Avoiding a Virus-Induced Cold War with China

Managing relations with China once the COVID-19 crisis abates will be one of the biggest challenges facing political leaders in the United States and Europe – two of the areas worst-hit by the virus that originated in China.

Expert comment Published 17 April 2020 Updated 15 September 2020 3 minute READ
Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Donald Trump in Beijing, China. Photo by Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images.

Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Donald Trump in Beijing, China. Photo by Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images.

So far, there has been a noticeable worsening of relations that had already soured in recent years – the latest step being President Donald Trump’s suspension of US funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) in response to accusations of Chinese interference in its operations.

Should the world now simply prepare for a period of intense and extended hostility? As director of a policy institute founded 100 years ago in the shadow of the First World War, I believe we must do all in our power to avoid a return of the global strategic rivalries that blighted the 20th century.

Deepening suspicions

Of course, the outcome does not lie only in the hands of the US and Europe. In the 1930s, as much as they wanted to avoid another great war, British and French leaders were forced to respond to Germany’s aggression in central Europe. In the late 1940s, America’s instinct to disentangle itself from war-ravaged Europe was quickly tempered by the realization that the Soviet Union would impose or infiltrate Communist control as far into Europe as possible.

Today, those who warned that China - a one-party, surveillance state with a power-centralising leader - could never be treated as a global stakeholder feel vindicated. They see in COVID-19 an opportunity to harden policies towards China, starting by blocking all Chinese investment into 5G infrastructure and breaking international dependence on Chinese supply chains.

They can point to the fact that Chinese Communist Party officials in Wuhan initially prioritised sustaining economic growth and supressed reports about COVID-19’s capacity for human-to-human transmission, epitomised by their treatment of Dr Li Wenliang. They can highlight how Beijing’s obsession with denying Taiwan a voice in the WHO prevented Taiwanese input into the early analysis of the crisis. They can highlight the ways in which Beijing has instrumentalised its medical support for coronavirus-afflicted countries for diplomatic gain.

For their part, those in China who believed the US and Europe would never allow China’s return as a regional and world power see this criticism as further evidence. They can point to comments about this being the ‘Chinese virus’, a leaked biological weapon or China’s ‘Chernobyl moment’. ‘Wolf warrior’ Chinese diplomats have sought to outdo each other by challenging narratives about COVID-19, while propagating disinformation about the origins of the virus.

There are major risks if this blame game escalates, as it could in the lead-up to a fraught US presidential election. First, consciously uncoupling the US economically from China will make the post-coronavirus recovery that much harder. China already accounts for nearly 20% of world GDP but, unlike after the global financial crisis in 2008, it is fast becoming the world’s leading consumer market. Its financial stimulus measures need to be closely coordinated with the G7 and through the G20.

Second, Chinese scientists were the first to uncover the genetic code of the virus and shared it with the WHO as early as January 12, enabling the roll-out of effective testing around the world. They are now involved in the global search for a vaccine alongside American and European counterparts. While the Chinese government will remain a legitimate target for criticism, Chinese citizens and companies will contribute to many of the most important technical breakthroughs this century.

Third, if COVID-19 creates a long-term schism between China and the US, with Europeans caught on its edge, this could do deep damage to world order. China may become a less willing partner in lowering global greenhouse gas emissions and sharing renewable energy technologies; in helping African and other developing countries grow sustainably; and in helping to build a more resilient global health infrastructure.

Getting the balance right

But the COVID-19 crisis can also be the hinge point to a more coherent and self-interested transatlantic approach to China, one whose motto should be ‘beware but engage’. There should indeed be limits on state-backed Chinese investment in strategic US and European economic sectors, just as China limits Western access to its market. But the goal should be to lower barriers to trade and investment over time on a mutually beneficial and transparent basis, not to recreate an economic Cold War.

Chinese human rights violations, at home and abroad, should be called out. The dissemination of Chinese systems of citizen surveillance, which will be more popular in a post-coronavirus world, should be monitored and contested with US and European alternatives. And the extent of Chinese exports’ access to international markets should be conditional on China improving its phytosanitary standards - which protect humans, animals, and plants from diseases, pests, or contaminants - and strictly regulating unhygienic wet markets.

But to go further and try to make disengagement the dominant transatlantic policy as COVID-19 subsides will not only divide Europe and America. It will also contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy; in which a resentful China grows apart from the US and Europe during a period where they must work together.

Given that it will likely be the world’s largest economy in 2030, how the US and Europe manage their relations with China after this crisis is a question at least as seminal as the one they faced after 1945 with the Soviet Union. In the ensuing years, the Soviet Union became a military superpower and competitor, but not an economic one. Containment was a viable, correct and, ultimately, successful strategy. The same options are not available this time. There will be no winners from a new Cold War with China.