As Washington and Beijing wage war against the new coronavirus, they are also fighting a public relations battle against each other—one that could expand into a broader conflict that would serve neither country’s interests.

The opening salvos were fired in early January 2020, as the virus’s spread became apparent. Beijing criticized Washington for implementing restrictive travel bans, calling it an “overreaction.” Washington rightly censured Beijing for covering up the virus’s initial spread and not being transparent with the world, but also used careless language to say the outbreak could be an opportunity for U.S. businesses.

At the time, these developments foreshadowed a further downturn in relations during a devastating viral outbreak. As we wrote in February, “U.S.-China collaboration to eradicate the coronavirus is a chance for both countries to demonstrate they can still cooperate in times of crisis. There are compelling humanitarian and moral reasons for both sides to look past their differences and work together. . . . But the climate in both capitals today indicates that this may not be the case anymore.”

Paul Haenle
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center based at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Haenle served as the director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia Affairs on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama prior to joining Carnegie.

Developments since then, unfortunately, have proven this true. Furthermore, it appears the situation is worsening, as both China and the United States have used the crisis to deliberately inflict damage on the other.

A War of Words

China, for now at least, appears to be emerging from the worst of the crisis. President Xi Jinping’s visit to the epicenter of the pandemic in Wuhan, rumors that a new date for China’s annual Two Session meeting has been set for late April or early May, and even the arrival of Pakistan’s president in Beijing last week signal a renewed confidence from Chinese leadership.

Now that COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is better controlled within China, Beijing is shifting needed resources abroad. The Foreign Ministry announced it was sending medical equipment to hard-hit countries like South Korea, Iran, and Iraq, and China has sent two teams of medical professionals to assist Italy.

Yet China’s nascent rebound has exacerbated hostilities with the United States even beyond the trade and economic realm. Most recently, Washington and Beijing began methodically expelling each other’s journalists. China escalated that feud on March 18 with an unprecedented ban on reporters from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, Beijing has launched an active public relations campaign to say the virus did not originate in China. Chinese embassies are being instructed to assign the virus labels after other countries, such as the “Italian virus,” in an attempt to counter references to the “Wuhan virus.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson and newly appointed Deputy Director of China’s Foreign Ministry Information Department Zhao Lijian has also repeatedly claimed the virus may have originated in the United States or even been brought to China by the U.S. military. A tweet of Zhao’s propagating that claim has been shared by Chinese ambassadors in Cameroon, France, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, the Philippines and other countries.

These attempts have not gone unnoticed in Washington. Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai was summoned to the State Department to explain Zhao’s actions. In a call between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese Director of the Office of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi, Pompeo “conveyed strong U.S. objections to [People’s Republic of China] efforts to shift blame for COVID-19 to the United States.”

The U.S. administration is right to adamantly push back on China’s unvalidated claims. As Rush Doshi, director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative, has argued, “China wants to claim leadership of the global coronavirus response . . . but covering up the virus and brazenly lying about its origins complicates the effort.”

For the most part, however, the United States has only succeeded in stoking the flames. Despite pleas from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not to adopt geographic labels such as “Chinese coronavirus,” senior officials continue to do so. Pompeo consistently refers to the “Wuhan virus,” and President Donald Trump tweets about the “Chinese Virus.” This is in addition to gratuitously and frequently referencing China as the virus’s source in press conferences. According to a recent report, the administration is also rolling out a communications plan to better coordinate talking points and responses for China-related questions, focusing the blame for the outbreak squarely on Beijing.

Washington cannot and should not stand for false statements made by Beijing. But it also cannot allow itself to be goaded by Beijing’s propaganda machine, particularly now that the Chinese have been emboldened by Trump’s initial mismanagement of the virus’s spread in the United States.

Cooperation Amid Crisis

Instead of squabbling over the name of the virus, the administration should focus its efforts on promoting practical areas of cooperation with Beijing, beginning at this week’s virtual conference of G20 leaders. One valuable starting point would be vaccination efforts and information sharing among officials and medical personnel. The recently announced partnership by German company BioNTech, U.S. company Pfizer, and Chinese company Shanghai Fosun to develop and distribute a vaccine offers a good example of what’s needed. Moreover, cooperation between the private sector and national governments—at a time when the executive branch is unlikely to take the lead on such efforts—can help restore trust in the broader relationship.

Given the ongoing bilateral trade and economic dispute, Washington and Beijing should also ensure supply chains remain operational in order to deliver essential medical supplies and material. As detailed by Chad Bown from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Trump’s tariffs have diverted imports of critical Chinese medical supplies and led to a 26 percent reduction of “all medical goods imported from all countries.” Despite temporary reductions to those tariffs by Trump in recent weeks, the administration must ensure that its trade policy does not hinder the United States’ ability to procure needed material.

Open communication channels are desperately needed. The United States and China should restore and revamp elements of former ministerial-level dialogues that addressed issues like pandemics and disease control. Following the outbreaks of SARS and the H5N1 flu, the United States and China launched initiatives such as the Collaborative Program on Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases and a U.S.-China Health Care Forum to establish best practices and dialogue on economic and policy issues impacting global health. Then, as should be the case now, both countries recognized that there are significant opportunities to learn from each other despite their different political and economic systems.

Critically, both countries must stop the gratuitous provocative rhetoric. Especially as a growing number of U.S. and Chinese citizens are affected by the virus, for either country to scapegoat the other could hinder cooperative efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and ultimately have a devastating effect on bilateral relations. Recent remarks by Cui disavowing Zhao’s speculation mark a positive step forward.

As the United States enters a state of emergency and China emerges from one, the moment is prime for leaders to rise above political interests. Both countries should be making every effort to avert a crisis of diplomacy before their opportunity slips away.