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Mr. Ali Wyne discusses how the coronavirus pandemic influences U.S.-China relations

How Might the Coronavirus Pandemic Influence U.S.-China Relations?

On May 12, 2020, The Institute of World Politics hosted a webinar with Mr. Ali Wyne on how the coronavirus pandemic has and will continue to influence the relationship between the United States and China.

Mr. Ali Wyne is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute. He earned dual degrees from MIT in management science and political science in 2008 and earned a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2017. He is a team member on the Council on Foreign Relations, a David Rockefeller fellow on the Trilateral Commission, and a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

Mr. Wyne began the discussion by admitting that he had hoped the severity of the pandemic would postpone competition between China and the U.S., inspiring cooperation and leadership between the two powers. However, the coronavirus seems to have intensified the rivalry instead. The relationship between the U.S. and China seems to have deteriorated to the worst point since the normalization of relations, even though their cooperation and leadership are needed more now than ever.

The U.S. and China have cooperated well in past global crises, such as the aftermath of SARS and the 2008 financial crisis. Yet, cooperation is now made more difficult by mistrust of China’s COVID-19 records and the status of the Chinese economy. Many nations have expressed concerns about the PRC’s response and their official records of the epidemic. China appears to have curbed the virus and some of the economic fallout domestically, but it stands on shaky ground. Mr. Wyne argued that China should be concerned about extant economic difficulties, such as a slowing economy and international debt, as well as post-coronavirus difficulties, like a decrease in global demand for exports.

Mr. Wyne examined Chinese authoritarianism and how it is viewed in the international community. The CCP targets their domestic and international audience with a similar narrative grounded in “wolf warrior diplomacy.” This narrative justifies some draconian methods with successful containment, which is then contrasted with the failure of the U.S. to contain the virus at home. The CCP claims that China responded proactively and has greatly assisted the international community throughout the course of the pandemic. However, Mr. Wyne believes this narrative has not been as widely accepted internationally as it has domestically. Chinese data is unreliable, their exported equipment has often been reported as defective, and many international diplomats do not appreciate “wolf warrior diplomacy.” The narrative appears to be evolving, but not in favor of China.

Mr. Wyne examined geopolitics as a result of the U.S. and Chinese response to the pandemic. He argued that both nations will walk away severely damaged domestically and internationally, regardless of the ideological debate between the two nations. He discussed the lack of leadership from the U.S, which usually spearheads collective action in global crises. Mr. Wyne said that the U.S. cannot be expected to act internationally when facing severe domestic dysfunction at home. The risks of Chinese authoritarianism are increasingly apparent to the international community, hurting China’s reputation. Neither China nor the U.S. has been a credible steward of the international order, which will likely prompt greater collective action from middle powers.

Mr. Wyne discussed prospective paths for the U.S. in its relationship with China. He defended bilateral competition, claiming that it is not inherently bad. It can provide an incentive for action in some key areas. The problem arises when bilateral competition is so great and poorly directed that it prevents cooperation in necessary areas. He argued that the U.S. should push back against an authoritarian world order, but it should selectively choose when to do so. Opposing China on everything is a recipe for strategic insolvency. Mr. Wyne argued that pointing fingers at the CCP is inappropriate in this situation because nobody wins during a pandemic.

In responding to a question about a potential trade deal with Taiwan, Mr. Wyne discouraged fear of Chinese retaliation, though he did advise caution in implementation. The U.S.-China policy should be a part of a larger Asia-Pacific policy that recognizes the limits to American unilateral action. The U.S. can cause China headaches, but it is probably unable to singlehandedly coerce changes in China’s actions. Mr. Wyne argued for the recognition of the autonomy and agency of other nations in the region. Allies to the U.S. will not follow without question, so the U.S. must take their concerns seriously. Additionally, Mr. Wyne argued that the U.S. should seek greater ties to Taiwan, but slowly and with caution.

Mr. Wyne considered the prospect of reestablishing supply chains without China. He was unenthused with wholesale reconfiguration, especially given the current status of the U.S. economy. However, he did advocate for greater points of resilience in supply chains in the short term. In the long term, the U.S. should build greater independence from China in sensitive fields, like essential drugs and military manufacturing. The pandemic has clarified our need for more dependable supply chains, but we should proceed cautiously with great consideration of feasibility and geopolitical security. The interdependence of the U.S. and China has risks and benefits. Any changes should be implemented with a holistic view.

In closing, Mr. Wyne pointed to continued cooperation between American and Chinese universities in research and in tracking the course of the virus. Positive academic exchange is rooted in past cooperation and has not been severely hampered by tensions between the two governments. Mr. Wyne highlighted that during the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union still found ways to collaborate in creating arms agreements and developing a smallpox vaccine. If they could find ways to set aside their rivalry in times of crisis, surely the U.S. and China can as well. Mr. Wyne concluded by noting that this pandemic will pass, but global crises will arise again in the future, so the two powers must learn to work together.

This event was part of the Global Impact Discussion series hosted by alumna Patricia Schouker.

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