US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019. File photo: AP
Kishore Mahbubani
Kishore Mahbubani

Why China and the US must set aside their differences to tackle the coronavirus crisis

  • The Covid-19 outbreak is occurring at a time when global organisations, including the WHO, are weakened, making it imperative for world powers to step up
  • Just as they did for the global financial crisis, the US and China should convene a special G20 summit to form a coordinated response to the pandemic, before it kills more people

Sometimes the most obvious lesson from a global crisis is the hardest one to see.

The most obvious lesson from the rapid global spread of the novel coronavirus is that Planet Earth has become – like the ill-fated Diamond Princess, moored off Japan, and the Grand Princess, moored off California – a virus-infected cruise ship.

In theory, the 7.5 billion inhabitants of planet earth live in 193 separate countries. In practice, these separate countries have functionally become cabins on the same ship. Why? After decades of accelerating globalisation, millions of people, goods and services travel across borders. Viruses take the same routes.

Despite China’s valiant efforts to contain the virus, it has now reached all corners of the earth, with countries as far apart as Italy and South Korea being seriously affected.

One undeniable hard truth is that humanity now lives in a single, deeply interconnected health ecosystem. The data confirms this.

On February 23, China had about 77,000 cases and 2,500 deaths. The rest of the world had fewer than 2,000 cases, with 17 deaths. Barely two weeks later, China’s number of cases crept up 5 per cent to about 80,000. The figures for the rest of the world jumped to 25,000 – a 1,300 per cent increase.

As of Thursday, out of 193 countries, 114 countries have been hit by Covid-19. As the World Health Organisation ( WHO) says, we now face a global pandemic.

Humanity claims to be the most intelligent species on planet earth. The most intelligent response to living in a single health ecosystem would be to strengthen global organisations, like the WHO, to manage it.

With global organisations weakened, the only solution is for the world’s most powerful countries, including the US and China, to step up.

Sadly, we have been doing the opposite. Professor Kelley Lee, of the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health, has documented how the mandatory funding portion of the WHO went down from 62 per cent in 1970-71 to 28 per cent in 2006-07. This decline has crippled the WHO’s ability to recruit long-term staff to manage global pandemics. Sadly, even after the Covid-19 had broken out, the Trump administration announced that it would slash its annual funding of WHO from US$123 million in 2020 to US$58 million in 2021.

With global organisations weakened, the only solution is for the world’s most powerful countries, including the United States and China, to step up to the plate.

Fortunately, there has been a recent precedent for both to cooperate to deal with a global crisis. Just over a decade ago, at the height of the Global Financial Crisis, the US and China, together with other G20 countries, agreed at the G20 Summit in April 2009 to launch a coordinated global stimulus package to pull the world back from a financial precipice. It succeeded. Similarly, the US and China should again band together with other G20 countries to respond to the equally perilous Covid-19 outbreak.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has broken out at the same time as the US-China global geopolitical contest has gained momentum. In my forthcoming book, Has China Won?, I document the deep structural forces driving this rivalry. The recent speeches by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper also confirm the contest is now in full swing.

The dilemma that both powers face now is whether they can occasionally set aside their differences to work together when they face a common threat like Covid-19. The rest of humanity hopes they will do so.

Fortunately, there has been a long history of collaboration in the health sector. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta successfully identified the H5N1 bird flu after China’s Department of Health failed to do so. As a result of the US-China collaboration, the bird flu – which had a fatality rate of 60 per cent compared with about 2 per cent for the novel coronavirus – was associated with 455 deaths.

Donald Trump condemned for closing off US as pandemic fears spread

By contrast, the Covid-19 pandemic has already killed more than 4,900 people. Underscoring the necessity of the US to collaborate across borders to deal with the crisis, the US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said: “We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus. And we need to be realistic about that.” US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement that he would ban all travel from Europe indicates his awareness of how serious the situation has become.

So far, the Trump administration has sent conflicting signals on whether it would collaborate with China. Trump has praised the efforts of President Xi Jinping to control the outbreak. However, the US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, somewhat gleefully, that the coronavirus could “help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America”.

The data does not support Ross’ claim. The global economy has begun to weaken in the wake of the pandemic, with stock markets falling in response, highlighting once again how interdependent our global system has become. Ross is also probably unaware, as reported in The New York Times, that “many of the active ingredients in life-saving generic drugs – the ones that stock hospital crash carts and maintain our daily well-being – come from China and India”. If this supply stops, many more people could die from the coronavirus.

Coronavirus: Singapore PM says pandemic could last a year

If humanity decides to take on board the real lesson from Covid-19 – that we all live together in a virus-infected cruise ship – the rational next step for the US and China to take would be to, once again, convene a G20 Summit of world leaders and immediately launch a strong and coordinated global response to the pandemic, before it kills more people. Fortunately, Trump knows that he needs a strong global economy powering a strong American economy to help his re-election prospects.

If Presidents Trump and Xi were to jointly announce that they are calling for a special G20 Summit, it would provide a massive boost to global confidence that the world is finally coming together to deal with Covid-19. Indeed, if Trump wants a quick fix to stop the falling stock markets, such an announcement could do it

The skills of the US and China are also complementary in the health field. The US still has the best medical research institutes. China has developed the best institutions of public administration to manage such health challenges. If the two of them could set aside their geopolitical differences temporarily and launch a massive joint effort to contain the coronavirus, the world would be much better off. The six billion people who live outside the US and China would also be massively relieved.

Our dangerously infected cruise ship, Planet Earth, desperately needs such decisive actions.

Kishore Mahbubani, a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, is the author of Has China Won? .


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