Ryan Hass on the Coronavirus Rhetoric War

Ryan Hass is a fellow and the Michael H. Armacost Chair in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, where he holds a joint appointment to the John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies. He is also a nonresident affiliated fellow in the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. Prior to joining Brookings, Hass served as the director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council (NSC) staff from 2013-2017. In that role, he advised President Obama and senior White House officials on all aspects of U.S. policy toward China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, and coordinated the implementation of U.S. policy toward this region among U.S. government departments and agencies. Prior to the White House, Hass was a Foreign Service Officer, serving overseas in Beijing, Seoul, and Ulaanbaatar, and domestically in the State Department Offices of Taiwan Coordination and Korean Affairs.

Shreya Bhatnagar CMC '20 interviewed Dr. Ryan Hass on April 17, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Ryan Hass on behalf of Brookings Institute.

Countries are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in varied and distinct ways. There has been a lack of coordination between the U.S. and China in comparison to past efforts to mitigate global crises, like the 2008 Financial Crisis or the Ebola outbreak. Why has has there been much less coordination during the current crisis?

Over time a pattern emerged whereby the United States and China during periods of intense competition were able to set down their sticks, so to speak, and come together when needed. Unfortunately, that pattern appears to have been broken. In the time of COVID-19, we are entering a new phase of the relationship that seems to lack coordination on shared challenges. This new phase is colored by a belief held by both sides that the relationship is increasingly zero-sum in nature, where a gain for one is a loss for the other.  And so, when the challenge of COVID-19 came into focus, the natural impulse was to not come together as was the common pattern previously, and instead try to secure advantage over the other. This has manifested itself in a number of other things, including a “narrative war” over where the virus originated and who is most responsible for the enormous pain that people from all over the world are now experiencing.

The U.S. and China seem to be engaged in a “narrative war” regarding the emergence and transmission of the novel coronavirus. Apart from fringe conspiracy theories and efforts to name the coronavirus the “Wuhan” virus, both sides have made considerable efforts to blame each other or find fault with how the other is handling the crisis. Can you speak to how this divergence in narratives emerged in both countries?

First of all, the narrative war is a pox on both houses. Both sides clearly believe that the other side is responsible for instigating the narrative war and they are reacting to the other’s attitudes accordingly. As an American, I find comments made by China’s Spokesperson Zhao Lijian extremely distasteful. He is doing a great disservice to the Chinese international image and is an embarrassment to China’s diplomatic corps. I’ve worked with Chinese diplomats for over a decade and I can tell you from first-hand experience that they are embarrassed by his behavior. But I also recognize that Chinese counterparts there are angered by comments that U.S. congressmen, the Secretary of State, and President Trump have made as well.  And to a certain extent, both sides are seeking to deflect blame and responsibility. However, Zhao Lijian’s  comments demonstrate China’s weaknesses more than strength. Anyone who has been watching the unfolding of this virus knows that it originated in Wuhan and China’s negligence contributed to its global spread. Chinese propagandists are really trying to rewrite the narrative of COVID-19 to put their government in a more favorable light as part of their effort to deflect attention to the U.S. Here, comments by President Trump and others reflect a deeply felt anger and frustration towards China’s handling of the initial response. I expect that we are going to hear a lot more about China's culpability for the crisis as the presidential election heats up.

How do the recent U.S.-China trade tensions impact the situation?

To be honest, I would be reluctant to ascribe current tension in the U.S.-China relationship to the trade war. If you think back to January 15th when the Phase I trade deal was signed, that was supposed to put a floor underneath the relationship to guard against further deterioration; a good news story that both sides are capable of solving  problems. Here we are three months later, and the relationship is in a worst place than before. It didn’t work out as planned, with the overall tension between the two countries now broader and deeper. At a concrete level, we know now that tariffs had an effect on American purchases of medical personal protective equipment (PPE) from China. After the tariffs were put in place, the volume of PPE imports from China slowed down. Tariffs are not the cause of America’s shortage of PPE at the start of the outbreak, but it certainly contributed to it.

