News & Analysis

[Analysis] The US-China Trade Deal Clause That Explains Everything About Coronavirus and the WHO

In context, accusations of WHO favor towards China seem to have some basis, but rather than suspend funding, the US could use this opportunity to make increased funding contingent on the adoption of critical WHO reforms like admitting Taiwan as an observing member, adopting hiring reforms, and creating an office of data integrity. However, for these reforms to be effective in influencing Chinese behavior, they should be implemented as part of a broader strategic shift towards American leadership, not American abdication and isolation.
China's President Jinping and WHO Director Ghebreyesus meet in Beijing in January 2020.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus meet in Beijing in January 2020. Photo: Ju Peng/Xinhua

On April 14, President Donald Trump announced the 60 to 90 day suspension of United States funding for the World Health Organization (WHO), to which the US is the largest contributor. Because the funds had already been appropriated by Congress, Trump is unable to permanently withhold the $60 million payment, but he may be able to divert the funds to another international organization, just as he did with his court-upheld reallocation of defense funding for the construction of a wall on the southern border.

Trump claims the US will use this temporary suspension of funding to investigate and assess WHO impropriety in the coronavirus crisis. In this context, accusations of WHO favor towards China seem to have some basis. In December, the WHO ignored coronavirus warnings from Taiwan, which China has excluded from the WHO and which the UN and WHO recognize as a Chinese province. On January 14, the organization parrotted Chinese authorities and declared that “no clear evidence of human-human transmission” of the virus had been found—by which point Chinese officials already knew about the disease and its contagious nature. 

Just days before this declaration, China added “force majeure” language to the seminal US-China trade deal that precludes China from following through with concessions to the US in the case of a pandemic. Experts have noted this language is highly irregular for a sovereign trade deal and some argue this late addition was a “red flag” that proves Chinese officials were aware of the potential severity of COVID-19 and were not negotiating the trade deal in good faith. 

President Trump and Vice Premeier Liu He sign a "phase one" trade deal at the White House in January 2020.
President Trump and Vice Premier Liu He sign ceremonial copies of the a “phase one” trade deal between the US and China on January 15 2020. Photo: AFP

Under the trade deal, which was signed with great fanfare at the White House the day after the WHO reassured the world that coronavirus was not spreading between humans, China promised to purchase an additional $200 billion of American goods, remove 50 measures that have long restricted US agricultural imports, and commit to the protection of intellectual property rights. While American manufacturing and agriculture have long been at a disadvantage in China due to anti-competitive restrictions and state subsidies, the true threat to the American economy is China’s endless theft of American intellectual property through cybercrime, espionage and unscrupulous business practices. So pervasive is this theft that General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, declared it constitutes the “greatest transfer of wealth in history.” 

Invoking force majeure would mean the battle for these hard-won concessions, the result of a trade war that cost the global economy one fifth of its GDP growth in 2019, was all for naught, enabling a mercantilist China can continue plundering the efforts of American businesses, creatives, researchers, and inventors unimpeded. Thus, it would seem that the WHO, whether implicitly or explicitly, was used by the Chinese to cover-up the extent of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Chinese government, which does not hold elections, derives its legitimacy from its administrative efficacy, and an embarrassing incident like the coronavirus outbreak threatens the basis of its power. Another major component of Chinese Communist Party legitimacy is economic growth, and a combination of factors, particularly the compounding inefficiencies of a state-run economy and unfavorable distribution of damage from a devastating trade war with the US, have been threatening to bring a decades long period of economic growth to an end. The trade deal represented an attempt to ease immediate pressure from the Sino-American trade war, but the late addition of the force majeure clause seems to imply that concessions to the US—deeply unpopular in China—were only meant to be temporary. 

Trump, eager to keep claiming credit for the trade deal, had withheld criticism of China for its ongoing failure to meet some of its deal commitments, including a key promise to purchase billions of dollars of American farm goods. With experts now declaring the trade deal dead, Trump no longer needs to pull his punches, and the US now has an opportunity to examine and take appropriate steps to extirpate the Chinese corruption of international institutions like the WHO that produced the global coronavirus crisis in the first place.

