China seeks to dominate post-COVID-19 world, but Beijing's role in downplaying pandemic won't be forgotten

China irresponsibly tried to keep a lid on the outbreak instead of openly sharing critical information to better prepare the world for the disaster that was looming.

Anant Singh Mann and Suchet Vir Singh April 11, 2020 08:56:34 IST
China seeks to dominate post-COVID-19 world, but Beijing's role in downplaying pandemic won't be forgotten

The end of World War II in 1945 marked the dawn of a new world order, the ‘liberal rules-based’ order, developed, controlled and dominated by the United States of America. The post-war period provided America with the opportunity to convert their desires for an open, stable and according to some ‘friendly’ world order into a reality. This system has predominantly presided over the rules of engagement in the international system until today.

China seeks to dominate postCOVID19 world but Beijings role in downplaying pandemic wont be forgotten

File image of Chinese president XI Jinping. Reuters

As this US-centric order took precedence over the world through the post-war 20th Century, a consensus emerged on the need to ‘integrate’ China into this system.

Proponents for ‘integrating’ China highlighted the prudence of including a country that accounted for almost a quarter of the human race in the system, arguing that this would ensure Communist China internalises and conforms to the norms that govern the international system.

As the debate ran through the 20th Century, proponents for integrating China outweighed those against, and China was slowly, but steadily, integrated through international institutional capacity into the norms-based liberal system.

Forgoing the merits and demerits of the integration argument, today China is a central part of the international order, deeply enmeshed in its functioning. China accounts for 19.71 percent of global GDP, 12.4 percent of global trade flow, and is central to the functioning of the United Nations. China funds 12 percent of the UN budget and is one of the five permanent members of the UN security council.

China also exerts considerable influence over several other international institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO), with its contributions to the WHO increasing by nearly 52 percent since 2014, amounting to roughly $86 million in both voluntary and assessed contributions.

In 2017, China even helped elect Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as the director-general of the WHO.

This influence over the WHO has caused much intrigue as the novel coronavirus has engulfed the world.

As details have slowly emerged from ground zero in Wuhan, reports have highlighted China’s complicity in the spread of this pandemic. A study published by the University of Southampton in March 2020 indicates that had China acted three weeks earlier, cases could have been mitigated by 95 percent.

Far from mitigating cases, China did the exact opposite, with officials in Wuhan suppressing information about the initial outbreak, ordering hospitals and laboratories to destroy virus samples, and even stating to the WHO in January 2020 that there was no evidence of human to human transmission.

China also waited till the end of January to put a lockdown in Wuhan. In essence, China irresponsibly tried to keep a lid on the outbreak instead of openly sharing critical information to better prepare the world for the disaster that was looming.

For its part, the WHO followed China’s line and criticised other countries for taking 'extreme measures' such as closing borders and issuing travel bans for China, while these measures were the need of the hour. Dr Tedros even stated at the Munich Security Conference in February 2020 that China had complete control over the situation and heaped praise on China for ‘buying the world time with their response’. The WHO also delayed declaring the outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

This course of action by the WHO is in stark contrast to their response during the outbreak of another coronavirus: the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) of 2002.

China addressed both instances in a similar fashion, attempting to silence whistle-blowers, with the WHO on the one hand decisively and swiftly criticising China and recommending travel restrictions in 2002 and on the other miserably failing to do the same in the current situation.

Such a contrast not only undermines the WHO as an independent international institution, but also makes it come across as a mere extension of the Chinese Communist Party.

China’s tactics have not been limited to the WHO. China has also prevented the UN Security Council from adopting a resolution on COVID-19 which would coordinate the global response against the outbreak and primarily hold China accountable for the outbreak. This inaction of the security council pales in comparison to its efforts during previous global health crises like the Ebola epidemic of 2011.

This complete unwillingness of international institutions to openly criticize China possibly highlights a rebalancing in the global order, marking China's transition from integrating into the international order to now dominating it.

In this new 'COVID-19 global order' there has clearly taken place a transition of norms, contrary to the expected internalisation of norms by China. Signifying that the domination by China is not only institutional but has also infiltrated into the global intellectual arena, with knowledge creators willingly championing the Chinese cause to support their control over the narrative during this outbreak.

The same institutions that were created to enforce the ‘liberal rule-based’ norms half a century ago now have reconfigured themselves to enforce norms which either seem non-existent or are simply yet to be established!

With China's propaganda machine going into overdrive, the spin doctors from China have sought to push a narrative where the perpetrator is portrayed as the saviour. China has made considerable efforts to publicise its aid blitz to, among others, Spain, Cambodia, Italy and Serbia.

Even though reports from the Netherlands, Turkey and Spain have indicated that aid in the form of testing kits and masks have manufacturing defects.

Nonetheless, China has tirelessly attempted to seize the narrative by publicising notions of its transparency, openness and swiftness in responding to the pandemic.

China has even sought to push conspiracy theories relating to the origins of the virus, going to the bizarre lengths of stating that it could have even originated in the US. It is quite evident that China, by dominating the narrative of the pandemic and providing extensive international publicity of its relief works, has attempted to not only provide itself with a more central role on the global stage but also positioned itself as the 'new leader' in the emerging global order.

Even though the rebalancing of the global order seems possible, what is certain is that the economic repercussions caused by the pandemic will be highly undesirable for China.

The Chinese political economy has faced great criticism both domestically and internationally for its authoritarian blindness hampering its development. Even though China has reduced the contribution of its industry sector to its GDP from 46.2 percent in 2009 to 39 percent in 2019, the industry sector still remains critical to the Chinese economy.

In contrast with recent geo-political instability that slowed down supply chains, the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented since supply chains in China have halted completely, causing a knock-on effect on manufacturers across the globe. This shock on the global market will likely see a massive restructuring by firms to relocate and localise their production chains to mitigate risk, considerably damaging the Chinese manufacturing sector.

Exacerbating the scenario for the Chinese economy, the pandemic has occurred in the background of a China-US trade war and the rise of global protectionism leading to fears of a hastened decoupling of the global economy, specifically due to the emerging realisation of the risks of doing business in China.

Although early attempts have been made by China to restart supply chains and restore stability, demand has plummeted internally and global demand is expected to decrease with major markets across the world being increasingly affected by COVID-19 with calculations estimating that the global economy will suffer a recession equal to, if not worse, than that of the meltdown in 2008.

Therefore, such circumstances lay the grounds for a massive demand and supply shock to the Chinese economy, placing a major roadblock in China’s ability to continue rebalancing the global order and dominating the international system in the future.

Gaining a first mover advantage, China was able to use its aggressive posturing and control over international institutions to set the narrative in its favour. However, as the pandemic rages, China’s gross irresponsibility during the initial stages of its spread, coupled with the WHO’s inaction will perhaps come back to haunt the rest of the world.

Once the dust settles on the pandemic, questions will emerge on the role of China and the submissiveness of international institutions, while the world may begin to recover in the next few months it will not forget.

As the Great Plague of Athens in 430 BC set the stage for the eventual fall of democracy in Greece, similarly COVID-19 threatens to devastate the world order. Whether it cements China’s rebalancing or instead the impending economic fallout in China causes a resurgence of the erstwhile liberal world order, only the sands of time will tell us.

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