COVID-19 and the escalation of Sino-US relations: Op-Ed 来论 COVID-19与中美冲突升级

By Michael Xiaochen Zhang


NANJING, China — As COVID-19 spreads around the world and alters the way people engage with each other, new fissures have been exposed in the U.S.-China relationship. During this period of crisis, when mutual cooperation between countries, institutions and global citizens is vital, domestic and foreign policy agendas have continued to drive a wedge between the two global powers. Both the Trump and Xi administrations have used COVID-19 as justification for rhetoric to attack and scapegoat each other over complications arising from the current global crisis, rather than implementing policy or strategizing for new avenues for cooperation. Though it may be easy to be swept up in the crisis at hand, increased enmity precipitated by the pandemic could provide the spark that ignites the powder keg into a hot war between the two global powers.  

中国南京 – 随着COVID-19在世界范围内的传播以及人们之间互动方式的改变,中美关系出现了新的裂痕。 危机期间,在国家、机构和全球公民之间的相互合作至关重要时,这两个全球大国的国内和外交政策议程却将新冠肺炎作为重点,持续扩大着两国之间的分歧。 特朗普政府和习近平政府都以新冠病毒为攻击理由,把当前全球危机的复杂情况归罪于对方,而不是专注于各自面临的重大政策问题或寻求合作的新途径。 尽管中美关系不可避免地会被危机所左右,但纵观中美关系的整体格局,由大流行病引起的敌意加剧可能会成为两个全球大国之间热战爆发的导火索。

In White House Press Conferences, President Trump has referred to the source of the pandemic as the “Chinese virus.” This terminology has led to backlash from Beijing, as well as Asian and Chinese Americans, who have described President Trump’s rhetoric as discriminatory and fueling the fire of racism and bigotry, on top of the existing racism persistent in American culture. Concurrently, within the ranks of Xi Jinping’s government, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān (赵立坚) has pushed a conspiracy theory proposing the virus was planted in Wuhan by the U.S. military, implying that China was not the source of the outbreak and that a department of the U.S. government actively chose to spread this disease as a bioweapon. 

特朗普总统曾在白宫新闻发布会上称,大流行病的根源是“中国病毒”。 这种用词引起了北京以及亚裔和华裔美国人的强烈反对,他们认为,特朗普总统的言论描述是歧视性的,并会在美国已经存在的种族主义之上进一步助长了种族主义和偏见现象。 同时,在习近平政府内部,外交部发言人赵立坚提出了一项阴谋论,认为该病毒是由美军在武汉培育的,疫情爆发的根源不是中国,而是美国政府的某个部门有意将这种疾病作为生物武器进行传播所致。

As international cases of COVID-19 have grown, China enacted restrictions on foreigners entering the country and distributed propaganda that has led to discrimination against expats and foreigners, many of whom call China home. The U.S. Department of State recently released a security alert advising American citizens of discrimination against people of African descent in Guangzhou. The memo stated that “police ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin,” and that “local officials launched a round of mandatory tests for COVID-19, followed by mandatory self-quarantine, for anyone with African contacts.” COVID-19 has further strained relations between the two countries at a time when, according to Dr. David Lampton, a scholar of Sino-U.S. relations, the relationship was already at a “tipping point.” 

随着中国境内出现越来越多的COVID-19输入型病例,中国对外国人的出入境实施了限制,并进行了宣传,这导致中国国内出现了针对外籍人士的歧视现象。尽管这其中有许多外籍人士都已经把中国作为了自己的家乡,他们依然遭到了歧视。 美国国务院最近发布了安全警报,针对非洲裔外国人在广州受到歧视这一现象为美国公民提出了建议。 备忘录中指出:“警察禁止酒吧和餐馆向任何看似来自非洲的客户提供服务”,并且“对于任何与非裔外国人有过接触的人员”,“地方政府采取了强制性的COVID-19检测以及隔离措施”。COVID-19使两国之间的紧张关系进一步升级,中美关系学者戴维·兰普顿(David Lampton)博士认为,这种关系已经处于“临界点”。

The ideological conflict between the U.S. and China has not been limited to the current public health crisis. In March, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that five Chinese media outlets would have to reduce their staff in the U.S. by 40%, due to their connections to the Chinese government. Shortly thereafter, 13 journalists working for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal were exiled from China. This battle over media access is yet another arena in which China and the U.S. are competing for soft power. However as their rivalry progresses, the two governments may run out of space on the ideological and media fronts and instead, turn to more forceful conflict.

