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COVID-19 Collaboration Presents Opportunity to Reduce U.S.-China Tensions

In one scene from the highly-prescient 2011 film, “Contagion”, one of the doctors battling a fictional virus depressingly states, “It’s figuring us out faster than we’re figuring it out.” Without closer scientific collaboration between China and the U.S., COVID-19 may well present increasing parts of the globe with a deadly fait accompli.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay ©2020

The Spanish Flu Is The Geopolitical Forerunner To COVID-19

It is critical to understand that COVID-19 is only the latest in a long line of viruses which have cut a broad swath of destruction through humanity. Viruses are a prime example of the need for countries to collaborate in order to solve shared problems. However, it is also important to compare the current epidemic, with emphasis on initial governmental responses, to that of the 1918 influenza pandemic, or “Spanish Flu”. Both China and the U.S. have an opportunity to learn from the folly of noncooperation from yesteryear’s great powers during a global pandemic and apply this lesson to today’s COVID-19 situation, not yet classified a pandemic as of this writing.

The Spanish Flu was one of the deadliest viral outbreaks in human history, surpassed only by the Black Death in medieval Europe. Coinciding with the final months of World War I, the flu’s deaths of 50 million surpassed those of “The Great War”, with 40 million. The difference in casualties underscored that a pandemic can cause more destruction than even great power competition.

Even more illuminating were governments’ responses in the wake of The Spanish Flu. Occurring at a time even before the formation of the World Health Organization, they varied from isolation, to quarantine, to an overemphasis on good personal hygiene. If these responses sound familiar today, that’s because they are. The primary difference between that era and our own is that, post-World War I, the probability of disparate governments coming together to collaborate on anything was miniscule. This is exemplified by President Wilson’s failed hopes for The League of Nations.

Globalization brings new opportunities and the response to threats cannot remain what it was over a century ago. Despite the world’s re-emergence into an era of great power competition, increased collaboration between governments to combat these shared threats is paramount. Surely, by the time this article is actually published and read, COVID-19’s death toll will have mounted and it will just be a question of where, when, and how many.

The incubation period for COVID-19 is said to be up to two weeks, with many carriers not showing symptoms (yet). However, even this is debatable as some researchers are speculating that the actual incubation period may indeed be up to four weeks. Because of this, it is incumbent upon states to collaborate scientifically, share data, run trials, and develop an effective vaccine. An actual vaccine may take months, or even years. However, any delay today due to geopolitical differences on other issues is reckless, feckless, and unsustainable.

Like States, Viruses Can Also Play “Divide And Conquer”

The “Phase One” trade deal between China and the U.S. represents a glimmer of hope in improving relations between the two states. However, there remain a whole host of underlying issues contributing to tension in the relationship. Regrettably, viruses ignore ideology, form of government, human rights, trade, and security matters. They also ignore how old and/or proud certain civilizations and “ways of life” are. Viruses are merciless, relentless organisms which predate all of humanity, bent on replication (given the right conditions), and will most likely still be here long after humanity is gone. Any fissures in the U.S.-China relationship can be exploited just as skillfully today by COVID-19 as those among the World War I combatants was by The Spanish Flu over a hundred years ago, perhaps even more so.

Despite this medical reality, China and the U.S. have seen little reason to act altruistically towards one another before and may not change even now. However, both China and the U.S. have an incentive to cooperate as COVID-19 cases have been reported in both countries and the opportunities for increased scientific collaboration between the two states would be invaluable. As both states have citizens who have contracted the virus, a shared interest in halting its spread forms the basis of their cooperation.

On a broader scale, however, the issue is one of soft power. With influence-seeking increasingly becoming yet another theater in U.S.-China great power competition, many states will be watching the COVID-19 policy responses of both states carefully. Many of the same states (Japan, South Korea, The Philippines, etc.) affected now by the outbreak are also increasingly involved in this great power struggle. However, if these states perceive that both China and the U.S. had an opportunity to collaborate sooner to combat the COVID-19 scourge but chose not to, regardless of the reason, both great powers will eventually lose ground and legitimacy in this influence game. 

As in both modern history and prehistory, humanity has a golden opportunity now to overcome seemingly large challenges such as ideology and geography in order to collaborate and combat a much larger, shared existential threat to the entire species itself. Unless both China and the U.S. develop a sense of humility and work together to figure out COVID-19 faster than it figures out the entire globe, they will quickly (re)discover the existence of deadlier organisms on this planet which can do much more damage to human beings than they can do to each other.

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Robert Shines

Robert is President of Bright Group Consulting USA, where he provides geopolitical forecasting services regarding U.S.-China relations. He is also an analyst with the Foreign Policy Association and Editor with Global Risk Insights.

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