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EFSAS Commentary

A faltering China presents opportunities that India and other democracies can capitalize upon


At a video conference of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Foreign Ministers on 28 March to discuss the impact of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the response of the BRICS to it, India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar made out a strong case for the reform of multilateral systems and organizations in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Foreign Minister Wang Yi was China’s representative at the conference. Jaishankar’s pitch was viewed by some observers as being directed at the beleaguered World Health Organisation (WHO). Such observers, however, may very well be guilty of confining what Jaishankar actually meant to a much narrower interpretation than was intended by him.

The direction in which the pendulum of international power will swing by the time the COVID-19 crisis is eventually overcome is still anybody’s guess. As it stands though, it is evident that China has come under intense international scrutiny and pressure if not for deliberately spreading the virus, then for consciously keeping it under wraps and providing misleading untruths to the international community over a virus that had the potential to cause serious damage the world over. While no one seriously believes that the COVID-19 was a deliberate creation of China, the possibility of a virology research laboratory in Wuhan, the Chinese city that the virus originated in and spread from, accidentally releasing the virus, as well as the wet market theory are the two scenarios that scientists believe to be the most likely as far as the origin of the virus goes. United States (US) President Donald Trump on 15 April said that his government was investigating whether COVID-19 had originated in the Wuhan laboratory, where research on naturally occurring Coronaviruses was being conducted.

It is this period, soon after the virus broke out, for which China is under the most intense scrutiny as it allegedly tried to stop information about the virus from getting out, going to the extent of gagging the medical staff in Wuhan from speaking about it. As per reports, a doctor who had been treating the first groups of COVID-19 patients in Wuhan and was one of the initial whistleblowers, disappeared soon after his revelations on the seriousness of the threat that this new virus posed. The doctor died from COVID-19 a few days later. Chinese authorities also reportedly provided misleading information about the virus in the early days of the outbreak, including on the critical matter of human-to-human transmission that had very serious implications for the world at large. Apparently concerned much more about China’s image and its economy, the authorities also heavily underplayed the scale and scope of the outbreak and the numbers of those affected and deceased.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis began, China was increasingly choosing to be on the wrong side of international opinion, be it over its imprisoning over a million Uighur Muslims in harsh concentration camps, its ruthless and physical response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, its military posturing on Taiwan after nationalist President Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected to power in January, its increasing belligerence in the South China Sea, and its debt trap diplomacy through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of which the more politically and economically vulnerable countries were natural targets. As Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), put it, “Did anyone seriously expect China's territorial ambitions to stop at invading and annexing Taiwan, and controlling the entire South China Sea and the East China Sea? Or taking Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin off India? They have big plans for the 21st century”.

China, having brought its own COVID-19 situation under control, is now actively seeking to make the most of a crisis that it had, at the very least, a major role in creating. Professor Anne-Marie Brady, a political researcher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, believes that, “China is using the COVID-19 situation to push hard on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, to curtail Hong Kong's freedoms, to force states to accept Huawei in 5G networks and to try and reshape the narrative of the origins of COVID-19”. She added, “Yet China is politically weak right now, as many states are very critical of China's mishandling of COVID-19 outbreak, which led to it becoming a global pandemic”.

The US has been a vocal critic of China’s handling of what President Trump termed the Chinese virus, and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Wuhan virus, much to the chagrin of China. President Trump at a press conference on 27 March was asked in the backdrop of reports of some German agencies planning to send a bill to China for Euro 130 billion for COVID-19 damages whether the US would also seek compensation from China. He responded, “We’re doing very serious investigations, as you probably know. We are not happy with China”. Trump added that, “Germany is looking at things and we’re looking at things and we’re talking about a lot more money than Germany is talking about. We haven’t determined the final amount yet, but it is very substantial. Well, we can do something much easier than that. We have ways of doing things a lot easier than that. If you look at the world, I mean, this is a worldwide damage. This is a damage to the US but this is a damage to the world”.

The rest of the world, barring a small minority of countries such as Russia, Spain, Italy, Serbia, and Iran, which had already decided to align with China’s Belt and Road Initiative because of economic desperation, grievances against democratic neighbors, or other inducements, feel let down and wronged by China. Leaders of France, the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany, to name only a few,  increasingly believe that the unfortunate deaths of over 200,000 people and destruction of the global economy could have been avoided if China had shown transparency and shared the information about the virus in its early phases. As the UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “There absolutely needs to be a very, very deep dive after-the-event review of the lessons, including on the outbreak of the virus”.

Paris-based historian Joseph de Weck, writing for the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank, summed up the change in Europe’s attitude towards China aptly. He wrote on 21 April that, European perception of China has been positive for a long time… That China was no democracy and had no rule of law did not pose a problem. After all, the country was in the midst of a breathtaking economic and social transformation. China was paternalistically viewed as a teenager that had not yet graduated. But Europeans are having second thoughts… Over the last months, Europeans are getting the sense that China is not that interested in a partnership built on mutual respect. Indeed, over the past year, Chinese diplomacy has left its usual reserve behind. In the spat over the construction of Europe’s 5G network, the Chinese embassies in Berlin and Paris publicly threatened retaliation should Huawei’s involvement be excluded or limited. ‘Could German cars be deemed unsafe by Chinese authorities?’ Beijing’s ambassador said at an event hosted by Germany’s biggest business newspaper. This approach causes consternation in Europe. Worse, it doesn’t help Beijing. It makes it difficult for European politicians to argue credibly that Huawei is to be trusted, as it is not a state-owned company. And it makes it impossible to argue that China will refrain from using economic instruments for geopolitical goals, as in the 5G debate it openly does that. Moreover, Europeans are amazed that China has entered the world of fake news and political destabilization, more usually practiced by Moscow. And in Germany, the normally relatively China-friendly foreign policy establishment is turning hawkish. Suddenly, economic decoupling from China has become a theme and Beijing is viewed as a bad actor trying to undermine trust in democracy and society, similar to the Kremlin. Frustration with China’s COVID-19 aggressive public diplomacy even provoked the editor-in-chief of Germany’s biggest tabloid Bild to publish an open letter to General Secretary Xi Jinping, entitled ‘You are endangering the world,’ on April 17… In Europe, Beijing’s assurances it was no imperialist power, was for a long time given the benefit of the doubt. No more”.

