US-China Relations after COVID-19: More criticism of China will come, 'get ready for it'

May 07, 2020

As the coronavirus continues to sweep the world, turning off most of the global economy's lights, it has also begun reshaping international relations. Over the past three months, Columbia Global Centers | Beijing has been working closely with experts and scholars from Columbia University, Tsinghua University, and other institutions to help our audience understand the pandemic, as well as to present expert insights on COVID-19’s impact on the global order.

How is this pandemic reshaping our world? Where are the U.S.-China relations heading? In this special episode of Dialogue, Beijing Center partners with China Global Television Network to initiate a discussion on the intensifying tensions and the war of words between the world's two biggest economies with two leading experts on U.S.-China relations from both countries.

Professor Stephen Sestanovich is the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor for the Practice of International Diplomacy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Professor Xuetong YAN is dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University. Watch the full episode below.

The following are excerpts from the interview between Professor Sestanovich and Dialogue anchor ZOU Yue, slightly edited for content and clarity.

Zou: First of all, what is your assessment of Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis so far?

Sestanovich: Anyone can see that it's been quite inadequate. Trump has not had a timely policy. He's not had a coordinated approach, either domestically or internationally. He hasn't had an effective approach. He hasn't had one that other people can easily comprehend. I'm not sure whether that has had a big impact on why the death toll in particular has been so high, but it is certainly added to the confusion and uncertainty.

Zou: Previously I talked to Professor Xuetong YAN from Tsinghua University, and he also mentioned that point. He said although President Trump looks tough and sounds tough on China, but he is actually a very weak president because he did not dare to make decisive moves and he shirks responsibility after making any moves. What are your thoughts?

Sestanovich: Broadly speaking that’s true of his policies. They’re often contradictory. He's very bad at generating support for them. Of his policy towards China, in one respect they're not well implemented or conceived. But in other respect they've generated more support because there are many concerns that Americans share with President Trump about China's policy. Those concerns have been growing, and it is easier for Trump to get support for a policy that doesn't make very much sense.

Zou: Instead of focusing on fighting pandemic, it seems that Trump and his team has chosen to play up the blame game, asking China for compensation and criticizing the WHO for being China centric. In the eyes of many Chinese, these are just cheap shots.

Sestanovich: I can understand that. The president's approach is a combination of total foolishness towards the WHO. Of honest criticism, many Americans share about is China’s transparency on the pandemic, and something very distinctive to President Trump is scapegoating. Trump is extremely good. One of the few things he's really good at is name-calling and blaming other people.

Zou: But the problem is, is it good for America when America should focus all the resources at the pandemic? Trump is diverting the public attention away.

Sestanovich: I completely agree with you. Let's understand one thing about the current environment. This is a political election campaign, and President Trump is very strongly motivated, more than by anything else, to be reelected. He thinks that name-calling and blaming China will be effective for him. Unfortunately he has issues to work with many other concerns that other people share about China’s policy.

Zou: But by fomenting this kind of rhetoric and spreading blame around the world and in the U.S. as well, it seems China-U.S. relations are going to deteriorate. How worried should we be about this pandemic to trigger larger-scale conflicts between China and the U.S.?

Sestanovich: If you mean military conflict, I don't think that will be generated. But I think a lot of distrust and suspicion can be generated. The emotional opportunities are very great here. I think when the campaign is over, particularly if you have a Biden administration, they will forge a more thoughtful, comprehensive, and strategic approach to relations with China.

In the course of the political campaign, you're likely to see more criticism of China. Get ready for it.

Professor Stephen Sestanovich

Zou: During this election cycle, both parties think it is a political convenient to blame China, and that will result in a toxic environment among the American public against China. Don't you think that's a kind of danger when it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Sestanovich: I think there is a risk, and governments around the world are in a need to make decisions about how to de-escalate the rhetoric. I think it would be very appropriate for China to take a broader approach, which would signal to other countries that there is not an effort being made to gain any political advantage from this crisis.

Zou: Dr. Henry Kissinger warned that the coronavirus would change the current world order. What’s your take?

Sestanovich: It is posing challenges to all major governments and to all societies. Kissinger said that governments need to reach agreement on how to deal with the public health issues, economic issues, and more broadly to find principles for cooperation on other issues. Kissinger has said that international order can't just be based on a balance of power. It has to be based on what he called a moral consensus. I think what he means by that is an understanding of how to work together, even how to organize a society and deal with problems that all countries face.

Zou: Isn’t this actually the problem that Trump administration does not have a moral consensus with even some Western allies on whether international cooperation counts.

Sestanovich: I completely agree with you, and I think that one of the issues that governments have to come to grips with is whether there are any bedrock principles of cooperation that can be the basis of finding a path out of the crisis. I think the president doesn't appreciate how much damage he has done to America’s standing in the world. It has been very severe in the course of three and a half years of his presidency. But I would have to say that other governments have not always contributed to finding a solution. There has to be a deeper dialogue that Kissinger always encourages. He's always in favor of deeper dialogue between the two governments about what the character of their relationship will be going forward

Many Americans share a concern about Chinese policy, and this is something that is not going to be solved simply by removing Trump from the president.

Professor Stephen Sestanovich

Zou: Professor Xuetong Yan also mentioned that point because he said America obviously is not willing to play as a leader at the moment, and China is not ready and does not have the capability yet. So a leaderless world is very uncertain.

Sestanovich: I completely agree with you. But I think a new president next year will actually find it not so difficult to restore relations with American allies, friends, and partners. I don't think it will be difficult for a Biden administration, for example, to rejoin the climate talks, to rejoin the Iran agreement, to participate in the ways that American presidents have in the past International Affair. I do think that the relationship with China will be an extremely complex one, and it will be one of the hardest issues for new administration to grapple with because it's not simply a case that you can move back to.