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12 experts on how the US should hold China accountable for the coronavirus

“Nobody wins a pandemic,” said one expert.

China’s President Xi Jinping shakes hands with President Donald Trump before a bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Pressure is mounting on President Donald Trump to take action against China for its role in hiding the severity of the coronavirus outbreak. And what he chooses to do could greatly impact not only the future of the pandemic, but also the world’s most important global relationship.

Republican lawmakers want Trump to consider harsh measures against Beijing such as sanctioning Chinese leaders, opening a formal investigation into the disease’s origins, removing Chinese pharmaceutical companies from America’s supply chain, and more.

So far, Trump’s only retribution for the outbreak of over 2 million cases worldwide has been against the World Health Organization (WHO), an international body that helps countries identify and curb pandemics. On Tuesday, Trump announced he was freezing US funding for the WHO while his administration reviews how the organization handled the early signs of a health crisis out of Wuhan, China, the disease’s origination point.

But if Trump actually wanted to reprimand Beijing, what would be the best way for him to do that? To get a better sense of the options available to him, I asked 12 policy experts, including US lawmakers, former top US officials, and academics, what actions they’d recommend the president take.

Their responses, lightly edited for length and clarity, are below.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), ranking member, Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and Cybersecurity Policy

First, we need to be clear that we are talking about the Chinese government and ruling party, not the people of China. That’s important not only to prevent further escalation of the destructive anti-Asian racism we see here at home, but also to recognize Chinese doctors and nurses who were on the front lines from the start, independent Chinese journalists persecuted for their coverage, and people across China using the internet to echo Dr. Li Wenliang’s call for greater transparency, only to be silenced by censors.

We don’t know the true extent of the Chinese government’s complicity in the spread of the virus, and we may never have a full picture due to their obfuscation and control of information. We do know that they lied to their own people and the world about the details and spread of the virus, and today we face a pandemic that has left no country untouched.

We need a deliberate US effort to counter Chinese influence and manipulation of international institutions. The administration cannot complain about an increasingly assertive China in international organizations, such as the WHO, when it fails to appoint diplomats to top posts and uses its own yearly contributions as blunt instruments rather than tools to shape policies in our interests. When the United States is absent on the world stage, China is only too happy to fill the void. This endangers our health security and national security.

Looking forward, we need to make sure that the United States has a medical supply chain that is not reliant on China or other foreign suppliers. We need to restore a stronger US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presence in China, as well as an embedded US presence in the Chinese CDC and unimpeded international access to identify the origins of the coronavirus.

The United States must also lead action in the UN Security Council to ensure that in the event of a declared health emergency, all countries grant on-the-ground access to WHO officials, as well as require that all countries transparently disseminate timely public health information to the WHO and to their own people. The WHO should no longer be at the mercy of a single member-state for information that affects the security of all countries.

And we need a commission akin to the 9/11 Commission, as I have called for, that recommends further actions to ensure that the mistakes that led to this health pandemic never happen again.

Jacob Stokes, senior policy analyst in the China program, US Institute of Peace

The US response should focus on establishing the facts surrounding the virus’s origins and China’s early missteps in a credible, impartial, and scientific manner. This approach makes sense for two reasons.

The first is that, based on reliable reporting about China’s initial fumbling, the facts appear to be damning on their own. The United States should make sure that evidence of Chinese mishandling and politicization of the problem is exhaustively documented and well-understood around the world. Washington should recognize, however, that letting the facts speak for themselves will be more convincing to third parties than trying to embellish or sensationalize. The United States should show, not tell.

Second, in the contest of governance systems between liberal democracy and authoritarian capitalism, openness and transparency are advantages — the lack of which seemingly allowed the virus to take hold in the first instance. Ensuring the facts are brought to light in a credible way, in conjunction with allies and multilateral organizations, will pressure China to take responsibility. And it could result in other positive outcomes as well, such as further boosting Taiwan’s image abroad.

Next, if one of the two leading theories about the virus’s origin — that it started in a Wuhan wet market, or that it accidentally escaped a Chinese lab that was studying animal coronaviruses — turns out to be correct, then pressuring Beijing to fix disastrous regulatory and enforcement failures should obviously be a top priority. The same goes for upholding China’s commitments to international public health agreements.

The overriding goal of any response, though, should be preventing another pandemic. Policymakers should avoid creating incentives for any country, including China, to avoid reporting a potential outbreak in the future for fear of being blamed or punished. Imposing sanctions on Chinese officials or allowing victims to sue China for Covid-19-related damages could dissuade countries from sounding the alarm early next time.

