China and U.S. should step up joint action on pandemic

April 06, 2020 11:51
Photo: Reuters

A tentative truce between Washington and Beijing to work together on the coronavirus pandemic, agreed to by the two countries’ leaders in a telephone call last month, has paved the way for the flow of Chinese medical equipment to the United States. But this needs to be followed by much more substantive cooperation in dealing with the global health threat, which has claimed more than 65,000 lives.

The flow of medical supplies began three days after the hour-long telephone conversation and has continued all week long with the flights from China to Columbus, Ohio, Newark and two to New York City. While these are primarily commercial transactions, they include donations by the Jack Ma Foundation and the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation, facilitated by the Chinese government. Ma and Tsai are co-founders of Alibaba, a gigantic e-commerce company.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, China was a global supplier of medical equipment and, during the coronavirus outbreak, Chinese output was needed domestically. However, as the outbreak increasingly came under control, factories churned out the medical supplies in quantities far exceeding China’s own needs.

So, just when China decided to revive its economy, the pandemic arrived in western countries, all of which had severe shortages of such critical items as ventilators, face masks, surgical robes and gloves. China was there, ready and willing to do business and, occasionally, to provide aid.

But all is not sweetness and light between China and the U.S. Hours after the Trump-Xi conversation, China affirmed its decision to expel journalists of three major American newspapers. The diminution of the U.S. press corps has already had a noticeable effect. The US-China agreement to cooperate wasn’t reported on until a week later.

As far as the pandemic is concerned, China has stopped promoting a theory that the United States army had brought the coronavirus virus to Wuhan. On the American side, references to “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” have been replaced by “Covid-19.”

Responding to overseas criticism of insufficient data, China has begun to include in its daily epidemic notification the numbers and outcomes of asymptomatic infections, when persons without symptoms are capable of infecting others. On March 30, there were 1,541 asymptomatic carriers under medical observation. Such silent carriers can account for as many as a third of those who test positive, according to the South China Morning Post, citing Chinese government data that it had seen.

On the American side, Trump spurned an invitation to be critical when asked whether he had received intelligence reports showing that China underreported its coronavirus numbers. The president said he had not received any reports and, in any event, wouldn’t know if Chinese numbers were accurate because “I’m not an accountant from China.”

The retreat from mutual recriminations is a good beginning, but cooperation needs to go way beyond that. The two countries should actively work together on treatment of viral infection and possible vaccines.

Interestingly, such cooperation is being urged by influential individuals in both countries. On April 2, an “Open Letter to the People of the United States,” signed by 100 Chinese scholars, was published in The Diplomat magazine. It called for solidarity to deal with “a global public health crisis with a horrific scale not seen in generations.”

“The virus does not know any borders, but neither does love, nor friendship,” the letter said. “As two of the great countries on Earth, cooperation between China and the U.S. could, and should, be used to bring a more positive outcome for all humankind.”

Coincidentally, the following day, a statement was released by The Asia Society signed by more than 90 foreign policy experts, including former senior officials such as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, calling on the United States and China to work together to stem the coronavirus epidemic.

The statement acknowledged “recent steps taken in Washington and Beijing” but said there was a need to encourage “further steps in that direction.”

“The focus should be on finding the resolve to work together to contain and defeat the virus at home and abroad,” the statement said. “Millions of lives in both countries and around the world will depend on it.”

This is, indeed, a time for bilateral cooperation but on a global level as well. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s decision to bar exports while scooping up everything available is the very antithesis to what thinking people in the United States and China are advocating. Through grotesque acts such as denying N95 masks to Canada and Latin America, Washington is only advancing China’s global influence. Cooperation is a two-way street, and all nations must travel that road.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.