Geopolitics

Limping from a Failing BRI to Health Silk Route
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 03 Apr , 2020

The beginning of 2020 brought a wild card entry into global strategic equations in the form of Novel Coronavirus (which causes the disease officially named by WHO as COVID-19), with Wuhan being the initial epicentre in December 2019. China will continue to be accused to have done unimaginable global damage by hiding crucial timely information from rest of the world to be able to respond to COVID-19.

China has gone through full cycle of initially hiding it, being late in quarantining affected people, not being able to prevent community transfers thus causing exponential rise in affected cases in the beginning, taking harsh measures to control it after peaking, bringing down the affected cases.

Now declaring victory (may be prematurely) over the pandemic by lifting restrictions put in place during lockdowns and boosting a ‘COVID-19 Economy’ by cheekily calling it ‘Health Silk Route’.

The trends in January and February suggested a sheer drop in Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of China with combined effect of US-China trade war, failing BRI and COVID-19.

The last week of March 2020 saw the epicenters of COVID-19 shifting westwards with US, Europe and UK emerging to be worst affected, entering stage three of the pandemic cycle and China posing itself to be the good Samaritan volunteering to help the world to combat the pandemic.

Rest of the world continues to be engaged in protecting its citizens in their critical phase of their pandemic cycle, rightly looking at saving its citizens with every possible means as first priority, even if it amounts to taking Chinese help, leaving out the blame game for later occasion.

What does Global shift in Epicenters of COVID-19 Indicate?

By April 01, 2020, 0750 GMT,the coronavirus COVID-19 has affected 203 countries and territories around the world and two international conveyances.  The worldometer indicates over 860,000 cases of coronavirus with over 42,000 deaths and over 178,000 lakh recoveries.[i]

The WHO puts the death rate continues to be low but the biggest danger being faced by the mankind is its exponential rise due to community transfers. USA has emerged to be the largest epicenter of COVID-19 having more than 20 percent of global confirmed cases with nearing three thousand deaths,earmarking $2.2 trillion allocation for combating the pandemic.

Europe led by Italy, closely followed by Spain, Germany, France, Iran and UK, turned out to be the new epicenter of COVID-19. The biggest jolt suffered was the number of deaths on March 30, 2020 in Spain,Italy, France US and UK. All these are cases of taking the pandemic lightly initially resulting into quick entry into third stage of community transfer.

Now most countries in the world are struggling for capacity building to take the challenge of peak period, which is yet to come. This lock down/quarantining patients/suspects has brought global economic/commercial productivity to almost a grinding halt.

The community lock downs, and stringent measures of social distancing helped Chinain flattening the trend, which was quick to declare that it has conquered the disease. Considering Chinese credibility, this claim cannot be taken at its face value, because some media reports of sudden silencing of much more mobiles connections and restrictions on reporting COVID-19 cases do create a doubt as to what exactly is happening in China.

If we add the unreported cases the potential of second cycle of pandemic in China cannot be ruled out. Chinese effort of shifting soft power balance is also evident from alleged effective use of its influence and media to propagate conspiracy theory against US and later trying to shift the blame to Italy using paid media, think tanks and institutions.

The world however will continue to accuse China for this pandemic, with many legal notices already filed against it globally.

China cannot deny that by its own admission, the coronavirus broke out in China late last year[ii]whereas Wuhan was locked down on January 23.The US efforts to evacuate its people at that point of time was seen as ‘triggering panic reaction’ by Beijing, which had already over-delayed global response by then.

China tried to shift the narrative to the belligerent superpower wrangling between Beijing and Washington and great power competition. Both started viewing each other through a lens of conspiracy theories, trading stinging barbs on everything from the origin of the virus, not permitting medical experts to visit Wuhan to who should be blamed for the pandemic.

China and US were already at lowest trust level over issues such as the trade war, South China Sea, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, hence the same narrative was tried by China to confuse the world and shift global anger away from it. With evidences destroyed, denying access to global bodies, the narrative of global pandemic was already written by China in its favor.

China has a reason to be keen to repair its damaged global reputation, caused due to mishandling of the crisis in the initial stage, with exploding infections around the world in last two months, possible loss of face, ensuing disrespect of other countries; hence it  behaved so swiftly in the diplomatic repairs including ‘Mask Diplomacy’.

