Lashing Out at China Over Coronavirus Does Nothing for America's Health, Security or Economy | Opinion

The deterioration of U.S.-Chinese relations over who is to blame for the novel coronavirus may be a warning of things to come. Beijing has spent recent weeks in a concerted effort to shift blame for its initial handling of COVID-19—even spreading a conspiracy theory that the U.S. Army brought the disease to China—and President Donald Trump has responded with predictably crude rhetoric, attempting to brand the pandemic as the "Chinese virus."

This combative narrative fits easily with the Trump administration's longstanding trade disputes with China, and lawmakers—including Senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley—have spoken ominously of making China "pay." The resulting back-and-forth is exacerbating fears about China's rise as we navigate our new geopolitical reality.

This is a pivotal moment that could set the tone of U.S. engagement with China for decades. Lashing out with economic punishments or settling into a Cold War–style tension might be cathartic in a frightening time, but it would be dangerous to public health in the short term and a long-term detriment to U.S. security. Though Beijing is clearly a rival, Washington should stay focused on U.S. interests, choosing to act with prudence and restraint.

Yes, Beijing's stupid authoritarianism played a major role in producing the crisis we have today. The regime's repeated suppression of testimony from medical whistleblowers will cost thousands—maybe millions—their lives before the disease runs its course. The timeline of the early days of the outbreak has led researchers at the United Kingdom's University of Southampton to conclude that if interventions like testing and isolation of infection in China "could have been conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent, and 95 percent respectively—significantly limiting the geographical spread of the disease." If these models are accurate, Beijing's delayed response and refusal to publicize crucial information was a colossal mistake.

We need not deny or downplay that reality to avoid making a colossal mistake of our own. Recklessly reacting to Beijing's failure will backfire for our prosperity and peace.

While the pandemic is unfolding, the reality of our medical supply lines means ongoing trade and diplomacy with China is literally vital. Beijing threatened through an article in state-run media to impose restrictions on pharmaceutical exports to the United States, a move that could have drastic consequences while our health-care system is already under strain. Even free trade skeptics who hope to see a greater degree of economic self-reliance in the U.S. must recognize that such a transition can't be made overnight. Hasty upsets of global trade—especially in pursuit of petty rhetorical victories—will do far more harm than good. Successfully grappling with this pandemic requires cooperation, not antagonism.

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, at the White House on March 26 in Washington, D.C. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

Worse yet than ill-considered economic reactions would be any move toward military confrontation. The U.S. and China are hardly on the brink of war, but pre-emptive de-escalation is the prudent response to rising tensions. Some level of great power rivalry is inevitable as each side adjusts to its place in an increasingly multipolar dynamic, but a military clash between the world's two most powerful militaries—not peer competitors, but both nuclear-armed—must be avoided.

Grievance politics, propaganda and discord are all to be expected from an authoritarian regime with growing wealth like Beijing. For the sake of our economic and security interests, Washington must learn to remain focused on U.S. interests, not merely react to China's moves. China's malfeasance and oppression of its own people is reprehensible, but the U.S. should not be drawn into needless and foolhardy conflict that will benefit no one. That is particularly true during this pandemic, but it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.