A Key WHO Priority: Maintaining China Access

At present, it should be noted that the WHO has compelling reasons for sharing Chinese findings even if staff or member nations may find them questionable. During the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which was similar to SARS-CoV-2 (also known as COVID-19) and also originated in China, Chinese officials also engaged in a significant cover-up. The following 2005 adoption of international health regulations by WHO member states, which established basic requirements for detection, investigation, and response to public health risks, was a step forward. However, because the WHO’s ability to function is based on access to client states, it would appear that the WHO is willing to insulate China from criticism, and even praise it in order to maintain access to a country that has troublingly been the world’s long-time leading source of viral outbreaks.

A boy jumps over heaps of trash in Jiaxing. Unsanitary conditions are a serious health problem in China.
A boy jumps over trash at a village on the outskirts of Jiaxing. Unsanitary conditions caused by pollution are a serious public health challenge. Photo: William Hong/Reuters

In fact, from the Antonine Plague in the 2nd century that was a key factor in Rome’s demise, to Justinian’s Plague in the 6th century that killed half of the world’s population, the 14th century Black Death in which over 100 million humans perished, and even the early 20th century “Spanish Flu” that infected one third of the world’s population and killed more American soldiers than World War I, China has been and remains the “perfect storm” for zoonotic diseases—often deadly pathogens that cross species boundaries to infect humans—to flourish. With modern technology, humans finally have the ability to detect and contain these outbreaks, but only so long as data is accessible and accurate.

Though the WHO’s limited physical and data access to China is important, two factors remain. First, Chinese officials routinely manipulate data (for instance, experts estimate the Chinese economy may be 12%, or over $1 trillion, smaller than “official” Chinese reports) and attempt to cover-up any public health crises that paint the authoritarian regime in a negative light.  Second, China has used its growing influence to block the entry of Taiwan, a country that is credited with setting a leading example for addressing the coronavirus crisis and considered a more free republic than the US, from the WHO as a mere observing member. What this means is that the WHO’s continued deference to China—indicated by its ignoring of dire coronavirus warnings in December from Taiwan and praise of China for its coronavirus response when global cases could have been limited by 95% if the country had not covered-up the outbreak—appears to come with few benefits. Indeed, such deference may even put further lives at risk if there is no successful effort to induce health transparency reforms that can help contain future outbreaks. Yet, given China’s hold on the WHO, these reforms are only possible under the aegis of renewed American leadership, which begs the question: what does the US want?

President Trump: International Organization Hiring Should Reflect American Funding Levels

Sources within the Trump administration cite an effort to ensure that the number of Americans hired at international organizations is proportional to US contributions to their budgets as a driving factor in Trump’s decision to suspend WHO funding. Although increasing the number of American agency personnel may allow for relatively stronger representation of American interests, the core issue of Chinese transparency can only be able to be addressed by the combined effort of the majority of the WHO’s member states, who largely have voted with China since 2006, when the Bush administration ceded WHO leadership uncontested to a growing but still manageable Chinese-led bloc.

The UN is headquartered in New York City and largely funded by the US.
The WHO is a subsidiary of the UN, which is headquartered in New York City and largely funded by the US. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Several blunders have resulted from a lack of attention to the WHO. One of the most significant of these was leaving open America’s position on the WHO executive board for the past three years; although the Trump administration has made repeated efforts to nominate personnel for the position, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has neglected to bring the confirmation to a vote. That the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now rushing to confirm Trump’s nominee is beside the point; the mere fact that the position has been left unfilled for so long is a travesty and a testament to the national and international danger posed by America’s dereliction of duty. 

This consistent history of China stepping up when the US steps back, whether in Africa (where China invests twice as much capital as the US and has greatly expanded its influence) or in 5G (where China’s growing lead in next-generation wireless network deployments will allow it, as stated by the National Security Council, to “win politically, economically, and militarily”) demonstrates that American abdication of leadership not only puts other countries at risk, but also leaves America behind. In other words, it is likely that even America’s temporary defunding of the WHO further places its reliability into question, which drives potential partners into the nefarious—but reliable—arms of the Chinese Communist Party.