中美之间的意识形态冲突不仅限于当前的公共卫生危机。 美国国务卿迈克·蓬佩奥(Mike Pompeo)于三月宣布,由于与中国政府有联系,五家中国媒体需要将其在美国的员工人数减少40%。 不久之后,作为反击,十三名美国记者在《纽约时报》、《华盛顿邮报》和《华尔街日报》被中国驱逐出境。 这场媒体争夺战是中美两国软实力竞争的又一个舞台。 但是,随着两国之间竞争的升级,意识形态和媒体方面的冲突空间可能会被耗尽,两国政府可能将转向更为激烈的冲突。

Only in January did the two countries begin to emerge from an ongoing standoff on trade, only to be immediately confronted by the COVID-19 crisis, which each government has handled with hostility. As tensions continue to boil, the two countries may find themselves choosing between a  “New Cold War” and direct military conflict. The cold war framework would be dominated by ideological differences of Western American democracy and capitalism versus Leninist-Mandarin authoritarianism and communism (with Chinese characteristics, of course). Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, states in his latest Foreign Affairs piece, that constraining the growth of China has become a bipartisan goal within the U.S.. According to Pei, a best-case scenario for China would involve the party transforming itself into a “kinder, gentler” regime, endorsing economic and political reforms, while also seeking reconciliation with the U.S.. Although these Chinese Communist Party (CCP) governance reforms would lead to a more efficient market economy, more innovation, and increased personal freedoms for Chinese citizens, they are highly unlikely to occur. The Xi administration has spent years tightening its grip on power and exerting more government control, with the aim of ensuring the Party’s survival and maintaining the status quo of economic growth and social harmony.  

中美两国从一月份才逐渐开始摆脱贸易的僵持状态,旋即又陷入了COVID-19危机,两国政府带着对彼此的敌意采取了各自的应对措施。随着紧张局势继续恶化,两国可能会在“新冷战”和直接军事冲突之间做出选择。冷战框架将主要由西方美国民主和资本主义与中国式列宁主义威权和中国特色共产主义之间的意识形态差异决定。克莱蒙特·麦肯纳学院(Claremont McKenna College)政府学教授裴敏欣(Minxin Pei)在他最新的外交事务文章中指出,限制中国的发展已成为美国两党的一致目标。裴敏欣认为,对中国而言,最理想的情况是中国共产党自行转变为一个“更温和、更温柔”的政权,支持经济和政治改革,同时寻求与美国的和解。尽管这些中共政府的改革将使市场经济更有效率,并使中国公民拥有更多的创新性和人身自由,但这些改变几乎不可能发生。习近平政府花了多年的时间来加强权力掌控和政府管制,以确保党的生存,并维持经济增长和社会和谐的现状。

For years, proponents of a stronger relationship between China and the U.S. have argued that economic interdependence between the two nations would prevent overt hostilities. However, as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on both countries’ economies and disrupting global supply chains, aggrandized mutual antagonism may emerge. Some say the crisis will further isolate countries, leading to de-globalization and more cracks in the economically-based Sino-U.S. relationship. Heightened tensions and conflict could stem from a U.S.-China rivalry over scarce vital medical equipment and medicines to treat patients impacted by the pandemic. According to a Department of Commerce study, 97% of total antibiotics in the U.S. came from China. Over-reliance on key medicines and COVID-19 related drugs and medical equipment imported from China puts U.S. national security at risk, especially as hard-hit nations experience supply shortages. Ac­cord­ing to the Pe­ter­son In­sti­tute for In­ternational Eco­nomics, “China is an al­most ir­re­place­able sup­plier, mak­ing more than 40% of the world’s im­ports of masks, gloves, gog­gles, vi­sors and med­ical gar­ments.” If COVID-19 continues to spread and countries are forced to endure multiple phases of infection, each government may choose to protect their key medical resources, breaking economic relationships. 

