With COVID-19 vaccinations being distributed in earnest, there is reason to hope that the United States might finally be on the long road back to normal life. For most Americans, it is a future that cannot come soon enough.
But the present pandemic will not be the last. In an era of intense globalization, it is only a matter of time before another highly infectious disease spills across borders and reaches America’s shores. Once this virus has been brought under control, the Biden administration must get busy preparing for the next global public health crisis.
To do this effectively, President Joe Biden will have to reverse his predecessor’s short-sighted and self-defeating approach to U.S.-China relations.
Without U.S.-China cooperation, efforts to forestall another health catastrophe will be inadequate at best. At worst, it will be a pointless endeavor.
Unfortunately, some in the United States drew the wrong lessons from the experience of COVID-19. For former President Donald Trump, China was useful only insofar as it provided a scapegoat to divert attention from his own failed response to the pandemic. Trump accused Beijing of deliberately allowing the virus to spread, for example, and cynically used the occasion of a public health crisis to stoke nationalism and xenophobia at home.
Trade hawks in the Trump administration argued that their protectionist policies would make the United States better prepared to fend for itself in the event of another crisis. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even appeared to use the virus as a pretext for confronting China militarily.
It is essential that President Biden reject this view of U.S.-China relations.
First and foremost, the job of America’s leaders is to protect the American people. This means defending the country against hostile powers, to be sure, but it also means working with foreign nations wherever common solutions to international insecurity might be found.
Of course, it is true that China’s local and national leaders made grave errors during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is infuriating that Beijing has put out propaganda meant to obfuscate the truth about the origins of the virus. There is no doubt that China must change when it comes to health policy and transparency.
But none of this does anything to diminish the reality that China’s enormous heft will be essential to implementing effective rules, institutions, and protocols to keep the world safer in the future. Viewed in this light, the real “China threat” is not that Beijing might participate too much in global governance — but that it might fail to participate enough, or in the right ways.
For years, the United States has recognized China as an indispensable partner when it comes to tackling non-traditional security threats like climate change. In the wake of COVID-19, Biden will have to do what former President Barack Obama did in terms of environmental insecurity — that is, enlist China’s leaders in an international coalition to make the world a safer and healthier place.
Global cooperation is essential
If he makes a serious effort to engage China in this way, Biden will find that it is possible to encourage change from a great power like China but that reforms cannot be imposed from the outside. Beijing must be convinced that cooperation with Washington and the rest of the world is in the Chinese national interest, otherwise it will shun international collaboration.
The COVID-19 pandemic caught the world off-guard, but it should not have come as a surprise. Experts had long cautioned that a deadly global pandemic was possible — and, indeed, that such a risk ought to be considered inevitable in a world characterized by economic interdependence and affordable travel. Sadly, the threat of another terrible pandemic is something that must be accepted, planned for, managed, and mitigated.
In the past, events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 served as powerful reminders that what happens overseas can quickly upend the lives of Americans at home. The lesson of both tragedies was that even two great oceans cannot insulate the United States from the effects of international insecurity.
The COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed in a similar light, but it is important to draw the correct conclusions. It is now clear that improving global health and bolstering the world’s preparedness for a future pandemic are urgent tasks. But they are challenges to be overcome through international cooperation, not confrontation.
To ensure that joint action between the world’s governments can happen as it must, Biden will have no choice but to ignore the cacophony of anti-China voices and take steps to mend relations with Beijing. The alternative would be a literal disaster waiting to happen.
Peter Harris is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University.