship may end up in a disastrous spiral of escalation. I hope that both sides can calm down and handle bilateral relations in a more pragmatic way. It is complicated, but I think both sides should at least make some efforts.’
‘Recently, many people are talking about the possibility of war between China and the US. I think that is still very unlikely. First, the cost of war between China and the US is too high for both countries to bear. It has become an unwritten law that nuclear powers do not fight wars, since there is no winner in such a conflict. As long as leaders of the two countries are rational, they will try their best to avoid war. It is also very hard to persuade their people to fight such a kind of war. The American political system with its checks and balances means that only when most people say yes, could the government go to war with foreign countries, especially with nuclear states.’
If not nuclear, what kind of war?
‘The war on the scientific and technological fronts has begun and will continue. However, there will also be limits. The blocking of Huawei or other Chinese high-tech companies hurts not only China but also the US, because these Chinese companies are important customers of American companies in the high-tech industry as well. If uncontrolled, the war in science and technology will break the existing ecology of the research and development as well as production chains, with a devastating impact on all countries in the world.’
China and the United States are facing a crisis of trust. America’s distrust of China is particularly prominent in its approach to China’s development of high technology like 5G. Because of the high degree of penetration of technology into people’s life and work, trust is needed more than ever. With this in mind, Huawei has offered to release the source code of some of its software, in an attempt to soften concerns on the safety of personal information and its storage. Jia Qingguo argues: ‘In terms of technology, we should have more communication and take necessary measures to reassure each other. The Americans also have a responsibility to reassure China that Microsoft and Google will not harm China’s national security. Both sides must make a lot of effort to rebuild some trust for the future of our relationship. However, I do not believe the Trump Administration will do so. I hope the next government can.’
‘The possibility of a financial war cannot be ruled out either. But this will bring even more harm to the US. Unless the two countries become extremely confrontational, it will be difficult for the United States to make such a decision.’ Trump’s views on the international economy remain those of the 19th century. For example, the American President thinks that the United States has suffered a great loss in trade with China because it runs a large deficit with the country. In fact, many products exported from China to the United States include parts, services, or patented technologies from other countries, including the US. Trump assumes the goods exported from one country to another are 100 per cent made in this country. It is simply not true.
‘Some people are wondering what happens if the United States refuses to honor the U.S. Treasury bonds purchased by China. I think the chance for that to happen is very low, because such action may trash the credibility of the US. Some people say that the United States will forcibly terminate its financial exchanges with China, which is even less likely, for the same reason that this will cause great harm to the US, and other countries will not agree either.’
Therefore, whether it is to fight a war of science or technology or finance or trade, the costs are likely to be prohibitive. The Trump administration may not rational but in the end, people in the United States may stop it.
In conclusion, Jia Qingguo argues that in the long run, China and the US have to find a way to coexist peacefully and cooperate when needed because their interests and survival demand it. ‘As stakeholders in peace and prosperity, China and the US have many things in common, and that hasn’t changed despite the recent round of conflicts.’
Lin Li is a doctoral researcher at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and a Senior Editor at Strife. Lin completed her BA in Law at the School of International Studies, Peking University in Beijing; her MA in Geopolitics, Territory and Security at Department of Geography, KCL; and her MA in History of War, War Studies, also KCL. Lin previously worked as Teaching Assistant for the School of International Studies and a Research Assistant for the Institute of International and Strategic Studies of Peking University, as well as Program Manager for Peking University’s Office of International Affairs. Lin is an Observer of the PKU Youth Think Tank since 2018. A Chinese Zheng musician, Lin has published concerto CDs with the Chinese Film Symphony Orchestra and held a series of concerts internationally.