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Coronavirus Pandemic Further Strains U.S.-China Relations


The U.S.-China relationship is often described as the most important global relationship of the 21st century. Right now we're getting mixed messages on the status of that relationship. The president tweeted early this morning that he had a good phone conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. There's also been a lot of tension as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. For a closer look, we are joined now by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hi, Greg.


SHAPIRO: What more can you tell us about this phone call between the two leaders?

MYRE: Well, it took place on Thursday evening. It was after this virtual meeting, this teleconference between the G20 leaders of countries with the biggest global economies. Trump tweeted after his phone call with President Xi, we are working closely together; much respect. So sounds like everything's going pretty well.

But a couple important points - Trump always speaks highly of Xi, even as he's been criticizing China in recent years and calling this the China virus. But it does seem an acknowledgement that relations have been in this downward spiral, and this appears to be an effort to reset. Xi, for his part, wants to flip the narrative and show that China is emerging on the other side of this virus, while it keeps growing worse in the U.S. So a positive phone call, but not clear that this will translate downward.

SHAPIRO: Give us some context on how the relationship soured and why this is such a critical moment for the two countries.

MYRE: So I spoke to several analysts who really see it as the biggest test of this critical relationship. With China's rise, the U.S. and China are one-two in so many issues in the global front. They're the two biggest economies, the two strongest militaries and the two countries with the most coronavirus cases.

So for perspective, I called John Pomfret. He's a journalist and author who's followed China since he was a student there 40 years ago. He actually got kicked out of China for his reporting on the Tiananmen Square events in 1989, when China cracked down on pro-democracy protesters. He says this is a real low point in relations, but he thinks - he points to cooperations during some previous economic crises.

JOHN POMFRET: One can only hope that, on the economic front, there will be coordination like there was in 2008 or even like there was in 1997, during the Asian financial crisis, where China really was a very important partner of the United States.

SHAPIRO: Greg, there's obviously been friction over the last few years on trade between these two countries, but a pandemic is very different. How did things go wrong and with - dealing with the coronavirus?

MYRE: You know, the U.S. CDC has been embedded with their Chinese counterpart for nearly 30 years. So there was some preparation. But when a CDC team wanted to go to Wuhan, China, back on January 6, China rebuffed them. U.S. medical personnel couldn't go there until they joined the WHO team in February. Since then, both sides have been playing the blame game. China's Foreign Ministry at one point suggested that the U.S. military, which sent a team of athletes to Wuhan for the - some military games last October was to blame. And we've just seen this cycle of recriminations ever since then.

SHAPIRO: Just in our last 30 seconds, what are you looking for next here?

MYRE: A couple tough issues ahead. China's role in the U.S. medical supply chain is quite large. Republicans in particular are quite angry. There's talk that they could take protectionist measures. So this is one big thing; the economy is the other. Trump has been tough on China in trade policy, but he needs some economic cooperation to revive the economy. So the longer these dual crises go on, the more both countries are likely to find they're going to need one another.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Myre, thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.