多年来,巩固中美关系的支持者一直认为,两国之间的经济相互依存能防止过度的敌对行为。但是,在COVID-19之下,两国经济严重受挫,全球供应链遭到扰乱,更强的相互对抗可能会出现。有观点认为,这场危机将使各国进一步相互孤立,从而导致去全球化,并使基于经济关系的中美关系破裂。另外,中美两国正在针对稀缺的治疗COVID-19患者的重要医疗设备和药物展开竞争,这可能会使局势更加紧张、冲突进一步加剧。根据美国商务部的一项研究,美国97%的抗生素来自中国。过度依赖从中国进口的关键药品以及与COVID-19相关的药品和医疗设备使美国的国家安全面临风险,这一点在受灾严重的国家出现供应短缺的情况下尤其突出。根据佩特森国际经济研究所的说法,“中国是几乎不可替代的供应商,他们制造了世界上超过40%的口罩,手套,护目镜,面罩和医用防护服。” 如果COVID-19继续蔓延,世界各国都必须经受感染的多个阶段,各国政府有可能会选择终止经济合作关系,从而保护其关键医疗资源。

With continually rising infection numbers, economic shutdowns, and quarantines, one can see how the blame game and escalated tensions could lead to increased distrust between the world’s two superpowers. There is a pocket of U.S. and China foreign policy experts that has focused on analyzing Sino-U.S. relations through a “New Cold War” framework. Minghao Zhao, a senior fellow at IIS Fudan University, stated in his article “Is a New Cold War Inevitable? Chinese Perspectives on US–China Strategic Competition,” that “to America, China is a distinctive rival comparable to Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union.” But perhaps these cold war arguments will soon be rendered irrelevant. In light of these historical assessments, it is imperative that both sides channel their energy and resources to avoid a “hot war” through trade offs, greater diplomatic cooperation, transparent channels of communication and a rejection of zero-sum strategies.

随着感染人数不断增加、经济持续停摆以及隔离措施延续,中美两国之间的相互指责和紧张局势也在不断升级,这显而易见地扩大了两个超级大国之间的不信任真空。 中美外交政策专家都在不约而同地通过“新冷战”框架分析中美关系, 复旦大学国际关系学院高级研究员赵明浩在他的文章《新冷战是不可避免的吗? 中国对中美战略竞争的看法》中说道:““对美国而言,中国是能与纳粹德国、帝国日本和苏联相提并论的特殊的竞争对手。” 不过,这些冷战论点很快就会变得无关紧要。 回顾历史,中美双方的当务之急是转移自己的能量和资源,以免发生“热战”,两国可以通过权衡取舍、加强外交合作、构建透明的沟通渠道以及拒绝采取零和战略来实现这一目标。

Concurrently, China and the U.S. are each building up their military capabilities, particularly in zones of conflict where they could potentially clash. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s “defense spending increased more than sevenfold, from $31 billion in 1998 to $239 billion in 2018.” A recent post-pandemic proposal delivered to Congress by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command requests “$20.1 billion in additional spending between 2021 and 2026” to bolster military deterrence against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As Dr. Lampton argues in his 2015 speech, “perceived security threats trump economic and cultural interests, this suggests that admittedly enormous shared economic and cultural interests may not prevail over diverging security concerns.” Beyond the economic and trade disputes, China’s human rights violations, and the general antipathy both administrations have for one another, COVID-19 is exposing cleavages between the two societies that could push Sino-U.S. relations past the so-called tipping point.

与此同时,中美两国都在加强军事能力建设,并且将两国可能产生交集的潜在冲突地区作为了重点。斯德哥尔摩国际和平研究所(SIPRI)表示,中国的“国防开支增长了七倍多,从1998年的310亿美元增加到了2018年的2390亿美元。” 美国印度洋-太平洋司令部最近向国会提交的一份针对疫情后期的提案要求“在2021年至2026年之间增加201亿美元的开支”,以增强对人民解放军(PLA)的军事威慑力。正如兰普顿博士在2015年的演讲中指出的那样,“潜在的安全威胁重要性胜过经济和文化利益,这表明公认的巨大的经济和文化共同利益和分散的安全问题相比可能不会占上风。” 除了经济和贸易争端、中国的人权侵犯问题以及两国政府普遍的相互反感外,COVID-19还暴露了两个社会的其他分歧,这些因素可能会推动中美关系越过所谓的“临界点”。

China’s Defense Spending has increased sevenfold since 1990.
Source: Council on Foreign Relations