Given the current level of animosity between the two countries, some worry that we are at the cusp of a new Cold War between the U.S. and China. Do you agree? Why or why not?

My sense is that the overall relationship is the worst it has been since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. In the current moment, there are fewer areas of cooperation, more areas of confrontation, and limited capacity for managing tensions. The relationship has become one not of rivals, but of adversaries. With a rival, you try to outmaneuver or surpass the other. With an adversary, you see the other side’s pain as your gain. And so, even as I hold that view about the overall relationship, I am not yet comfortable drawing Cold War parallels. Part of this reluctance is that bad historical analogies can lead to bad policy decisions. There are key distinctions between the Cold War era and the current state of U.S.-China relations.  No proxy wars being fought; no universalistic ideological war is being waged. There is no existential concern about surprise nuclear attacks from the other. Both the U.S. and China have deep people-to-people ties and commercial ties in ways that the U.S.S.R and the U.S. never had. I say these points not to downplay the adversarial nature of U.S.-China relationship, but merely to highlight my concern that Cold War analogies are imprecise ways of  understanding the relationship today.

Given the response to the pandemic and assistance from other countries, where do you see East Asian countries falling within this U.S.-China tense relationship?

As you know, U.S. and Chinese diplomats often provide reassurances to the regiona that they will not force countries to choose between them. However, the practical reality is that countries are facing this choice on a regular basis, making it harder for them to remain neutral between the U.S. and China. Countries are forced into a choice by  discrete decisions like what nomenclature countries are using to talk about COVID-19, whether countries decide to be participants in an initiative, what standard they adopt for telecommunications infrastructure, and which candidates countries support for leadership positions in the UN. All these seemingly unrelated issues are becoming proxies for measuring where countries fall in their support for Beijing and Washington, making it harder for countries to remain neutral. All that said, even as space shrinks for countries in the region between the two powers, I am reasonably confident that countries in both East Asia and Southeast Asia will jealously guard their strategic autonomy and to try to avoid being pulled into an explicitly American or Chinese side. My overall view is that all countries will seek to preserve positive relations with both Washington and Beijing. I expect that will remain the case going forward. I struggle to imagine a scenario whereby countries submit to Chinese exclusive hegemony in Asia. To do so would  run counter to the identity many Asian countries hold for themselves of being separate and independent of China. It also makes me think that we might not be returning to an era of U.S. primacy in Asia any time soon. Hence we are going to be in an uncomfortable middle space for a while, as the U.S. and China elbow each other for influence in the region while countries try to protect their own ability to pursue their interests as they define them. 

On a hopeful note, do you see a path for possible diffusion of tensions between the U.S. and China when the pandemic subsides?

On the bright side, it is worth bearing in mind that in past world crises the U.S. has stumbled before finding its footing and contributing to  the greater good. This is definitely the pattern during both WWI and WWII, where early missteps gave way to the U.S.  leading a coalition of countries. I hope this pattern repeats itself in this COVID-19 crisis because the simple reality is that the U.S. is not going to be able to protect its citizens from the virus until it stamps out the virus in all corners of the world. It’s not going to stamp out the virus in every part of the world until there is a global consortium of countries to do so. Whether we like it or not, we are going to need China’s contributions to stamp out the virus and China's going to need ours. And both sides I hope will find ways to exercise cool headedness and calm in the coming months in order to keep the door open for future cooperation on COVID-19. There are mutual interests in finding ways to coordinate on the vaccine, on both clinical testing and mass production. I hope those decisions will be left to scientists and experts more so than  politicians. I’m not predicting  that will automatically be the case, but that’s my hope. I’m afraid that’s the best I can muster in the optimism department at the moment. It seems like a global pandemic  is an important enough reason to come together and confront a common challenge. If it is not, I don’t know what is.  

Shreya Bhatnagar CMC '20Student Journalist

File:The coronavirus Pandemic epidemic COVID 19-20.jpg|The coronavirus Pandemic epidemic COVID 19-20

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