US – China standoff undermines post-Covid-19 global recovery prospect

June 1, 2020: During April and May the institutional arrangements for global cooperation to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic – the UN Security Council, the World Health Organisation, the G7 and G20 – failed to provide leadership, largely due to the US Trump Administration.

The UN Security Council twice failed to pass resolutions about the pandemic, due to US insistence on blaming the Chinese government. The G20 added nothing to the efforts already announced by different states. The World Health Organisation came closest to a unified approach, but the US insisted on disassociating itself from cooperative access for new medical products to deal with the pandemic.

On May 29, 2020, President Trump confirmed that the US would cancel its contribution to the WHO budget.

Sheila Smith, a Senior Fellow of Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, is sounding the alarm. “The Trump administration’s lack of interest in a global response to COVID-19, or even extending a helping hand to its allies and partners, is bringing home the possibility that US leadership may be gone for good”, she argues.

She also criticises the Chinese government for “not rising to the challenge of this global pandemic either, with its bluster and false claims of superiority”. But the deeper concern is that the absence of a US lead on a post-pandemic recovery will mean more economic damage than might otherwise happen, and even sharper international conflicts.

US anti-China hawks had already been pushing for a “decoupling” of the US and Chinese economies, before the pandemic and demanding that countries like Australia do the same. China’s actions against Australian barley and beef exports are a damaging escalation of this conflict.

All these actions contribute to more general international tensions and polarisation caused by a trade war, which will only damage the global trading system and hobble efforts to overcome the pandemic.

Trade wars undermine the multilateral trading system and had already had a negative impact on global economic growth before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

AFTINET advocates for a rules-based trading system with fair trade rules based on human rights, labour rights and environmental sustainability. International cooperation, not unilateral action, is needed now more than ever in the context of the pandemic to ensure access to medicines and medical products that will save lives, and to deal with economic recovery.