President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy
IN the midst of the coronavirus (Covid-19) spreading uncertainty around the globe and governments grappling to stop the catastrophic loss to human life and damage to their economies, world leaders have begun assessing the possible contours of the post-Covid-19 world. With their strong economies and advantage in advanced technologies, the US and the West particularly are trying to ensure against changes in the global balance of power, as that could mean a new China-dominated world order with potential consequences for forms of government, individual freedoms and social values. The US-China rivalry is anticipatedly escalating.
Early on, US President Trump declared he will not allow America to lose its advantage, implying it will strive to retain global primacy. On April 8, he questioned the role of the World Health Organisation (WHO), bluntly observing it seemed to be acting at China’s behest and had delayed warning the world about human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. The UK is contemplating banning Huawei’s 5G from British networks. Chinese President Xi Jinping too, in early February before China made gains in tackling the epidemic, instructed officials that China must not allow its economy to slip, resume manufacturing and economic activity, re-establish global supply chains and expand its market share. Hinting at China’s global ambitions, he said it must behave like a ‘responsible global power’, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke of creating a ‘community of shared future for mankind’. Coincidentally, a Chinese government think-tank disclosed its proposal for a Beijing-led rival to the WHO!
While the rest of the world is combating Covid-19, Beijing’s recent actions signalled that its ambition to dominate the Indo-Pacific has not changed. In April, Chinese Navy warships sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near Fulin Island. China’s Air Force undertook an aggressive 36-hour combat-oriented exercise near Taiwan and the same day PLA Navy Air Force aircraft flew through international airspace between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako in the East China Sea triggering a Japanese response. Days later China’s Air Force conducted another long-range military drill with multiple types of aircraft which passed through the Bashi Channel, a strategic waterway between the Philippines and the Taiwanese island of Orchid, connecting the South China Sea with the western Pacific Ocean. Some flew through the Miyako Strait. Earlier in March, an Artillery Brigade and the PLA Rocket Force in the Western Theatre Command carried out separate ‘live fire’ exercises in Tibet. These were intended to convey to the countries concerned, and the US, that China retains the capability and intent of becoming the dominant Indo-Pacific power.
Perceiving this time as opportune, China launched a worldwide diplomatic and media offensive to propagate the success of its model of government — implying that it could replace democracies. It publicised the arrival of Chinese doctors and medical equipment in Italy and sought to convey that medical equipment and supplies shipped to various countries were ‘donations’. Dubbed ‘mask diplomacy’, the effort was contradicted by statements of Chinese doctors, numerous reports estimating the actual number of dead in Wuhan because of the coronavirus at between 46,000 and 48,000 against the official Chinese figure of 3,335 dead, and the UK, Italy and others declaring that all supplies had been purchased, were of poor quality and unusable. This has tarnished China’s reputation and image.
Public opinion and popular sentiment are powerful factors that influence government policy in democracies. Strong suspicions about China’s role in the coronavirus pandemic persist. Chinese media outlet Caixin Global revealed that Chinese laboratories had identified a mystery virus — later identified as Covid-19 — to be a highly infectious new pathogen by late December 2019, but were ordered to stop further testing, destroy samples, and suppress the news. They were ordered not to disclose and share information that there was human-to-human transmission. This denied the world community a crucial two months of warning and preparation time and two vital months in the race to develop vaccines. Doubts about China’s role are raised too by the research done by Dr Shi Zhengli and other Chinese scientists that the SARS virus originated in bats and on ‘Bat Coronavirus in China’. Suspicions are further heightened by the publication at regular intervals of books authored by senior Chinese military officers recommending full-spectrum warfare and inclusion, for the first time, in an authoritative textbook of China’s National Defence University of discussions on ‘specific ethnic genetic attacks’.
The pandemic has severely damaged world economies, with international financial organisations forecasting a worldwide recession. China’s failure to disclose important information in time will affect social interaction for many months. In the post-Covid-19 world, many countries, as must India, will review trade policies and strive to eliminate dependence on a single source of supply in vital areas. The US and others are also unlikely to ignore a Xinhua commentary of March 4, threatening that China can send the US to “the hell of the novel coronavirus pandemic” by banning export of medical supplies and that almost 90 per cent of the drugs imported by the US are produced in China.
China’s own prospects for an early economic recovery are presently not promising. Chinese economists are debating whether to at all mention a growth target. Economics Professor Xu Xiaonian cautioned that as long as there is a pandemic in Europe and America, there will be no orders for Chinese export companies, no wages for workers, no consumption and recession is inevitable. The US will more actively resist China’s effort to position itself as a potent rival. Popular resentment against China will be an important factor that Beijing will have to contend with. China’s rejection of Estonia’s request for a discussion on the coronavirus in the UN Security Council has only heightened suspicions.
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