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China, US need to put their differences aside in the fight against COVID-19

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

The only way for COVID-19 vaccines to effectively end the pandemic is for all countries in the world to be vaccinated – both rich and poor. Experts have repeated this frequently, but disagreed on how to effectively solve the problem.

The problem of global equitable vaccine distribution would be most simply solved if the world’s two biggest powers – China and the US – entered into a partnership.

For a rich country, donating vaccines to poorer countries is a classic prisoner dilemma, also known as the tragedy of the commons. A small, wealthy nation such as the Netherlands has an imperceptible impact on global vaccination rates, however many vaccines it donates, rendering it rational to use all of its vaccines domestically. However, if every country acts similarly, no vaccines get donated, and everyone is worse off.

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It is a “dilemma” or “tragedy” because everyone agrees that everyone is better off under high donations rather than zero donations, but despite this it always remains rational for a country – especially a small one – to cheat and use its vaccines domestically.

Prisoner dilemmas are an omnipresent feature of human societies: Traffic congestion, climate change, and deforestation are simple illustrations. Fortunately, humans have amassed extensive experience in dealing with prisoner dilemmas.

At the national level, a common solution is external enforcement: A third party, such as the government, legally requires cooperative behavior, while imposing a punishment on those who insist on cheating. For example, without the threat of sanctions, factories would cause a lot of air pollution, with severe adverse consequences for public health. The government declares limits on pollution, monitors factory emissions, and fines violators. The result is a considerable decrease in air pollution compared to a free-for-all.

Unfortunately, this does not work at the international level as there is no global governing body to dictate terms, monitor behavior, and punish miscreants. The United Nations provides a forum for discussion, but it wields little power. In 1990, at the end of the Cold War, the US powerful enough alone to act as a global policeman, but its influence has recently abated, along with its appetite for intervening beyond its shores.

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The next solution to try is to form a coalition of countries that are collectively powerful and whose interests are largely aligned. This group can then act as a multilateral police force that mimics a supranational government, overcoming the COVID-19 vaccination version of the tragedy of the commons.

Loosely speaking, that’s the purpose of the COVAX initiative, coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO), and it has resulted in a large number of vaccine donations. However, as evidenced by a series of WHO statements, donations still fall short of what is necessary to contain the pandemic.

This is because neither the WHO nor COVAX has the ability to sanction cheaters. Given the grave danger the world is facing, the time might be right for some good old-fashioned unilateralism to get the ball rolling. Or, more specifically, Sino-American bilateralism.

As we have recently seen, China and the US are both prepared to use extreme economic sanctions against countries that they perceive to threaten their interests. However, given the two countries’ geopolitical rivalry, it is very rare for a country to attract sanctions from both China and the US, with the non-sanctioning member of the pair usually affording the sanctioned country some critical respite.

Given the patterns of global trade, being subjected to joint Sino-American economic sanctions would be a devastating blow to any economy, making the threat of such sanctions highly persuasive. Therefore, a potential starting point would be for American and Chinese officials to sit down with WHO and determine an equitable formula describing how many vaccines each country should buy/donate to COVAX. Critically, any country failing to comply should be sanctioned by the Sino-American dyad, giving the system real bite. Moreover, a positive corollary of this would be a warming of relations between China and the US.

In the current climate, a spontaneous episode of Sino-American cooperation seems extremely unlikely, as the two giants maintain that their respective worldviews are mutually incompatible. But the manifestly shared interest regarding this pandemic and future ones should give us cause for optimism. The two economies are heavily intertwined, and whether it is a new COVID-19 mutant strain, or a new virus altogether, neither country can realistically shield itself from a public health disaster alone.

There are important precedents of geopolitical archrivals working together constructively, such as the US and USSR collaborating on the issue of nuclear disarmament, fueled by the realization that one bomb being dropped could initiate a sequence of events that would culminate in the deaths of billions. And at the end of the Second World War, prior to the start of the Cold War, the two superpowers were allied against the Germans despite their imminent differences due to the latter’s threat to global peace.

If the experts are right, there is a real risk that one year from now, the 2021 vaccination programs will have been nothing more than a stopgap solution to a devastating problem. It’s time for China and the US to put their differences aside and cooperate on getting enough vaccines to poorer countries, transforming a crisis into the ignition point for a new wave of global multilateralism.

Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is an economist at George Mason University

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