Covid-19 and US-China Ties: The Importance of Subnational Actors

President Trump meets with the Coronavirus Task Force
President Trump meets with the Coronavirus Task Force. Image credit: The White House / Public domain

Governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, thanked China on Saturday April 4, 2020 for its donation of 1,000 ventilators. Jack Ma, Joe Tsai, the Jack Ma Foundation and the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation contributed to this stock. The New York state governor, in a media interaction, said that this assistance from China was ‘a big deal’ and would be useful in the fight against the coronavirus. New York has been hardest hit state by the pandemic – and has clearly emerged as the epicenter of the coronavirus in the US. As of Wednesday, April 8, 2020, the number of coronavirus cases in New York State was 1,51,171 (total cases in the US were 4,35,160) and deaths arising from the virus were over 6,268 (total deaths in the US were 14,797).

Chinese Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai in an article for the New York Times ‘China and the U.S. must cooperate against Corona Virus’ published on April 5, 2020 pitched for greater US-China cooperation in the fight against the pandemic, and the need to move beyond a zero-sum approach. 

In recent weeks, the US and China have been engaged in mud slinging instead of finding constructive cooperation. The US President Donald Trump along with other policymakers dubbed the coronavirus as a ‘Chinese Virus’, a Republican senator even dubbed the coronavirus as a bioweapon created by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also used strong language against China. A spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China, made an equally ludicrous claim that the US is responsible for the creation of the virus. After a conversation between Chinese President  Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump things seemed to have calmed down with Trump saying that the two leaders had a ‘very good conversation’, the US President also stated that both countries would work jointly. The New York Governor’s praise for China’s assistance will also send the right signals. 

China’s assistance to other countries

It would be pertinent to point out that China has donated 2 million surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks and 50,000 testing kits to Italy. Jack Ma apart from committing assistance for the US, has also stated that he will donate 1 million testing kits to Africa and provide emergency supplies to a number of South Asian and Southeast Asian Countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Apart from masks and testing kits the emergency supplies include protective suits, ventilators and thermometers.

China’s assistance proves a number of points. First, while criticism of China for suppressing facts with regard to the spread of the coronavirus and not providing information to the rest of the world in time has some merit, cooperation is essential. At this point of time, the challenge before the international community is to find synergies and weather the current storm.

Second, if one were to look specifically at the case of the US, skepticism of China is not just restricted to the Republicans. On issues like Huawei’s participation in US’ 5G network, Human Rights violations, the lack of transparency and ‘hidden agenda’ of Confucious Institutes (Chinese government funded centers set up with the aim of teaching Mandarin and promoting greater awareness about China), Democrats too have taken a tough stand vis-à-vis China. Yet, a tough stand needn’t be a simplistic one where even US allies are uncomfortable with US rhetoric. Democrats including the party’s Presidential candidate Joe Biden, have been critical of China, but not been as predictable as Trump. Trump’s usage of the term ‘Chinese virus’ has also not gone down well with many Americans believing it is racist and has led to racist attacks on Asian Americans.

Third, American states have differed with Trump on his approach towards crucial foreign policy issues. Interestingly, Andrew Cuomo along with California Governor Jerry Brown and Washington Governor, Jay Inslee, was the first to oppose Donald Trump’s announcement in June 1, 2017  of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. The three states set up the US Climate Alliance which consists of states committed to the Paris Climate Agreement and to taking tough steps in order to fight climate change.

US-China ties and the role of American state capitals

Twenty five governors including two Republican governors (Maryland and Massachusetts) are now part of the US Climate Alliance. Even after the announcement by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the US was withdrawing from the agreement, the Alliance criticized the Trump administration’s decision. Members of the alliance said that they represented half the US population and accounted for an economy of nearly $12 trillion. On the issue of ties with China, a number of American states have opposed Trump’s policies, arguing that the Trade Wars were harming US economic interests as well. Even during the midst of tensions between Beijing and Washington, attempts were made to enhance economic linkages between American states and Chinese provinces.

In February, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned US states to be careful while pursuing economic ties with China, stating that Beijing was trying to exploit divisions within the US to its advantage. He argued that the Chinese Communist Party was setting up friendship societies to lobby US states.

At this point of time, the key issue is dealing with the mammoth challenges posed by the coronavirus epidemic and ensuring that through greater global cooperation a feasible solution is found. While geopolitical rivalries cannot be wished away, it is essential for countries even having strained ties, joining hands in the fight against the epidemic. Sub-national units – states, local governments and provinces, often accused of not thinking of national interest, also have a role to play; the ties fostered between US states and Chinese provinces have played a positive role in reducing tensions between the US and China in the past. In 2011, a US-China Governors Forum was begun to strengthen sub-national cooperation. Even in the current crisis, US states have been proactive not just in dealing with the coronavirus, but also in seeking assistance from other countries including China. 

It would be pertinent to point out that not just in the US but in many other countries, including India, sub-national governments are playing a pivotal role in the fight against the coronavirus. 

A number of lessons emerge from the current crisis. Firstly, the Covid-19 pandemic reiterates the need for international cooperation – this of course requires pragmatism, as well as magnanimity (something the US President Donald Trump has lacked). Secondly, a strong federal government is not the panacea for all the problems. If anything, innovative leaders at the state/provincial level are an asset for national governments during a crisis and both need to work in tandem.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.