I generally favor taking a tougher line toward China on a range of policy issues, from its assertive military behavior to its human rights crackdown and abusive trade practices. But there should be some issues both superpowers try to separate from geopolitical competition, even if they won’t be 100 percent successful, because those issues are fundamentally negative-sum games.

Nobody “wins” a pandemic. We should keep that in mind right now.

Michelle Murray, director of global initiatives, Bard College

First, the United States should not use China as a scapegoat for the pandemic and its failed response at home. When the Trump administration refers to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus,” it not only conjures up racist stereotypes that are unethical in their own right, but also serves to shift the blame for the pandemic squarely onto China.

Without a doubt, China’s failure to be transparent about the emergence of the virus in November and its failure to involve international health experts to manage the containment led the disease to spread throughout the world. It is also true, however, that the United States is the current epicenter of the pandemic in no small part because of the bungled response of the Trump administration and its failure to organize even minimal preparations.

Put simply, the blame-shifting from the Trump administration elides the fact that both China and the United States bear responsibility in creating the conditions that exist today. An important effect of this rhetoric is that it positions China as a lesser, distinctly incapable global power relative to the superior United States, which in turn, precludes the kind of international cooperation that a pandemic requires.

Second, the United States must actively seek China’s help in understanding and containing the novel coronavirus. These efforts should include the creation of an international working group to coordinate efforts to address the pandemic, whose mandate encourages the sharing of scientific expertise among states in order to guide policy.

As the first country to experience the pandemic, Chinese scientists have unique knowledge to contribute to such an effort and could take a leading role in shaping the global response to the disease. By designing a response that engages China on the science of the virus, the US may recognize the important role China can play in this area, while also sidestepping the many thorny political dynamics that have characterized US-China relations over the past several years.

Whatever form it takes, recognition and cooperation must be at the center of any American response to China’s role in the spread of the coronavirus. If done with care, these cooperative endeavors could provide the foundation for cooperation in other areas of US-China relations in the years to come.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health, Council on Foreign Relations

There is really not much the US can do. We could blame China for causing the outbreak, but the US was the origin of the 1918 Spanish flu [Editor’s note: this is still disputed] and arguably the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

We could say that China should be held accountable for the pandemic, especially given its initial mishandling of the outbreak. But our own handling of the outbreak was characterized by inaction and ineffectiveness, not to mention that in international politics, we cannot really hold a sovereign state “accountable” for a disease outbreak.

Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), chair, House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation

China has not been a responsible international partner in the global fight against Covid-19.

China’s lack of transparency and cooperation with the global health community, including the United States, slowed down our understanding of the virus and how to contain it — putting the world at far greater risk. In the critical early stages of the virus, China refused to allow international experts to come to the epicenter of the virus and suppressed information about the severity of the virus. China is culpable for their inactions and mismanagement.

But in order for us to ultimately defeat Covid-19, it will require a coordinated global response. As one of the world’s most powerful countries, China is a critical actor in the fight against coronavirus and any future pandemic outbreak.

Moving forward, it’s incumbent that China understands the important role it plays in the global health community and acts as a responsible and transparent partner. As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, I will continue to press the global community, including China, to do everything it can to prevent another pandemic outbreak like Covid-19.

Ryan Hass, China director on the National Security Council from 2013 to 2017; fellow, Brookings Institution

No one who has been closely watching the unfolding of this pandemic could conclude that it had emerged from anywhere other than China, or that China’s negligent initial response to the outbreak did not contribute to its spread. The world knew all of this, even before Washington and Beijing prodded each other into a counterproductive narrative war.

It’s deeply unfortunate that the world’s two most capable powers are consumed by finger-pointing and blame-shifting while the pandemic spreads, literally killing thousands and destroying economies in its wake.

The United States will not be able to protect its people until it stamps out the virus in every corner of the world. Such an outcome will not be possible unless a consortium of powers pools its capabilities to do so. It’s hard to imagine that occurring until the United States and China find a way toward even a minimal level of coordination (e.g., on vaccine trials, production, and delivery).

To keep the focus where it needs to be in the midst of this crisis — saving lives and stopping the spread of the virus — it would be helpful if both Washington and Beijing could commit now, that after the crisis has passed, they both will fully and transparently support a UN-led after-action report of Covid-19, whereby leading scientists could determine the origin of the virus, causes of its rapid spread, and lessons that must be learned to prevent a recurrence.

Jiaqi Liang, assistant professor, University of Illinois at Chicago

In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, both the US and China had moments of mismanagement. Amid the escalated feud between the two countries, we have seen the importance of their interconnection and the negative impacts of worsened US-China relations.

