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Trump Changes Tone on China

For the Trump administration, China has played the role of enemy in several past chapters of foreign affairs and economic negotiation, but the US government is now trying to work together with Chinese officials. The shift comes as US deaths from COVID-19 have exceeded 1,000 per day for the first time.

The Beijing-Washington Divide

Beijing and Washington have been at odds since President Donald Trump rode into Washington promising to renegotiate trade with Beijing, which he said had been taking advantage of the US for decades. Trump, he said in the third person, knew how to make the biggest and best deals. 

Thus began the US–China trade war. On Jan. 15, it appeared to be coming to an end as Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed Phase One of the agreement. But only two weeks later, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, delivered Trump a new framework in which Beijing could once again play the role of villain.

Blame Game

To be certain, the Communist Party of China (CPC) took actions that critics might consider unscrupulous. It silenced Dr. Li Wenliang who raised the alarm at the beginning of the outbreak. After he died from the virus, the CPC conveniently exonerated him, but by then the virus had already become a global pandemic.

Some international observers have also questioned the accuracy of CPC reports on the number of Covid-19 cases. “Nobody believes China’s numbers,” said Mario Esteban, a senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid. 

For a variety of reasons, relations between Washington and Beijing are at their lowest point in decades. Trump has maintained a hardline view on China economically, but he cannot sever ties and apply “maximum pressure” as he does with Iran and Venezuela.

On the virus front, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had insisted on labeling the Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus” until recently. The terminology was so important to his administration that it even held up a G7 meeting. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have also blamed Beijing for their own failure to adequately prepare the US for the scenario it now faces: weeks wasted on inaction, critically low supplies, and incoherent messaging. It is, in the words of Pence, China’s fault that the US is struggling with Covid-19.

‘Really Good’ Relationship

This Thursday, the administration’s tone changed. No longer would it seek to label the virus as “Chinese” or “Wuhan”. Furthermore, Washington is accepting deliveries of medical supplies from China and the American leader spoke highly of the relationship between the two states.

“The relationship with China is a good one, and my relationship with [Xi] is really good,” Trump said. He also added that he “will always assume the best” about Beijing’s leadership. 

Both sides have decided that they can accomplish more by working together. China had been partially to blame as some of its officials spread a rumor that the US created the virus in a lab and American soldiers spread the virus in Wuhan. Putting the war of words behind them, Xi and Trump understand the need for a coordinated global effort.

The seriousness of the pandemic is underscored by rising death rates. Deaths in Spain have hovered around 900 per day for the past week, France has crossed the 1,000 deaths per day threshold for two days in a row, and the US similarly has recorded two days of over 1,000 deaths each.

‘Nobody Cares About Trade’

At the urging of several top officials. Including son-in-law Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Trump has come to see the virus as top priority in order to revitalize the economy, and trade talks along with it. At least publicly, Trump is sidelining the trade discussions.

“This whole invisible enemy has taken over the world. Nobody cares about trade,” Trump said while recapping a phone call with Xi.

Privately, however, he has continued to pressure advisors to deliver him positive export data that reflect increased agricultural sales to Beijing. Boosting American exports to China is considered vital to Trump’s re-election campaign, so that he may say he accomplished a goal he set in 2016 — upending the global trade dynamic to benefit the US.

A Welcome Shift

Trade deal aside, the new tone of cooperation between the world’s two largest economies is a welcome development in the fight against Covid-19. The world — not only America — needs masks and other protection fro medical professionals. China has the factories and labor force to quickly scale up production in a way that the US simply cannot at this time.

Furthermore, China remains at the heart of the virus pandemic. Its data, observations, and findings are critical to understanding how it originated and how to stop it. Although there are reasons to doubt Beijing’s credibility, the US gain’s nothing from festering in the communication breakdown. Working together, China may find itself opening up enough that future pandemics could be prevented.