Sino-US Relations in the COVID-19 Era

Author Name: Maham S Gillani      04 May 2020     Global view

“I cannot think of a more dangerous time in the US-China relationship in the last 40 years, and the carnage from the corona virus has barely begun in the US,” wrote Bill Bishop, a China expert, who has been covering the country since decades, in his newsletter Sinocism. Recent statements by the President Trump vociferously accusing China of not stopping the virus at the source and threatening to seek damages for the US also reflect the fast deteriorating ties between the two states amid the spread of Covid-19 in many parts of the world, including the US.

However, relations between the two states were strained even before the outbreak of the novel corona virus, mainly because of the tougher actions by the Trump administration against China’s alleged unfair trade practices. The incumbent US government imposed custom duties of 25% on Chinese goods to the tune of $250 USD – severely affecting the Chinese steel and aluminum industry.

A temporary agreement in the trade conflict in late December last year led to hopes of warming up of ties. In addition, the novel coronavirus also presented a unique opportunity for more cooperation but as the pandemic spreads, Sino-US ties are whipsawing wildly. US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly used the controversial term “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” – which Chinese bodies have rejected as being racist.

China has been trying to reframe the narrative about the origin of the coronavirus, and it continues to emphasize that it has not been proven that the virus originated from a vet market in Wuhan. Furthermore, in a tit-for-tat move, Xinhua, the state news agency and the Global Times, a newspaper that is close to the state, spread the supposition that the virus had been imported to China by the US military in a joint exercise in autumn of 2019. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Fijian repeated the conspiracy theory in early March, which stoked anger in Washington.

The Sino-US conflict has not only peaked in terms of rhetoric but the escalation is tangible. China expelled 13 American journalists from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, from its territory. They were also banned from working in Macao and Hong Kong. In retaliatory move, Washington made it mandatory for the Chinese press bodies in the US to be registered as a foreign representation, in a similar way to an embassy. These bilateral restrictions and curbs on free reporting have impinged upon prospects of reconciliation between the two rivals in the foreseeable future.

Based on these dynamics, it is highly likely that the pandemic would accelerate a probable decoupling of the Chinese and US economies. Many companies in the US are growing increasingly wary of China-centric supply chains amid the enduring effects and repercussions of the trade war. This may intensify with popular sentiment in the United States turning against Beijing, and elected officials likelier to follow the tide. Albeit, economic cooperation over the past several decades has prevented US and China from adopting a confrontational posture towards each other; things are changing fast now.

Sino-US tensions are not limited to the economic and political domain but have also spilled to the military sphere. Beijing seeks to exert its influence in regions from which Washington is perceived as receding in the wake of Trump Administration’s more inwards looking approach. Decoupling as a consequence of the novel corona virus may also offer the Chinese Premier Xi Jinxing the ideal opportunity to break away with Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” foreign policy.

On the flip side, in order to check China’s “coercion of its neighbors”, while the region is grappling with the corona virus pandemic, a US Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed through waters close to the Paracel Islands last week in the South China Sea, challenging Beijing’s claim to the area. Aggression in the South China Sea may further grow, and Beijing could viably insert itself, both economically and militarily in other regions such as Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Notwithstanding the scenarios discussed above, the silver lining is that they have not yet materialized. Thinking about worst case projections now could aid in formulating a wide array of policy options to reduce the prevailing tensions and uncover potential opportunities to avoid a collision course that both states seem to be advancing towards.


The writer is a researcher at Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies. This article was first published in Daily NHT newspaper. She can be reached at


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