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Coronavirus Pandemic Throws A Harsh Spotlight On U.S.-China Relations


The U.S. and China have a complicated relationship - nothing new there. But during the coronavirus, it's getting worse and may even be at its lowest point since the Tiananmen Square crackdown more than 30 years ago. NPR's Michele Kelemen tells us what the diplomats have been saying, and it is not that diplomatic.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S. and Chinese officials have been trading barbs on Twitter. And when China's ambassador wrote an op-ed accusing the U.S. of playing the blame game, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came back with this.


MIKE POMPEO: And I can't wait for my daily column in the China Daily news.

KELEMEN: Beyond this tit for tat, relations seem to be deteriorating at all levels. The FBI, for example, has been warning universities about the dangers of working with China, especially in the scientific field. That was going on well before the pandemic, says Georgetown University's James Green, a former U.S. official with two decades of experience dealing with China.

JAMES GREEN: What it's done is made U.S. institutions quite cautious on dealing with Chinese entities and trying to figure out where the law is going and where rules are going so that they can make sure that they are on the right side of the law. And I do think that is putting a chill on collaborative efforts.

KELEMEN: That could make it harder for joint work to respond to the pandemic or revive the global economy, says Green.

GREEN: Back in the 2008 financial crisis, there were a lot of discussions that happened between central bankers and finance and treasury officials on how to restart and save our economies. And now that we're talking about reopening, I think there's probably some important work that can be done to address some of these economic challenges as well as the health care challenges. And unfortunately, those lines of communication have gone dead.

KELEMEN: President Trump, while he was negotiating a trade deal, often touted his good relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But that's not the case now according to White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany.


KAYLEIGH MCENANY: Right now, it's a relationship of disappointment and frustration because the president has said how frustrated he is that some of the decisions of China put American lives at risk.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Pompeo presents this as a battle of ideas, saying the Chinese Communist Party has refused to come clean about the origins of the coronavirus. He says China's political system is putting the world at risk. James Steinberg, who was deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, says this shouldn't be about ideology.

JAMES STEINBERG: I think this sort of decision to turn this into a fight with the Communist Party is either intentionally or not trying to evoke old metaphors of confrontation and Cold War confrontation, which I think are counterproductive.

KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, Steinberg, now with Syracuse University, says a new Cold War is not an option for U.S. partners in Asia. They're too intertwined with China.

STEINBERG: To the extent that the administration or others think that we're going to be able to get people to sign up to a new set of Cold War alliances in which you're on our side against China is very unlikely. Even in countries like India, which have deep reservations about China, I think are not likely to be recruited into a very binary model of dealing with China.

KELEMEN: But Steinberg points out that China is doing damage to itself by bullying other countries and taking an aggressive tone on social media. That's provoking even more tough talk from the Trump administration, which will likely continue to lay the blame on China during this election year. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.