The slow reaction and reluctance to lock down by US might show that the US-China competition is moving China’s way, but the Chinese follies of making the world suffer by their late reporting may not put Xi Jinping in comfortable position either, although it’s too early to predict. 

Trade War to Mask diplomacy and Health Silk Route

The CNP of a country is a combination of hard and soft power and includes sum of economic, military, technological, human resource, diplomatic and other levers of power. China claiming to have successfully encountered COVID-19, has kick started its industry after being the cause of paralysis of industrial power of everyone else, with focus on largest emerging demand of medical equipment related to combatting COVID-19.

After IMF Chief’s revelation that the global economy has entered recession, which could possibly be worst of its kind, China got a new lifeline to its economic revival with a competitive advantage in comparison to others. Chinese economy seems to be benefitting from others peril, with factories commencing work at 66 percent efficiency[iii] including foreign companies like Apple, domestic flights commencing in most areas, life limping back to normal and upsurge in demand with more people in markets. China after exporting  the pandemic globally, is now making best of COVID-19 economic model  by switching from failing BRI to COVID-19 related production.

It is also disposing COVID related equipment surplus to mute expected accusations of risking humanity. China has thus tried to benefit itself not only in comparative economic terms, but also shift the equation in soft power, by projecting itself as better resource provider in this crisis.

China is also trying to benefit from the monopolistic opportunity arising from the crisis by focusing its manufacturing base on production of testing kits, personal protection kits, ventilators and other crucial medical equipment. China, therefore, leads the global supply chain related to the pandemic, although, like BRI, its reliability is suspected due to the fact that five countries have reported supply of defective equipment. 

Why is the World Silent?

The fact that Coronavirus was detected, and it spread exponentially in Wuhan, China may find difficult to prevent the accusations from the world, angered by sufferings caused due to pandemic. It is however understandable that not many have started blaming China, due to their domestic compulsion and priorities to check the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, instead of involving in blame game for the time being.

Most countries are also expecting Chinese assistance in their fight against the pandemic, as China is seen to have controlled the same, having gone through the peak of infection and successfully controlled it. Most countries also hope that a suspected creator of the virus is in best position to find antidote and help in combating it. Countries also do not want to disturb the supply chain of medical equipment from China at this juncture.

The outcome of G20 virtual Summit was also on the same lines, wherein the G20 leaders issued a statement at the end of the summit calling for a coordinated global response to fight the coronavirus pandemic, protect global economy, minimize disruptions in trade and take steps to enhance global coordination. The G20 leaders pledged to inject $5 trillion into the global economy[iv] to reduce the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. I do feel that this issueof holding China accountable will not be dead, but re-appear sometime in future. There are already few lawsuits already filed against China for the same and some more may be in the offing.

On a practical note, it is understandable that the world cannot fight this pandemic without global cooperation, which includes China. China owes responsibility to help others to fight coronavirus, after letting the genie out of bottle, more so when the US has to focus inwards due to looming domestic crisis of COVID-19 and cannot be a resource provider at this stage.

It’s also in China’s interests to act to repair and restore its global image. Curbing media will not suppress global criticism. If technologically advanced countries can utilize their capacities, especially on joint research and development of vaccine, and strengthen the global value chain of supplies of medical equipment, it will help the humanity.

Credibility of UN Organizations?

The pandemic has also exposed the Chinese influence in global bodies claiming to be neutral and serving for humanity. WHO knew about the outbreak of coronavirus in January 2020 and declared it as pandemic only on March11, 2020, losing precious time for the world to respond, presumably under pressure from China?

In an interview on the question of helping Taiwan, the WHO officer fumbled and did not reply, under pressure of ‘One China Policy’. How can WHO claim to serve humanity leaving out Taiwanese population? In recent G20 virtual Summit chaired by Saudi Arabia, the group has been too generous to WHO in agreeing to extend support to strengthen its mandate in the fight against pandemic including delivery of diagnostic tools, treatments, medical supplies and vaccines, because their services are urgently needed at this juncture, but it needs to be held accountable once the crisis is over.

United Nation Security Council (UNSC) has not found it relevant to discuss about it and even have virtual consultation on this pandemic, because China is a P5 country, chairs UNSC for March 2020 and the monthly Chair decides the agenda. It never felt the need to investigate when Wuhan was under lock down and writings of the potential pandemic were on the wall even earlier.

