Why Retribution Against China for Coronavirus Would Harm America and the World

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As the human and economic toll of the coronavirus mounts, some U.S. officials are threatening retribution against Beijing for enabling the pandemic. Sens. Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley rolled out a bill last week authorizing sanctions as a way to “make the CCP pay for contributing to this global emergency” and force China to “foot the bill” for the economic fallout. This bill also echoed the type of retaliatory approach endorsed by James Kraska in a recent article in War on the Rocks.

Although these proposals may seem to satisfy a certain thirst for justice in the midst of a senseless crisis — while also serving to deflect blame from U.S. failures in responding to the pandemic — they could not come at a worse time. Coordination with China is more urgent now than ever. Such proposals would endanger such coordination and deepen the current crisis, costing untold lives and mauling the already wounded global economy.



China did make major early missteps in managing the crisis due to its reflex for censorship and secrecy and local leaders’ fears of punishment by central authorities. Even now, the data China is publishing on the pandemic’s toll within its borders is likely inaccurate due to some of these same factors. At the same time, while earlier and more responsible action by China might have saved the world from the pandemic, some Western governments — to include that of the United States — bear no small responsibility for underestimating the virus and failing to mobilize quickly and effectively to contain it once the threat it posed was clear.

As the novel coronavirus spread beyond China’s borders, both Washington and Beijing sought to capitalize on each other’s errors to shift blame for the pandemic in an escalating war of words, with Cotton suggesting the virus may have originated in a Chinese biosecurity lab and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman floating the equally baseless theory that it escaped from a U.S. Army lab. This amounted to each side fighting fire with fire while the house was burning down around them.

Fortunately, China offered an off-ramp from this escalation when the Chinese ambassador to the United States went on the record denouncing such conspiracy theories and the Foreign Ministry spokesman who had previously circulated those theories tweeted his support for international unity to confront the pandemic. Having concluded negotiations with Congress over a stimulus package, key U.S. officials Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow seized upon that opportunity. They persuaded President Donald Trump to hold a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 26 to discuss how to pursue more cooperation in responding to the pandemic.

Still, this welcome truce in U.S.-Chinese tensions remains tenuous and insufficient. Much deeper cooperation will be essential for the world to mitigate the health and economic effects of the pandemic. Chinese epidemiologists and public health officials have learned invaluable lessons from their experience grappling with the outbreak. These are being shared now mostly through nongovernmental channels. As the United States faces an explosion in COVID-19 cases, it stands to benefit from more direct exchanges with those officials to learn from their experience.

In addition, if the pandemic begins spreading more rapidly in developing nations in the “global south” — as many experts fear is only a matter of time — the United States and China will need to work closely with other nations and international organizations to leverage their intertwined production networks to bolster medical infrastructure in those places and prevent devastating loss of life, while also shoring up the global economy.

The instinct of some members of Congress and some officials in the Trump administration to pursue a more retributive approach toward China risks endangering the prospects of such cooperation. Beyond impeding cooperation to manage the pandemic, such an approach could lead to even more lasting damage to global peace and prosperity. In particular, if the U.S. government were to start seriously seeking out ways to retaliate against China for its role in the pandemic, the situation could quickly escalate out of control, dramatically deepening and extending the current crisis.

The measures proposed by Cotton and Hawley illustrate how such escalation could occur. Their bill authorizes the president to impose visa and financial sanctions against foreign government officials and their senior associates who “deliberately conceal or distort information” about public health crises such as the coronavirus pandemic, as well as against those who materially support those efforts. If applied to Chinese officials, such sanctions would likely invite swift retaliation against U.S. officials who themselves dismissed the threat of COVID-19, shared incorrect medical information about it, or spread false theories about its origins, such as the president, vice president, and many governors and members of Congress — including Cotton himself.

Moreover, since the sanctions proposed in the bill target not only foreign government officials but also their senior associates and those who materially support their efforts, they could even lead to financial retaliation and visa restrictions against Americans outside of government in private industry or the media. Such retaliation would be a body blow for the U.S. economy at a time when it is already reeling from the pandemic.

The proposals outlined in War on the Rocks by Kraska could set off an even more destructive downward spiral. Kraska called for reparations to be levied against China for its lack of transparency in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, insisting that China is liable under international law for the actual and moral damage resulting from the pandemic. He acknowledged that Beijing would not agree to international arbitration on the matter, but suggested that other countries could retaliate by removing China from membership and leadership positions in United Nations bodies, expelling China from the World Trade Organization, interfering more directly in China’s domestic governance and unresolved civil war with Taiwan, or even suspending air travel to China for years at a time.

Such an application of international law is controversial on its legal merits. In the first place, the International Health Regulations that Kraska argues China has violated do not themselves contain any binding enforcement mechanisms. In an implicit concession to this reality, Kraska instead cites the Draft Articles of State Responsibility adopted by the International Law Commission in 2001, which assign states responsibility for “internationally wrongful acts,” as a basis for justifying compensatory retaliation.

However, using these articles to justify compensatory retaliation for China’s failure to abide by the International Health Regulations would be an unprecedented move. Countries have avoided such measures in the past in light of the unpredictable patterns of disease outbreaks and common difficulties in the early stages of identification, and the risk that such measures could be applied to themselves in future outbreaks. Such dramatic retributive acts as expulsion from United Nations bodies or the World Trade Organization for failure to provide timely information to the World Health Organization would be particularly unprecedented.

This application of the Draft Articles on State Responsibility would also be seen as hypocritical on the part of the United States, which is viewed by many international legal experts as a serial violator of international law, and would thus open a proverbial can of worms. U.S. retaliation against China for violation of the International Health Regulations could invite retaliation against the United States for its own “internationally wrongful acts” such as the invasion of Iraq or support for the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen.

Beyond these legal controversies, trade and travel-related measures, such as suspension of air travel to China for years at a time, would also further cripple the global economy, which benefits from heavy integration with the Chinese economy. And retaliation in the form of interference in China’s internal affairs and deliberate violations of its sovereignty could significantly raise the risk of military conflict in Asia, as such measures might be seen by Beijing as acts of war.

More pragmatically, most countries in the world would likely see such provocative proposals as fever dreams of an America bent on a catastrophic cold war with China that they want no part of. Countries will not want to risk further undermining their economic or security interests by cooperating with Washington to expel Beijing from key global institutions or shut off travel to China. Although some governments are angry with Beijing for its poor handling of the outbreak and for defects in donated and purchased Chinese medical supplies, the United States has done even less to garner goodwill abroad amid this crisis. U.S. efforts to persuade other countries to pin the blame for the crisis on China have already failed. Against such a backdrop, more drastic proposals from the United States would be dead on arrival, further weakening America’s role as a leader in world affairs.

After the coronavirus pandemic ebbs, there will certainly be a role for the international scientific community to play in investigating the origins and spread of the outbreak. Many countries, but especially China, will need to honestly reckon with the errors that exacerbated the outbreak in order to prevent their recurrence. At an international level, countries will need to strengthen the World Health Organization and ensure more timely communication to halt the progression of such outbreaks.

But such reforms cannot succeed unless the United States and China work collaboratively with each other and other nations to implement them. Calls for punitive retaliation against China are thus impractical and self-defeating. These measures would only impede the effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, while inviting retaliation against the United States and making America and the world more vulnerable to future pandemics and economic crises.



Rachel Esplin Odell is a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and an international security fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is an expert on U.S.-China relations and the politics of international law and is currently working on a book manuscript on how countries interpret the international law of the sea.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Vernishia R. Vaughn-Lucas)