China's cover-up: Will coronavirus pandemic lead to changed world order?

DelhiWritten By: Maj General SB Asthana, SM, VSMUpdated: Apr 01, 2020, 09:23 PM IST
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Donald Trump and Xi Jinping Photograph:(Reuters)

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China’s authoritarian model cannot work for eternity. The idea of putting national interest over the survival of humanity will reduce confidence of the world in the US and China.

The beginning of 2020 brought a wild card entry in the global strategic equations in the form of Coronavirus pandemic, with Wuhan being the initial epicentre.

China will continue to be accused of doing global damage by hiding crucial information from the rest of the world. China has gone through a full cycle of initially hiding it, being late in quarantining affected people, not being able to prevent community transfers, taking harsh measures to control it later, declaring victory over a pandemic and reopening lockdowns.

The trends in January and February suggested a sheer drop in Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of China with the combined impact of US-China trade war, failing BRI and COVID-19. The last week of March saw the epicenters of COVID-19 m westwards with the US, Europe and UK emerging to be worst affected, and China appearing to be helping the world in combatting the pandemic.

What does shift in epicenters of COVID-19 indicate? 

The coronavirus has affected 203 countries and territories around the world and two international conveyances. The worldometer indicates over 8.7 lakh cases of coronavirus with over 43,000 deaths and over 1.84 lakh recoveries. The WHO says the death rate continues to be low but the biggest danger being faced by mankind is its exponential rise due to community transfers. USA has emerged to be the largest epicentre of COVID-19 having more than 19 per cent of global confirmed cases with more than three thousand deaths.

Europe, with over one lakh cases and 30,000 deaths, is closely followed by Spain, Germany, France, Iran and the UK. All these countries took the pandemic lightly initially, resulting in quick entry into the third stage of community transfer. Now most countries in the world are struggling for capacity building to take the challenge of the peak period, which is yet to come. This lockdowns and quarantining has brought global economic/commercial productivity to almost a grinding halt.  

China was quick to declare that it has conquered the disease with reporting 76,238 recovered cases, only 36 fresh cases, as reported by the National Health Commission (NHC) of China. Considering Chinese credibility, these figures cannot be taken at its face value, because some media reports of sudden silencing of more mobiles connections, restrictions on reporting COVID-19 cases create a doubt as to what exactly is happening in China. The community lockdowns, and stringent measures of social distancing helped China in flattening the trend. If we add the unreported cases, the potential of the second cycle of the 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 the US and later trying to shift the blame to Italy. The world, however, will continue to accuse China of this pandemic, with many legal notices already filed against it globally. 

China cannot deny that the coronavirus broke out in China late last year whereas Wuhan was locked down on January 23. The US efforts to evacuate its people at that point of time were 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 great power competition, viewing each other through a lens of conspiracy theories, hostility, trading stinging barbs on everything - from the origin of the virus to permitting medical experts to visit Wuhan. 

Meanwhile, China has a reason to be keen to repair its damaged global reputation caused due to mishandling of the crisis in the initial stage; hence it behaved so assertively in the diplomatic repairs including ‘Mask Diplomacy’. The reluctance to lockdown by the US might show that the US-China competition is moving China’s way, but the Chinese follies of making the world suffer by their pandemic cover-up would not put Xi Jinping in a comfortable position either, although it’s too early to predict.   

What's happening inside China

The CNP of a country is a combination of hard and soft power and includes a sum of economic, military, technological, human resource, diplomatic and other levers of power. China, claiming to have successfully encountered COVID-19, has restarted its industries, with a focus on the largest emerging demand of medical equipment related to COVID-19. After the IMF Chief’s revelation that the global economy has entered a recession, which could possibly be worst of its kind, the Chinese economy seems to be benefitting from others' sufferings.

Domestic flights are commencing in most areas, life is limping back to normal. China after exporting the pandemic, is now making the best of COVID-19 economic model by switching from failing BRI to COVID19 related production. 

China is projecting itself as a better resource provider in this crisis. China is now focusing on the production of testing kits, personal protection kits, ventilators and other crucial medical equipment. Beijing, therefore, leads the global supply chain with other major manufacturers across the globe being paralysed due to the pandemic.
Why is the world silent? 

The fact that Coronavirus was detected, and spread exponentially in Wuhan, China may find difficult to prevent the accusations from the world which is 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 the 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. Most countries also hope that a suspected creator of the virus is in the best position to find the antidote and help to combat 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 and adopting measures to protect the global economy, minimise disruptions in trade and take steps to enhance global coordination. If technologically advanced countries can utilize their capacities, especially on joint research and development of a vaccine, and strengthening the global value chain of supplies of medical equipment, it will help humanity. 

The G20 leaders pledged to inject $5 trillion into the global economy to reduce the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. I do feel that this issue of 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.  

The credibility of global bodies

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 March 11, 2020, losing precious time for the world to respond, presumably under pressure from China. Also, 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 by agreeing to extend support to strengthen its mandate in fight against the pandemic, but the organisation needs to be held accountable once the crisis is over. 

United Nation Security Council (UNSC) has not found it relevant to discuss the pandemic because China is a P5 country. Beijing chaired UNSC for March and the monthly Chair decides the agenda. It never felt the need to investigate when Wuhan was under lockdown and writings of the potential pandemic were on the wall already. 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. 
Strategic relations post-pandemic

Global strategic equations post-pandemic

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 organisations

While China can be accused of a lack of transparency in handling the COVID-19 initially, the US  took it lightly and reacted late enough. The idea of putting national interest over the survival of humanity will reduce the confidence of the world in the US and China. The western countries are used to fight the strategic competition by controlling trade and financial system and the power of alliance, but unpredictable events like this pandemic, climate change, elements of non-contact warfare can change the entire equation. China would also not be in a comfortable position, because the autocratic model cannot work for eternity. While China might be recovering and complimenting itself to have fought it better than democratic countries, the success of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong nullifies that claim.

The world will also realise its mistake of putting all eggs in Chinese basket, and hopefully, a reverse flow may occur post-pandemic. The credibility of the UN is at stake, which is increasingly been seen as a political tool of P5. In my opinion, unless it undergoes a drastic reformation, there will be many countries ignoring its relevance and resolutions. With a threat of the second cycle of COVID-19, no one can be sure that who is better placed in the future strategic equation.       

 (Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)