You might be wondering what the coronavirus has to do with the US-China trade policy. The spread of the virus is taking a toll on the Chinese economy, which could make it more difficult for China to meet some of its commitments in the deal. But the coronavirus crisis is also an opportunity for the US to regain some favor with the Chinese people.
Not surprisingly, China’s state-run press has reported on the trade dispute and accompanying tariffs with an anti-US, anti-Trump tone. The US position on trade with China has always been about policy, economics, and fairness, not the Chinese people. Working with the Chinese to save lives can change how they interpret the US position on trade. When it comes to a health threat, we’re on the same team.
The Trump administration has pledged millions of dollars to help China and other countries deal with the challenge. The President also offered US brainpower. China initially rejected his proposal, but last week agreed to allow the World Health Organization (WHO) to send in an international team of experts—including US physicians—to help. This is good news for those most affected by the spread of the virus. It also sends a message that the US and China can collaborate on problems of mutual interest.
The Chinese government has a history of glossing over bad news and generally prefers to report that “everything is under control.” The SARS epidemic in 2003 illustrates how hiding the truth can be devastating (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-sars/the-shadow-of-sars-china-learned-the-hard-way-how-to-handle-an-epidemic-idUSKBN1ZL12B). Things might be different with the coronavirus. The more Chinese officials welcome (or at least permit) outside assistance, the more likely they will release accurate details about the virus.
The “everything is under control” mentality is not limited to health and politics. Overly optimistic economic reports from the Chinese government are also common. Growth statistics are notoriously unreliable and typically suggest steady progress supported by wise governance.
The first phase of the trade deal could mark the first step toward a more equitable relationship that supports open markets and freer trade in both directions. This would mean a new normal for Chinese business and will be challenging to accomplish. It will be easier to implement phase 1 of the trade agreement and work on phase 2 if there is some goodwill on both sides. We can generate this by helping China get the coronavirus under control.