Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing on February 10, 2020. Photo: Liu Bin / Xinhua via AFP / Getty

Ninety-five former officials and ambassadors and academics – mostly American and most with considerable China experience – have signed a group letter calling for the United States and China to cooperate in combating the coronavirus. The signatories assert that the US cannot be successful without some degree of cooperation with the People’s Republic of China.  

Few people read these letters. Indeed, in Washington more people probably read the signature list than the actual letter. And President Trump isn’t going to read that one.

But this letter is worth a look. First, to examine the proposition that Chinese cooperation is indispensible and, second, to consider hints there will be a more accommodating China policy if President Trump is turned out of office in November.

The logic for cooperation is compelling?

The letter says it is, but doesn’t make much of a case.

Here’s why:  cooperation with China – or with any country – requires trust. Chinese deceit and evasion over the coronavirus is well known. Yet, the letter doesn’t explain why Beijing can now be trusted. Absent this, the entire proposition is on shaky ground.

Instead, the letter lists things China can do. But none are essential or things that only the PRC can perform.

First, Chinese experts can share clinical experience. Perhaps. But only as far as the Chinese Communist Party permits. Instead, better to ask medical professionals from Taiwan, Singapore, Italy, Britain and other nations. who have plenty of experience and can speak freely – without being “disappeared.”

Second, China can make protective gear and medicines. America can make all the medical supplies and equipment it needs – if it makes the effort. And given reports of defective Chinese-made test kits and protective gear – and even hoarding and withholding supplies – relying on China is ill-advised.

As for relying on the PRC to produce medicine: It’s better to end America’s dangerous reliance on China for pharmaceuticals. Recall the PRC’s recent threat to withhold medicine and plunge America into a sea of coronavirus. Not exactly compelling logic for cooperation.

And third, develop vaccines with the PRC. Why with China? Instead, link up with friendly nations that are, after all, friends.

This all goes back to trust. I’ve read the letter several times and can’t find the sentence that starts: “This is why we can trust China.”

The letter also talks of drawing China in as part of a global anti-coronavirus effort via the G20.  

However, China is already welcome – and was welcome from the day it detected the virus – and could have shared the information with the rest of the world. Indeed the door remains unlocked and the porch light on, in case China wishes to cooperate.

It’s probably best if America doesn’t wait up.

A few other things in the letter raise eyebrows.

For instance, it describes the coronavirus as a once-in-a-century global health pandemic.  Thus cooperation with PRC is so essential that it warrants America’s overlooking China’s bad behavior once again.

Once-in-a-century would be nice. But one worries that after the PRC works out the kinks we might see more of these viruses and more often.

Sacrificing interests and ideals?

The letter also assures that America can cooperate with the PRC on coronavirus without sacrificing America’s interests and ideals.  

It’s a little late for that.

Too much of America’s elite and business class long since gave up both interests and ideals in dealing with China. Diving into a rigged market in exchange for short-term profit. Full-bore engagement with a repressive police state – including military cooperation and technology sharing – while China built a military designed to kill Americans. And overlooking concentration camps and organ harvesting?  

Some ideals. Some interests.

Rather than maintaining interests and ideals, America should be restoring them.

Indeed, the letter sounds like a battered spouse explaining why she will give the guy “one more chance.” As an enabler, she’s partly to blame anyway.

Bipartisan support?

As for the letter evidencing broad bipartisan support for working with PRC, at best that’s a “sort of” – and only in the narrow “China watcher” and foreign policy community from which signers apparently were solicited.

Ironically, there is more bi-partisan support on Capitol Hill – but against what the letter proposes. Or go collect signatures in a Youngstown, Ohio, union hall. Support for not cooperating with the PRC will be total and bipartisan. 

The 89 signatures 

This piece is about ideas – not personalities. People sign group letters for different reasons and according to their highest sense of right. The letter includes some highly respected individuals – regardless of where one stands on China. And some of them have taken bold, principled stands against the CCP.

A number of others have served in previous administrations – Democrat and Republican – handling different aspects of China and Asia policy. Their records speak for themselves.   

However, signing a letter advocating cooperation with China while having financial ties – direct or indirect – or other vested interests with the PRC is ill-advised. Best to avoid the appearance that money is shaping policy recommendations.  

Apply this rule and the letter will have considerably fewer than 95 signatures.

Future China policy?

While this letter won’t shape Trump administration policy, it might shape a Biden administration’s policy. Some of the signers are considered candidates for positions in a Biden administration. So might we see a return to an accomodationist policy? Maybe so.

The letter does mention PRC misbehavior following the virus outbreak, but takes an approach along the lines of: “We know China has been naughty, but don’t make a big deal out of it …. We will take care of it later.”

That resembles US China policy over the last 30 years. And “later” never seemed to come. There was always something bigger in play that required de-escalating things with China. 

Or at least until Donald Trump took office. 

One imagines a Biden administration deciding – like most of its predecessors – that it must have Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea, transnational crime and climate change.  No matter that the Chinese never delivered on North Korea. 

Transnational crime? They just can’t figure out how to keep fentanyl out of the US – even if it kills 55,000 Americans every year. Climate change? That’s why China is building coal plants at the cyclic rate

And there’s the old standby: “If we [fill in the blank] it will lead to thermonuclear war.” 

We will know after November.

But for now, the virus that originated in China has killed 20,000 Americans and counting and lays waste to the economy.  

America and its friends and allies can fix things among themselves. And that’s the only way they can fix things.

The letter makes this point clearly – even if unintentionally.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.