Throughout this period of economic friction and public health concerns, Washington and Beijing both understand the importance of their actions, rhetoric, and global images. How each government manages this crisis will leave ripple effects on who is seen as the most adept global leader in the 21st century. Recently, there has been western media criticism of China’s diplomatic initiatives during the global phase of COVID-19’s spread. Xinhua, a Chinese state-run media outlet, published an editorial which alluded to the CCP seizing on the opportunity provided by American disarray, its state media and diplomats. China’s support reminded a global audience of the superiority of Chinese efforts and criticized the incompetence of the ‘elite’ in Washington. As China is the largest manufacturer of protective masks, it has been able to provide aid and medical equipment to many countries battling COVID-19. These donations align with China’s current diplomatic goal of being seen as a ‘savior’ for distressed states and global bastion during this critical juncture. In contrast, China hawks in the U.S. have leveraged the CCP’s early mishandling of the coronavirus to attack the party’s leadership and legitimacy. Former Trump White House advisor, Stephen Bannon, on his critique of Trump’s use of “Chinese virus” stated that, “I honestly believe we’re getting the nomenclature wrong. This is not a Chinese virus. This is a ‘CCP Virus.’” Mr. Bannon, a staunch China Hawk, believes that hard line COVID-19 rhetoric from Washington needs to be specifically aimed at the leaders of the CPP, and not at Chinese citizens — who he sees as victims of the system they live in. 

在整个经济摩擦和公共卫生危机时期中,华盛顿和北京都了解其行动、言辞和全球形象的重要性。两国政府应对这场危机的方式将产生连锁反应,并直接决定谁将会被视为认为是21世纪最娴熟的全球领导人。部分西方媒体近日批评了COVID-19全球性传播阶段中中国的外交举措,而中国国营媒体《新华社》发表了一篇新闻社论,暗示中共抓住了美国混乱局势、其国有媒体和外交官提供的机会;中国获得的支持让全世界意识到了中国在抗疫方面的努力以及优势,也是对华盛顿“精英”无能的批评。中国是世界上最大的防护口罩制造商,它能够向许多与COVID-19作战的国家提供援助和医疗设备。这些捐赠符合中国目前的外交目标,即在这个关键时刻被视为陷入困境的国家和全球堡垒的“救星”。与此相对的是,美对华鹰派利用中共早期应对新冠病毒的不力举措来攻击其的领导和合法性。特朗普前白宫顾问史蒂芬·班农(Stephen K. Bannon)批评特朗普使用“中国病毒”这一说法,他表示:“老实说,我认为我们对该病毒的称呼是错误的。这不是中国病毒,而是‘共产党病毒’。” 作为一名坚定的对华鹰派,班农认为,华盛顿对于COVID-19的强硬言论需要专门针对中国共产党的领导人,而非被体制所迫害的中国公民们。

Due to capacity restraints, a temporary pop-up hospital has been constructed in Central Park to treat COVID-19 patients. 
Photo Credit: Michael Xiaochen Zhang 

Washington analysts are eagerly following internal developments within the CCP, awaiting to see if the Party will come out of the pandemic weaker or stronger. In these dire times, when saving lives and eradicating the deadly ramifications of COVID-19 should trump ideological differences, it is crucial that Sino-U.S. relations do not spiral into a self-fulfilling prophecy of a Thucydides Trap. In 1979, China and the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations on the basis of mutual economic cooperation and trade. Although economic ties and globalization have ‘coupled’ the two nations together across the last four decades, major ideological, political, economic, and cultural strife persists. The COVID-19 outbreak is a critical moment for Sino-U.S. relations. The fallout from the pandemic has the plausibility to test and counter the liberal theory that economic interdependence acts as a deterrent for war, especially as Trump and Xi struggle for hegemony on the global stage.

华盛顿分析家们正在密切地关注着中共内部的事态发展,对于疫情究竟是会削弱还是强化共产党的实力,他们拭目以待。 在当前的危急时刻下,挽救生命和消除COVID-19的致命后果应战胜意识形态上的分歧,中美关系能否避免因自我实现的预言而陷入修昔底德陷阱将至关重要。1979年,中美在相互经贸合作的基础上实现了邦交正常化,尽管经济纽带和全球化在过去的四十年中将两国“耦合”在一起,但主要的意识形态、政治、经济和文化冲突仍在持续。 COVID-19的爆发是中美关系具有里程碑意义的时刻。自由主义理论认为经济相互依存能对战争起威慑作用,但疫情的后果有可能会考验这一观点,甚至使现实与之相左,在特朗普和习近平在全球舞台上争夺霸权的情况下,这一可能性尤为突出。

Antithetical to global health instructions for citizens to isolate, quarantine, and “social distance,” it is key that the Trump and Xi administration, now more than ever, coalesce to avoid a conflict that would hurt, rather than help their citizens.   


Michael Xiaochen Zhang is reporting from New York City.

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