Perhaps Trump calculates that by both sharing US intelligence reports on how China widely concealed the extent of the outbreak and announcing an investigation into reports the virus had escaped China’s only known high-security pathology laboratory following major lapses in safety protocols, he may have a chance at assembling a broad enough coalition of international partners to finally curtail Chinese global influence. Though the potential for this coalition exists, in the face of a Chinese disinformation campaign in which its national health authority has had the audacity to continue to report zero further cases of local infections, and in which the foreign ministry simultaneously espouses conspiracy theories that the US military brought the virus to Wuhan while making offers of massive medical material and personnel aid to countries in need, the truth may not be enough.

Chinese Medical Supplies: Counterfeit Masks and Unreliable Tests Abound

China’s (and Russia’s) deployment of medical personnel overseas has generated goodwill in Italy, where less than half of Italians feel they benefit from European Union membership and many now feel abandoned by the EU for its lack of aid. However, the poor quality of its shipments of medical supplies has erupted as a source of international controversy. Spain rejected Chinese COVID-19 tests after discovering they were 70% inaccurate, and the Netherlands was forced to recall 600,000 Chinese KN95 masks for not meeting international standards, a process that has been repeated around the world and even in the US, where Illinois spent $17 million on defective KN95 masks from China.

Chinese masks are often found to be defective or unable to meet standards.
Recipients have found Chinese masks to often be defective or unable to meet international standards. Photo: Aly Song/Reuters

In response to material shortfalls, Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act, passed in 1950 to allow for rapid mobilization of civil assets for defense production, to both increase the production of COVID-19 testing supplies and halt the export of surgical masks and gloves produced in the US. Trump has also worked with automakers to retool idle production lines to rapidly produce much-needed ventilators for coronavirus patients. Though critics contend that the newly manufactured ventilators will be too few and too late to make a difference, because it is highly likely that the coronavirus will return in successive waves (with the second wave potentially more deadly, according to the CDC), a vastly expanded American production capacity for high-quality medical goods would allow the US to counter Chinese efforts to engender goodwill through production with such efforts of its own.

A Necessary Commitment from the Arsenal of Democracy

A resurgent “Arsenal of Democracy” would mean that nations, including the US, would no longer be reliant on China for medical supplies. This, in turn, would give the world’s nations the freedom to demand greater accountability and change from China through international institutions like the UN and WHO. But this commercial approach alone will not deliver the UN and WHO from Chinese hands: without signs of commitment to the international institutions the US founded to lead the cooperative promotion of humanity’s interests, why should would-be allies abandon a resurgent China that has co-opted these institutions for its own purposes and their benefit

Rather than defund the WHO, the US may benefit from making increased WHO support contingent upon the realization of necessary reforms that range from admitting Taiwan to creating an office of data integrity. The $60 million currently being withheld is a pittance for a federal government that spent $4.5 trillion in 2019, and with tax revenues projected to plummet, international funding for the WHO may be severely diminished, so any increases in US funding for the organization would have little impact on US fiscal health and deliver a greater proportional increase in American influence than before the crisis; the time is now to make American contributions count and be used to achieve meaningful gains.

During World War II, the US established itself as the “Arsenal of Democracy” by providing the armaments and supplies needed to defeat the Axis powers. Photo: US National Archives.

First, and most importantly, Taiwan should be admitted to the WHO as an observing member. The country should not need to rely on China, which views it as a runaway province to be reconquered, to send to and receive information from the WHO. The WHO director-general has the unilateral authority to grant the Taiwanese government observer status, and even did so with China’s permission from 2009 to 2016 while a pro-Chinese party was in power in Taipei. This would not require recognition of Taiwan as a nation, which only 15 countries, at great risk to their economic relationship with China, have had the audacity to do; among others, the Order of Malta, the Holy See (Vatican) and the International Red Cross have been granted observer status by the director-general, and the same could easily be done with Taiwan. 

Second, the WHO should establish a minimum voluntary threshold for representation among WHO staff that considers a nation’s proportional contributions to the WHO budget; doing so would encourage both greater budget accountability to taxpayers and greater spending by upwardly mobile, prestige-seeking, and socially-conscious powers. As of April 21 2019, only 291—or 3.6%—of the WHO’s 8,049 staff are American. If US contributions are 20% of the WHO budget, it means that at a one-to-one dollar-to-personnel ratio, the US would be expected to have 1,600 WHO personnel. Applying the same formula to China would result in a reduction of Chinese personnel by a factor of 4.5. 