China has played a critical role in the global supply chain, including pharmaceutical active ingredients and personal protective equipment (PPE), which are in high demand in many countries. Also, to fight the pandemic, we need close cooperation and communication among the global scientific and public health care communities, in which China is an important actor with much-needed experiences and lessons.

Meanwhile, the widespread economic fallout in the US and Europe has taken a toll on China’s economy, even if the latter has tried to jump-start its economic activities after a months-long lockdown.

Looking ahead, the US and China should rebuild their relations through mutual understanding, continued dialogue, and long-term collaboration.

Daniel Russel, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2013 to 2017; vice president, international security and diplomacy, Asia Society Policy Institute

Accountability is needed for China’s failure to close its “wet markets,” as it pledged to do after the SARS outbreak; its failure to inform the world promptly of the dangerous new pathogen emerging in Wuhan; and the initial cover-up that allowed the new virus to spread far beyond Wuhan and spill across international borders.

But the ability of the US to lead an appropriate response depends on Washington restoring lost credibility. So first and foremost, the US government needs to launch an effective effort to stem the outbreak in America, aid afflicted countries, lead global coordination through the G20 and the WHO, and rapidly produce a vaccine against the coronavirus.

Only then will the US have the credibility needed to hold China to account.

Maria Adele Carrai, associate research scholar, Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University

It would be an error for the US to blame China as “responsible” for the Covid-19 outbreak.

According to the International Health Regulations (2005), state parties have reporting requirements. They have to inform the WHO of all cases of human influenza caused by a new subtype in their territories within 24 hours. While China did not report immediately, and contributed to a delay in the global response, it cannot be considered the culprit in a pandemic.

The reason is that there is no proper definition of international responsibility for pandemics. In practice, no single actor has been held accountable for pandemics so far. And while the US can continue to promote reforms in China and reestablish dialogue and trust, the best response is to increase cooperation with the international community and lead the development of international health law.

Following the example of President George W. Bush’s International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, the US could also lead new forms of international cooperation to increase international coordination, transparency, and international capacity to identify and contain new pandemics.

This is not the time for the US to withdraw from international organizations. It is time to actively participate in them and reform them, filling the gaps in pandemic accountability and responsibility.

Aaron Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs, Princeton University; author, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia

The time to press for a full accounting of Beijing’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic will be once the current crisis has begun to recede.

For the moment, without getting our hopes up, we should remain open to the possibility of cooperating with China in fighting the virus and coping with its consequences. At the same time, however, we should vigorously counter Beijing’s efforts to rewrite history and cast itself as a savior and a model rather than as the source of this catastrophe.

In the somewhat longer term, the United States and other like-minded countries should create an independent, international “truth commission” to explore the origins and unfolding of the pandemic.

Aside from whatever happens with China, the US and other democracies should work together to enhance coordination and improve cooperation on a wide range of issues, including reducing their dependence on China for the drugs, medical devices, and other equipment that will be needed to fight the next global outbreak of infectious disease.

Mary Gallagher, director of the Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan

The US should highlight China’s missteps through open sources of information, especially our media institutions and academic research. In particular, investigative journalists and academic researchers should analyze China’s official data on infections and deaths as there is likely significant underreporting.

We should highlight the institutional and regulatory failures that led to the delay in reporting and to the punishment of whistleblowers, activists, and journalists, which continues to this day. Media outlets outside of China should continue to highlight the censorship, repression, and information control that squash independent Chinese voices.

More generally, there should be a strong pushback against the official Chinese Communist Party narrative that President Xi Jinping and the party [have asserted], instead of against China’s citizens, civil society, and health care workers.

The US should reverse its decision to halt funding to the WHO. It should admit to its own mistakes from late January until early March in downplaying the severity of the virus. And it should spearhead an international effort to control the pandemic and develop a successful vaccine.

Marine Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson (Ret.), US assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs from 2009 to 2011; senior adviser, Avascent Global Advisors

The best thing we could do in the wake of China’s past actions is to lead the international response, building networks of cooperation and sharing research, development, and logistical support to health workers.

Unfortunately, we’re forfeiting that chance by missing no opportunity to pick fights with our allies and friends. The polling on expectations overseas and even in our hemisphere that we will “do the right thing” are terrible. We compete over supplies, and in Asia we are picking counterproductive fights with South Korea and Japan over cost-sharing.

We grew to unprecedented power after World War II by helping our allies and friends, in what used to be called the “free world,” become successful. Democracy grew around the world, most notably in Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, and other places. Now democracy declines across the globe, in large part because we’ve forgotten who we are.

If China emerges from the pandemic as an international leader, we have only ourselves to blame.

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