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COVID-19 Is Finishing Off the Sino-American Relationship

At a time when the world is facing an imminent shared threat, an escalating cold war between its two largest economies is the last thing anyone needs. And yet, given a toxic brew of ideological hostility, a prolonged trade war, geopolitical rivalry, and domestic politicking, that outcome is more likely than not.

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Having already claimed nearly 217,000 lives and sent the global economy toward its deepest slump since the Great Depression, the COVID-19 crisis is bound to reshape geopolitics. While the contours of the post-pandemic order remain to be seen, one thing seems certain: far from normalizing their relationship, the United States and China are likely to become increasingly estranged – and increasingly hostile.

Even before the current crisis erupted, the Sino-American relationship was on life support. The outbreak may have sounded its death knell. In particular, evidence that local Chinese authorities initially suppressed information about the new coronavirus, together with the severe disruption of global supply chains caused by China’s sudden nationwide lockdown, highlighted for most Americans two sources of severe vulnerability stemming from the bilateral relationship.

The first is China’s repressive political system. While Americans have long been aware of the ideological chasm between their country and China, to most it was largely an abstraction. Stories about the forcible detainment of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, the repression and abuse of Tibetans, and the persecution of political dissidents were harrowing, but distant. For many, they were merely evidence of the US system’s superiority.