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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic cost tens of thousands of lives and capsized the U.S. economy, relations between Beijing and Washington were heading south. Tougher domestic repression, greater aggressiveness toward Hong Kong, enhanced pressure on Taiwan, and increased assertiveness in Asia‐Pacific waters have unsettled American policymakers and allied nations in East Asia.
China’s poor response to the COVID-19 virus, especially the regime’s lack of transparency and punishment of doctors and journalists warning about the pandemic, inflamed political and public sentiment against Beijing.
Now the Trump administration appears determined to turn China’s poor response into a campaign issue. Joe Biden’s campaign has responded in kind. Republican legislators are even pushing to “make China pay,” proposing to strip Beijing of sovereign immunity to lawsuits and repudiate U.S. Treasury debt held by China. The result could be a race to the bottom in relations. Even the trade deal, which the administration celebrated in mid‐January as the virus began spreading, is now at risk.
Can the bilateral relationship survive the coming presidential campaign? More broadly, where should the relationship go? Is Beijing’s authoritarian direction likely permanent, or is a reversal of policy possible in Beijing once Xi Jinping no longer rules? Should the United States shift to a policy of containment and seek to isolate China by severing economic ties and emphasizing military responses? How would Washington’s East Asian allies, economically dependent on China, respond to such an approach?