The Sharpening US-China Rivalry Due to the Pandemic and Its Implications for Closer US-Turkey Relations

By: THO Nonresident Fellow, Adinda Khaerani

Both daily routine and mobilization around the globe have mostly halted due to the spread of coronavirus. The pandemic has not only affected many sectors, including health, human lives, and the economy, but has also sharpened the rivalry between two major powers, the U.S. and China. The outbreak began in Wuhan, China in December, 2019, and spread across the globe. At least 185 countries have been affected by the virus, with Europe being the new epicenter.

China is reported to have lifted its lockdown in early April after imposing a strict lockdown at the end of January to stem the spread of the virus, while some media reports mentioned that the U.S. is among those countries that were hit the hardest by coronavirus by late March, 2020. With 330 million people, a densely populated nation like the U.S. provides a vast pool of people who can potentially get infected by COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS — CoV-2 virus.

U.S.-China relations were already heated before the spread of coronavirus. President Xi Jinping appears to have adopted the more assertive approach, as reflected in the maritime dispute in the pacific, while President Trump’s administration stated that great power competition was the defining feature of the age and the contest with China was at the heart of U.S. global strategy, as written in the 2017 National Security Strategy. In the Pacific, the South China Sea has been the witness of the competition between the two giants. China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea under its questionable “nine-dashed line.” The disputes go beyond the question of who owns which islands between China and four other claimant countries in South East Asia. The disputes are also associated with the rivalry between the U.S. and China.

Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea have been a source of concern for other claimant countries. As tension grows between the U.S. and China, last year one of China’s senior naval officers stated that China may seek to further build up its man-made islands in the South China Sea if it feels the outposts are under threat.

At a time when countries around the globe are distracted with the pandemic, China has caused concern recently by establishing new administrative districts for the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos and naming 80 islands and other geographical features in the sea, claiming sovereignty over underwater features along the way. The move from China may be interpreted as taking advantage of the crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the rivalry between the U.S. and China. President Trump’s administration has criticized China for their lack of transparency, claimed that China did not fully share information sooner regarding the outbreak, and argued that the U.S. could have acted sooner. In early April, Bloomberg news mentioned that the outbreak began in Hubei Province in late 2019. China has publicly reported only around 82,000 cases and 3,300 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. These numbers can be compared to the over 189,000 cases and more than 4,000 deaths in the U.S., which is reported to have the largest outbreak in the world. The numbers reported by China are approximately half of the cases reported in the U.S.

On the contrary, the Foreign Ministry spokesman of China, Zhao Lijian, suggested that the U.S. military might be the cause of the outbreak in Wuhan, and he also asked the U.S. to be transparent about it. The pandemic has contributed to the set-back of U.S.-China relations, which has diminished their potential international cooperation in fighting the pandemic. The rising tension between the two countries resulted in difficulties amidst the crisis, since sharing information about the virus should be a priority.

Both China and the U.S. have also been involved in a trade war. In 2019, the trade war between the U.S. and China presented an opportunity for Turkey; it has left room for cooperation with the U.S. Despite the prospects of US sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, Trade Minister Ruhsar Peckan stated at the Joint Press Conference with the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross that the issues between the U.S. and China create an opportunity for the U.S. and Turkey to cooperate in trade in various sectors.

The COVID-19 crisis has boosted bilateral cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. In early May, a day after the Turkish Military plane arrived in Washington with medical supplies that aimed to fight the disease, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned on Twitter that the U.S. is grateful to Turkey. The first shipment is reported to have brought 500,000 surgical masks, 4,000 overalls, 2,000 liters of disinfectant, 1,500 goggles, 400 N-95 masks, and 500 face shields, in an effort to combat the virus.

Just as the trade war in 2019 between the two giants created an opportunity for Turkey to expand its cooperation with the United States, particularly in the trade sector, the pandemic may bring the two closer still. The U.S.-China sharpened rivalry due to the debate over transparency regarding coronavirus prevents them from cooperating in fighting the COVID-19 crisis, and this may leave room for further cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey.


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  3. Sharman, John, “China threatens to further fortify its man-made islands in disputed region as tensions with US escalate,” 09.01.2020. Independent.
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  5. Jacob, Jennifer and Wadhams, Nick, “China Concealed Extent of Virus Outbreak, U.S. Intelligence Says,” 01.04.2020. Bloomberg.
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Turkish Heritage Organization

Turkish Heritage Organization

THO is a young, independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization in Washington, D.C. dedicated to supporting the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.