Meanwhile, the European Journal of International Law in a 2 April blog by Peter Tzeng titled, ‘Taking China to the International Court of Justice over COVID-19’ concluded that, “It is not every day that one comes across violations of international law that are, allegedly, responsible for the deaths of so many people in so many countries. So if there is any case where justice should be done, this would certainly be it”.

Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, meanwhile, came in for stern criticism and economic coercion by China for suggesting an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Unperturbed, Morrison reiterated on 29 March that, “This is a virus that has taken more than 200,000 lives across the world. It has shut down the global economy. The implications and impacts of this are extraordinary. Now, it would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this all occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again”.

China’s disproportionately strong objections to any suggestion by the international community that an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 be conducted is inexplicable, especially in the light of the fact that China has over the last few weeks not balked at blaming all and sundry, including countries such as the US and Italy, of being the originators of the virus. Had that actually been the case, China would have nothing to fear from any such investigation. 

COVID-19 has severely tarnished China’s image, both domestically and globally. Xi Jinping’s governance and standoffishness during the height of the epidemic in Wuhan has been criticized. China's leadership, influence, wealth and legitimacy have all declined, and legitimacy is the core on which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has traditionally based its power.

China’s strategy to deal with the questions being asked of it on the COVID-19 outbreak has been to present a confident face for its domestic audience coupled with obfuscation through a highly aggressive propaganda campaign abroad. China’s evolving narrative on the coronavirus’ origins since February reveals a two-pronged approach aimed at redirecting blame away from China and sowing confusion and discord among China’s detractors for its bungling of its initial coronavirus response. The European External Action Service, which is the European Union's Foreign Affairs Ministry, noted earlier this week that, “there is evidence of a coordinated push by official Chinese sources to deflect any blame for the outbreak of the pandemic". Richard McGregor, a China analyst with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said, “Beijing is mounting an all-hands-on-deck, no-holds-barred, global diplomatic effort to stem any move anywhere to censure it over its handling of the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan”.

The narrative being peddled by the Chinese government both internally to the Chinese populace, and externally, is that the COVID-19 did not originate in China and, when it did spread, it was the failure of the local rather than the central government. In fact, the CCP responded extraordinarily well, and it has done better than other countries like the USA. So much so that it is also supporting other countries in this time of crisis by supplying medical equipment, no matter that the equipment has been found to be defective or non-functional in a large number of cases. Internally, this narrative is being received with a degree of skepticism, whereas externally it has very few takers.

In this milieu, Marie Brady has averred that “Now is a good time for like-minded states to pull together and support each other economically and politically, and to rebalance their relationship with China”. Among the economic steps that hundreds of western companies are reportedly contemplating in the wake of COVID-19 is shifting their manufacturing bases out of China to other countries that offer similar economic advantages but do not suffer from the political and credibility pitfalls that China does. Countries such as India and Vietnam are increasingly figuring in the plans of these companies. Anticipating the exodus of these companies from China, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has at least in two recent high powered meetings emphasized the urgent need for Indian states to prepare themselves to reap the benefits by presenting themselves as viable and desirable alternatives. If large scale relocation of companies indeed does happen, India can gain considerably at China’s expense.

Politically, in addition to the obvious advantages that a weakened China yields for India, which potentially range from a less aggressive adversary at the boundary negotiations between the two countries to diluted support on terrorism for Pakistan from China at international fora, the changed geopolitical environment and anti-China sentiments would need to be exploited wisely and effectively by India in order to make the most of a favourable situation. India is an Asian democracy whose population is almost the same as China’s, and whose credentials and standing in the international community have consistently been of a high order. Despite this, India has been at the receiving end of the Chinese veto on many an occasion in the United Nations Security Council. This has extended to China even blocking the designation of Pakistani terrorists repeatedly and groundlessly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented India with a rare and welcome opportunity to question how an autocratic regime that has scant regard for the rule of law or for human rights, which has displayed gross irresponsibility and callousness in unleashing the COVID-19 upon the world resulting in over 200,000 deaths and economic mayhem, and which despite this is continuing to be brash and untruthful to the international community, can enjoy veto powers over law abiding and internationally integrated democratic countries. It is imperative that a debate on this important matter is initiated, and it would be in India’s interests to use its extensive international goodwill to be at the heart of the debate. The point here is not that India and other likeminded countries would succeed immediately in such an endeavour, especially given that some other autocratic governments and those indebted to China economically would continue to extend support to China, at least in the immediate term. The aim would rather be to get the narrative, a well-justified one, started and alive.       

Perhaps the reform of multilateral systems and organizations proposed by Indian EAM Jaishankar at the BRICS conference obliquely included making democracy and adherence to rule of law and human rights prerequisites for the enjoyment of vetoes or any other such special privileges in multilateral organizations.

In any event, it is about time that someone demanded this.