In sudden shift, US and China seek to cooperate as coronavirus pandemic rages on

China and the US have in recent days settled on a tentative, uneasy truce.
China and the US have in recent days settled on a tentative, uneasy truce.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - For weeks, US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo forcefully used the controversial terms "Chinese virus" and "Wuhan virus" in public and said they intended to hold Beijing responsible for the crippling coronavirus pandemic.

Now, they have avoided using those phrases and the administration is welcoming planeloads of medical equipment from China. On Wednesday (April 1), Mr Trump was effusive in describing his relationship with President Xi Jinping of China, whom he spoke with last week.

"The relationship with China is a good one and my relationship with him is really good," Mr Trump told reporters. The president added that he "will always assume the best" of China's leaders. Asked whether US intelligence agencies have assessed that China falsified case and fatality numbers over the virus, Mr Trump said, "I'm not an accountant from China."

As the pandemic spreads, relations between the United States and China have whipsawed wildly. Washington and Beijing were at each other's throats for weeks over the outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China, and was initially covered up by Communist Party officials.

But in recent days, the two sides have settled on a tentative, uneasy truce. They have agreed to hold fire on public sniping over the virus and to look for ways to cooperate to slow the contagion.

Some US officials had recognised that the deteriorating state of relations - at the worst point since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 - was impeding global efforts to fight the pandemic. Several of Mr Trump's aides quietly reached out to Chinese officials through American businessmen with extensive ties in China, according to people familiar with the efforts.

National security officials and China hawks in the State Department are sceptical the détente will last, but several top advisers to Mr Trump have advocated restraint - notably Mr Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law; Mr Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary; and Mr Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council.

Need to cooperate

They argue that the two superpowers need to work together to suppress the virus and resuscitate the global economy, and that Trump should not jeopardise a trade deal that the two nations reached in December.

Mr Kushner worked with Chinese officials to arrange a series of shipments of purchased protective gear for medical workers, the first of which arrived in New York on Sunday. The partnership between the government and several of the nation's largest health care distributors is expected to funnel much-needed masks, gowns and protective gear to hospitals in the coming weeks.

Chinese officials are trumpeting the truce while denouncing Mr Pompeo; Mr Peter Navarro, a hawkish trade adviser and other US officials who have continued to criticise China this week, even if their barbs have been more muted. Representatives of the Chinese Foreign Ministry this week have referred constantly to the telephone call between Mr Trump and Mr Xi in news conferences in Beijing.

"The two heads of state agreed that under current circumstances, China and the US should stand united and fight Covid-19," Ms Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on Tuesday, referring to the disease caused by the virus.


She noted that Mr Ma Xiaowei, the minister of China's National Health Commission, spoke Monday with Mr Alex Azar, the US secretary of health and human services, "to exchange ideas on the two countries' pandemic prevention and control efforts".

The truce is limited to actions related to the virus and does not extend to other parts of the increasingly tense relationship between the United States and China. US officials who have long advocated an aggressive stand toward China are still intent on pushing back against Beijing on many fronts, including technology, espionage and military expansionism in Asia.

In a Cabinet-level meeting last week, administration officials approved a draft rule that would extend export control restrictions to foreign companies that use American technology, a measure aimed at choking off supplies to Huawei, the Chinese technology company. The move still needs Mr Trump's approval.

And last Thursday, Mr Trump signed into law an act that requires the United States to lend stronger diplomatic support to Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island claimed by China. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Geng Shuang, said the United States should "correct its mistakes" or "inevitably encounter a resolute strike back by China".

US intelligence officials also assess that as the Chinese government retreats from its overt anti-American messages involving the virus, it is likely to continue to push those online by covert means.

But asked about it Monday on Fox News, Mr Trump dismissed that official assessment of China's disinformation campaign. "They do it and we do it and we call them different things," he said. He added that "every country does it" before denouncing The New York Times and The Washington Post, which had written about the anti-American disinformation campaigns, as "dishonest" and "corrupt".

Finding common ground

American and Chinese officials appear to realise that finding common ground on the virus could help save lives. Nations have been receiving shipments of medical gear from China, though some of the test kits for the virus have turned out to be faulty. In Italy, Chinese experts have advised officials on how to carry out strict lockdowns.

"Actually this is smart," said Dr Orville Schell, director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. "Isn't that the only way to do it? You cooperate where you share interests and you compete and criticise where you don't. We did it with the Russians in the Soviet days and got some things done."

Mr Trump's earlier attacks on China originated in part with national security officials who aim to hold the Communist Party accountable for the outbreak, and in part from the president's deep frustration that the pandemic was sinking the US economy, which he saw as key to his reelection.


Mr Trump has sought to deflect widespread criticism that his administration's failures had led to the spread of the virus across the United States. And from his campaign in 2016 and the recent trade war, Mr Trump knows that being tough on China appeals to his supporters, some of his political advisers said.

Meanwhile, Mr Mnuchin and Mr Kudlow, who typically counsel the president to try to work more closely with Beijing, had been preoccupied with the crash in the stock markets and a looming recession.

In mid-March, Mr Mnuchin and Mr Kudlow were working long hours shepherding an enormous stimulus bill through Congress. In their absence, more hawkish aides, including Mr Pompeo, Mr Navarro and Mr Robert C. O'Brien, the national security adviser, had the president's ear.

With the congressional bill signed Friday, Mr Mnuchin and Mr Kudlow have returned to the president's side and joined Mr Kushner in pressing for a softer approach on China.

And Mr Trump has gradually come to grips with the foundering economy, deciding he can instead run for reelection on being the man to steer the United States through a crisis, a person familiar with his political strategy said.

A recent bump in the president's approval ratings has bolstered that sentiment.

Turning point

For US officials, another turning point came March 22, when Mr Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, said in an interview with "Axios on HBO" that the theory that the virus had originated with the United States military was "crazy".

The assertion, which had been promoted on Twitter on March 12 by Mr Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, had infuriated US officials. For their part, Chinese officials have been incensed by insinuations made by American politicians, including Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., that the virus might have originated in a Chinese laboratory.

The call last Thursday between Mr Trump and Mr Xi was the first high-level interaction between the two governments in many weeks.


American and Chinese officials say they are continuing to enforce the terms of the initial trade deal they signed in January - though analysts have expressed doubts about the potential for US-China trade to proceed entirely undisrupted, given the cratering economy in both nations.

If China fails to meet its commitment under the deal to buy an additional US$200 billion (S$287 billion) of products by 2021, trade tensions could erupt again.

This week, Mr Pompeo, the administration's most vocal China hawk, adopted a more restrained tone and dropped his use of "Wuhan virus". Mr Pompeo still has taken a few swipes at China, though. In a call Monday with Mr Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of Nato, Mr Pompeo discussed the need to counter attempts by China and Russia to "spread disinformation and propaganda related to the virus", according to a State Department statement. And in a Monday conference call with news organisations based in Asia, Mr Pompeo said it was a "bad thing" that China had just expelled almost all American journalists for three major US newspapers, including The Times.

"I must say this is typical Pompeo in his 'lying' and 'cheating' style," Ms Hua said Wednesday, "but these comments are completely inconsistent with what President Trump said last week during his phone call with President Xi."