May 7, 2020

This policy brief invokes the standards of ancient Greek drama to analyze the COVID-19 pandemic as a potential tragedy in U.S.-China relations and a potential tragedy for the world. The nature of the two countries’ political realities in 2020 have led to initial mismanagement of the crisis on both sides of the Pacific. And the interactions between the two sides, and with other actors, such as the World Health Organization, have so far squandered historic opportunities for cooperation to tackle a common threat. The finger pointing and politically driven accusations between the worlds’ two leading powers — and between the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States — might have catastrophic results, particularly when the virus spreads to the world’s most impoverished nations.

The brief calls for a ceasefire between Beijing and Washington on criticism of the two countries’ initial responses to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, accompanied by a commitment to an eventual international investigation of what went wrong in all countries during the early phases of the pandemic. The brief concludes with six areas in which the United States and China should seek cooperation: to share best practices to stem the further spread of the coronavirus; to develop effective vaccines at the earliest possible date; to prepare in advance for mass manufacturing and global distribution of vaccines that are developed; to assist the neediest countries in fighting the disease; to manage debt crises and combat famines in the developing world that might result from the pandemic; and to preserve global trade by privileging diversification of supply chains and national strategic reserves over economic nationalism and less efficient forms of production.


Thomas J. Christensen

Thomas J. Christensen is a nonresident senior fellow in the John L. Thornton China Center in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings and professor of public and international affairs and director of the China and the World program in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. From 2006 to 2008, he served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, with responsibility for relations with China, Taiwan, and Mongolia.

His research and teaching focuses on China’s foreign relations, the international relations of East Asia, and international security. Previously, he taught at Princeton University, Cornell University, and MIT. He received his bachelor’s from Haverford College, his master’s in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania, and a doctorate in political science from Columbia University.

Christensen has served on the board of directors and the executive committee of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He is editor of the Nancy B. Tucker and Warren I. Cohen book series on the United States in Asia at Columbia University Press. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was presented with a Distinguished Public Service Award by the United States Department of State.

Columbia University Press, series editor
Council on Foreign Relations, life member
National Bureau of Asian Research, member, advisory board
Princeton University, China and the World Program and Master’s in Public Policy Program, director
Princeton University, professor
Schwarzman Educational Foundation, member, academic advisory board
World Politics, member, editorial committee