This week the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) convenes in virtual format, under the shadow of a dangerous pandemic, and with the fate of the WHO perhaps never as uncertain. For all the attention it receives, the World Health Assembly does not determine the future of global health, and this year’s proceedings will be no different. Indeed, the novel coronavirus pandemic has amply demonstrated that the axis of global health politics now runs directly between Washington and Beijing.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has infected relations between the United States and China. In both countries, the crisis continues to fuel escalating accusations and nationalistic rhetoric that spread a contagion of mistrust and hostility and increase the prospects of conflict. Last week proved no different. The United States accused China of cyber-facilitated interference with the development of COVID-19 vaccines in the United States and warned that such behavior during a pandemic could be tantamount to an act of war. In China, commentary in state-controlled media made fresh contributions to what the New York Times called “an outpouring of vitriol as acrid as anything seen in decades.”
This outbreak of political anger threatens to damage efforts needed to defeat the pandemic, support economic recovery, and stabilize the long-term relationship between the world’s most powerful countries to their mutual benefit. It does not have to be this way. The United States and China can still chart a different course by working together to lead the campaign against COVID-19, strengthen the prospects for global economic recovery, and ensure that the pandemic does not poison their strategic interactions for decades to come.
Pathogens do not respect politics, but pandemics do often become political. As the COVID-19 outbreak has again demonstrated, management of outbreaks requires response measures that reflect scientific evidence and follow proven public health strategies. But defeating microbial mayhem also needs leadership from powerful countries that cuts through the politics of uncertainty, fear, and blame that infectious diseases bring. With pandemics, the leadership needed must often break with politics as usual in order to blaze new paths toward better human, economic, and political health.
A pandemic in need of a summit
In this century, the United States has repeatedly provided groundbreaking leadership on global health. The U.S. government’s influence has been pivotal to radical changes in how countries cooperate on health. These changes include the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria and the rewriting of the international health regulations to achieve global health security. The towering achievement of U.S. leadership is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), established in 2003 by President George W. Bush. With PEPFAR, the United States helped transform the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
U.S. leadership has also been decisive in recalibrating geopolitical relationships between the United States and rival powers. President Ronald Reagan’s surprising willingness to work with Mikhail Gorbachev changed the strategic environment between the United States and the Soviet Union in ways that contributed to the end of the Cold War. President Richard M. Nixon’s decision to meet Mao Zedong and begin normalizing relations with China in 1972 was another bold, unexpected move. It improved the position of the United States in the international balance of power and transitioned Sino-American relations away from the bitter antagonism that had prevailed since the Chinese revolution in 1949.
The manner in which the United States and China have made the coronavirus pandemic part of their rivalry is jeopardizing the global response to this deadly outbreak, creating collateral damage for the broader relationship between the two countries, and spilling over into other challenges the world faces. The moment has come for the United States to demonstrate global health and geopolitical leadership by leveraging its power to improve international cooperation on the pandemic and prevent outbreak politics from exacerbating the differences it has with China on issues unrelated to global health.
President Trump can seize this moment by proposing to meet President Xi Jinping for a summit in Wuhan focused on building bilateral collaboration. Such a summit could catalyze national, regional, and multilateral efforts to manage the pandemic and prepare the way for global economic recovery. Transforming how the United States and China deal with each other on the pandemic would enable governments and international institutions, including the beleaguered WHO, to prevail over the pandemic and prepare the world for the challenging post-pandemic future.
Such a bold move from Trump would, indeed, be unexpected. But it would be an act of strength that could make history by resetting global health strategies against a pernicious pathogen and stabilizing the U.S.-China relationship at a precarious time in world affairs.
Of course, for “Trump goes to Wuhan” to reverberate in the history books, the president needs a Gorbachev or a Mao. Xi must also rise to the moment by exhibiting political fortitude and strategic foresight. He must recognize the importance for China’s interests and place in the world of working with Trump on getting countries to cooperate more constructively on the pandemic and on economic recovery.
A summit between Presidents Trump and Xi would represent an act of desperately needed political leadership that would acknowledge, before it is too late, the special responsibility that the United States and China have to shepherd the world through this dark time and into a safer tomorrow.