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Strained Cooperation or a Final Rupture? China-US Relations Amidst a Global Pandemic

May 30, 2020

Adam Webb, American Co-Director, Hopkins-Nanjing Center and Resident Professor of Political Science
David Arase, Resident Professor of International Politics
David Bulman, The Jill McGovern and Steven Muller Assistant Professor of International Affairs and China Studies, Director of the Pacific Community Initiative

The school hosted a discussion on Sino-American relations and the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic to these countries' plans for global leadership.

Arase focused on recent developments with respect to Hong Kong, as Beijing announced it will impose new rules that threaten Hong Kong's autonomy. In response, the US plans to revoke Hong Kong's independent trade status, which Arase noted is bad for Hong Kong but not the worst thing Trump could have done. Much more damaging would be to close Hong Kong's access to the US dollar-based financial system. Arase argued that the two countries are well past the point of strained relations but a final rupture is still avoidable. The benefits of global trade and connectivity remain extremely valuable to China, the US, and the world.

Bulman stated that Sino-American relations are at their worst point since the two normalized their relationship. The pandemic is exacerbating tensions, but problems existed long before the virus struck, he said. The dismal state of relations is a result of stalled economic reforms in China, Xi Jinping's oppressive crackdowns on civil society, and Donald Trump's haphazard foreign policy approach. That said, Bulman agreed that the COVID-19 crisis is a severe shock to global order that he anticipates will contribute to an increasingly multipolar and less connected world.

Webb outlined reasons that the pandemic will not represent an inflection point in China-US relations. COVID-19 is accelerating, not driving the fundamental shifts in global order, he said. In the long term, US dominance is receding but this is a long-running trend as other nations have increasingly developed. China has been far more successful in containing the virus compared to the US, although it is not at all clear yet that China will as a result gain soft power and credibility to close deals with other countries. Webb argued that even with the pandemic crisis, relations between the two countries are basically at the same place they were a year ago: very dark and tense, but with hope for improvement in the near and long term.