An objection might be posed that because aid is sometimes administered more effectively by on-the-ground specialists than Western planners, a strict one-to-one ratio could have a negative effect on program management; it is reasonable that a maximum threshold should be avoided so developing nations can still maintain control over projects in their countries and regions. However, a minimum ratio of guaranteed voluntary staff positions, even of one-to-two, could keep the organization accountable to contributors while protecting the ability of countries like Burkina Faso, a poor nation with as many WHO personnel as China, to manage local programs. Under such an arrangement, the US would have the option to maintain roughly 800 WHO personnel, an approach that could help Western isolationist populists like Trump better understand the utility of providing staff and resources to international organizations in order to further the intersection of national and global interests.

Third, an office of data integrity should be created to verify and assess data provided by member states. In 2019, the WHO issued guidance for data integrity relating to the manufacturing, sale, and use of medicine and medical devices. The document stresses the human and financial costs of low data integrity; this sentiment ought to be expanded to include public health and pandemic data reported to the WHO by its members. However, creating a toothless standard with no means of investigation and censure is meaningless; in addition to expanding its data integrity guidance, the WHO ought to create a data integrity office focused on preventing government cover-ups and confirming the veracity of contested information. What this could mean is that, should staff members or WHO members find contention with a member’s published health figures, the WHO data integrity office would be empowered to initiate a grievance procedure in which claims would be investigated for merit, and if merit for further investigation is found, personnel could determine the source and reason for false data, and attempt to collect and share confirmed data. Thus, by uncovering tampered data from self-serving governments, an effective data integrity office would allow the world to respond more quickly to global health concerns and prevent another cover-up induced crisis.

Building an International Coalition

With these reforms in mind, the US must remember that while trade is not a zero-sum game, great power politics is, and that putting America first does not mean an America in isolation. Containing and reversing Chinese influence in international organizations and the world at large will require the US to keep the allies it has and forge new partnerships by presenting itself as a viable, reliable alternative to China, and the coronavirus pandemic is the golden opportunity for the US to reassume the mantle of global leadership and contain the Chinese threat.

These reforms must be implemented in the context of a larger strategic shift towards building and strengthening bonds with countries that have a direct stake in preventing Chinese hegemony of Asia—namely, neighbors fearing domination. A model for this alliance can be found in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in which nations previously torn asunder by war were united in their opposition to the Soviet Union under American leadership. Stretching from Japan to India, an Indo-Pacific Treaty Organization (IPTO) could create an umbrella under which nations ordinarily disposed to distrust each other could learn to collaborate and grow by standing together against a common threat. Though NATO is by no means perfect, it long served as a guarantor of peace and as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. An Asian equivalent has the potential to do the same, particularly as the Chinese confluence of a declining workforce, a gender imbalance of more than 30 million more young men than women, and the swelling contradictions and debt of state capitalism suggest that an ailing China will be a more dangerous China. 

Left to right: Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Gen. Koji Yamazaki, Japan’s joint staff chief of staff; and Joseph M. Young, the interim U.S. chargé d’affaires at U.S. Embassy Tokyo pose after concluding a November 2019 meeting on efforts to improve the security relationship between the US and its Pacific allies. Photo: Dominique A. Pineiro/US Department of Defense

Already, the tide of international favor towards China seems to be receding. In the strategic Pacific island nation of Kiribati, the party responsible for revoking recognition of Taiwan was thrown out of power over voter fears that stronger ties to China will result in an irreversible loss of sovereignty. Meetings of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or informal strategic “Quad” of Japan, India, Australia, and the US, have expanded to include Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand. Even the European Union, which had long looked to China as a viable partner in shaping world affairs, seems to be electing to take a more aggressive approach, opting to reduce dependence on Chinese manufacturing and prevent predatory Chinese investments in suddenly vulnerable European companies. With so many nations rejecting China’s attempt to fill the global void left by an America in isolation and repose, one thing has become clear: should the US decide to re-engage the world, it will likely find nations that long despised American leadership eager to abandon their Chinese experiments and embrace the US with open arms—but only if it so chooses. 

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