Coronavirus truce: China, US suspend feud to fight common enemy

April 02, 2020 08:30
Donald Trump has signaled his aim to improve relations with Beijing to help in the efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Reuters

An hour-long telephone conversation between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping has brought to a halt – at least for the time being – a dangerous downward spiral in bilateral relations and should see the world’s two biggest economies joining forces in their common battle against the pandemic that is now ravaging large parts of the world.

"The two leaders agreed to work together to defeat the coronavirus pandemic and restore global health and prosperity," the White House said in a statement following the Trump-Xi phone conversation that took place Thursday night US time.

Already, at Trump’s request, China has sent reams of data that is being studied by American scientists.

Knowledge of the Covid-19 virus is growing as the epidemic spreads in Europe and the United States. But China has richer experience than any other country in dealing with it and is in a position to share epidemiological data and treatment results as well as the efficacy of quarantines and social distancing.

Xi made it clear that China was happy to share information and experience with the United States “without reservation.” In addition, he said that Chinese provinces, cities and businesses are sending medical supplies to the US, and that China appreciates the current difficulties the US faces and is willing to help as its ability permits.

Such supplies are generally being provided under commercial terms. In fact, just two days after the two leaders spoke, Axios reported, a plane from Shanghai arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York carrying an extraordinary load: 12 million gloves, 130,000 N95 masks, 1.7 million surgical masks, 50,000 gowns, 130,000 hand sanitizer units and 36,000 thermometers. 

Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, who runs the coronavirus supply chain task force at the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was quoted by Axios as saying that he had already booked 22 similar flights over the next two weeks, mostly from Asia.

In addition to China’s provision of urgently needed medical supplies for the American market, the US-China rapprochement could well see technological cooperation between the two countries that may result in breakthroughs in certain areas, including the development of vaccines.

The commitment to cooperate may have ramifications well beyond the realm of public health. Last week, for example, Washington asked G-7 foreign ministers to issue a joint statement denigrating China by using the term “Wuhan flu.” The other countries demurred.

If the commitment to cooperate is implemented seriously, such efforts to denigrate China should stop. According to a Chinese account of the Xi-Trump conversation, Trump undertook to see to it “that the U.S. focuses on working with China to fight the outbreak without interference.”

Similarly, on the Chinese side, there will be no more promotion of wild theories, such as one pushed by a spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry, that the virus had been brought to Wuhan by the American military.

Both sides will need to step back.

Successful cooperation on the epidemic may well change attitudes and spill over into other areas.

The coronavirus issue, after all, has been the biggest cause of contention between the two countries in recent weeks, with each seeking to blame the other for the global spread.

The poor state of the overall relationship was reflected the day after the phone call when China rejected an appeal from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times to reverse a decision to revoke the press credentials of their journalists. Washington is believed to be considering further action, which may well trigger another round of retaliatory action.

Such issues should be handled with great understanding and sensitivity. Differences between the two countries are broad and deep, and Trump is right to tackle the coronavirus issue first.

Just how the summit telephone conference came about is a bit of a mystery. Trump made it known at a press conference Thursday (March 26) that he would be speaking to his Chinese counterpart.

When a reporter asked, “What do you want to talk to him about?” Trump responded: “It’s his call. I mean, I’ll talk whatever he wants to.”

But, it turned out, it was Trump who had asked for the phone call. When the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported on the conversation, it matter-of-factly began, “On 27 March, President Xi Jinping took a phone call from US President Donald Trump.”

The decision of China and the United States to join hands is a key development in this global effort. It is a sign that both sides realize that they are in the same boat where the deadly virus is concerned.

Who knows, if their cooperation on the pandemic turns out well, it may lead to collaboration in other areas.

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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.