UNSC certainly requires restructuring because in the current system China or any P5 country in its place, with its veto power can get away easily, even after putting humanity to risk. The suspicion over COVID-19 being a product of Chinese biological weapon research in Wuhan, could have been settled if China would have allowed investigation by world bodies.

It is too late to put the trust back now, after accusations of China having destroyed the evidences and continuing to change the narrative besides other diversionary tactics.

Will it lead to Changed World Order?

Thinking positively, even if the world is able to fight this pandemic successfully, the global strategic equation will never remain the same. Coronavirus pandemic has exposed weaknesses of China, US and world organizations to the humanity. While China can be accused of lack of transparency in handling the COVID-19 initially, the US can be accused of taking it lightly and reacting late enough, not to be able to help countries, which do not have requisite capacities to fight it.

The idea of putting national interest over survival of humanity, and appearing to be inward looking, will lower the confidence of world community in US as well as China. The western countries led by US have been used to fighting the strategic competition by controlling trade and financial system as well as power of alliance, but unpredictable events like this pandemic, climate change, elements of non-contact warfare can change the entire equation.

US may also realize that it was a mistake to propagate China as global manufacturing hub, and it now faces a grave challenge from this manufacturing giant with key digital technologies. China can also not be on a comfortable ground, because the autocratic model cannot work for eternity, as the magnitude of external and internal dissent/public anger cannot be estimated now.

While China may feel to be recovering and compliment itself to have fought it better than democratic countries, but the success of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong nullifies that claim. It also remains to be seen in future that China has pushed many countries against itself or otherwise. The world will also realize its mistake of putting all eggs in Chinese basket and hopefully a reverse flow may occur post pandemic.

The credibility of UN is at stake, which is increasingly been seen as political tool of P5. In my opinion unless it undergoes a drastic reformation, especially the UNSC, there will be many countries ignoring its relevance and resolutions. With a threat of second cycle of COVID-19, no one can be sure that who is better placed in the future strategic equation.

What is the role of India?

India has the second largest population in the world next to China, which claims to have got over its peak period of pandemic. Indian efforts have been appreciated so far. WHO and the global community feels that densely populated countries like India will determine “the future of this pandemic”?

The latest epicenters are US and Europe, yet the world is anxious about Indian fight against COVID-19, because of extremely high population density, possible administrative difficulties in tackling the pandemic and logistics attached with the lockdown. India, as a developing country, besides combating pandemic, faces a bigger challenge feeding, administering, managing migrating population, implementing social distancing and healthcare for a large number of people including unorganized sector workers, in view of its limited infrastructure. Its capacity to isolate communities is the biggest challenge in the world, which cannot be combatted without public participation.[v]

The low figures of reported cases so far, are subject to testing rate and India is yet to improve its recovery cases which are relatively low (Below 10% against global average of 20%). The death rate is low so far, but the main challenge lies ahead as the curve has not flattened but risen sharply with awkward cases of negligence. India needs to ensure not to enter into community spread (next stage) of COVID19 outbreak.

Indians need to follow all instructions from the Government and health specialists to ensure that it remains low. Although a lot is being done by the government and other agencies, the public and private sectors have to jointly boost its handling capacity in the golden period of two weeks, otherwise speed of infection will overtake speed of capacity building of the country to handle it. Each person has to play his/her role, as COVID-19 cannot be combated without people’s participation.

Endnotes

[i]    Worldometer Coronavirus, March 30,2020.  https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

[ii]  Jiangtao Shi, Clash of the titans: how the coronavirus became the new China-US battleground, South China Morning Post, March 15,2020.  https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3075272/clash-titans-how-coronavirus-became-new-china-us-battleground

[iii]  Ross Jenna, COVID-19 Crash: How China’s Economy May Offer a Glimpse of the Future, Visual Capitalist,March 26, 2020. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/covid-19-economic-impact/

[iv]  Parashar Sachin, G20 on Covid-19: PM Modi calls for stronger WHO to fight pandemics, Times of India, March 27, 2020. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/pm-modi-pitches-for-new-crisis-management-protocol-at-g20-video-conference-on-coronavirus/articleshow/74835011.cms

[v]  Asthana S B, Opinion: Global hits and misses in dealing Covid-19, takeaways for India, Economic Times, March 30, 2020.  https://government.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/governance/opinion-global-hits-and-misses-in-dealing-covid-19-takeaways-for-india/74883374

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen SB Asthana

Chief Instructor, United Service Institute of India.

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