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Power Politics amidst the Pandemic: How COVID-19 pitted China against the West

Hamdan Khan

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The transitioning world order is not a debatable streak anymore and the liberal world order led by the liberal hegemon has almost met its preordained fate. In this new era of great power competition, the status quo power United States of America (USA) has found a perfect revisionist nemesis in China which – after making dramatic economic rise during the past 03 decades–asserts its due prominence and demands substantial role in the international system. Although the geostrategic competition between the two giants was already unfolding in various spheres, the outbreak of COVID-19 again pitted the two giants in a direct confrontation, and this time the USA has found its traditional allies – which were earlier circumspect in confronting China – standing alongside.

Notwithstanding the fact that the highly contagious virus does not distinguish among its victims and has flattered the humanity as a whole, the vicious reality of power politics stormed in to undeniably overshadow if not overwhelm the global response to the pandemic.

The trade of barbs between China and its peer, the USA did not accompany the outbreak. In fact, after China announced the outbreak and later imposed a lockdown – categorized by West as “draconian” – to contain the spread, President Trump was all praise for his Chinese counterpart and the government for their dealing with the novel virus. Despite the media reports about the initial missteps by the local government of Wuhan and amidst allegations that the country may have attempted a cover-upin the early phase and is withholding information which may have allowed the infection to spread throughout the world, alarm bells did not ring in the Western capitals. Arguably, it was the period when the First World had yet to see a massive outbreak of their own and a few of them might have been amused to watch the “biggest economic miracle” of the 21st century meet its own fate.

The conjectured amusement did not last too long and thanks to globalization, the virus took weeks to reach Europe. As the First World stood oblivious and unprepared to tackle such a prodigious crisis, the disastrous aftermath was always on the cards. The virus raged through Europe killing thousands and ultimately wreaked havoc in the USA which to date is the primary hit.

As the Western countries started facing the brunt, the praise for China’s actions abruptly changed into reproach calling out the country for its initial cover-up and withholding of information. Interestingly, none other than President Trump himself – the person who had praised China’s response just weeks before – led the assault with his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo categorized as“face” of the USA’s tough approach towards China by China Global Television Network (CGTN). The blame-game soon turned into a vicious information war to control the narrative about the COVID-19; ultimately, leading towards the pressures of economic repercussions and demeaning each other in the crudest way possible, for all intents and purposes constituting a virtual “Cold War”.

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 outbreak was initially mishandled by China and the country’s contagion outbreak detection system – developed in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak in 2003 – failed to detect the outbreak in its initial phase. To add is the complex nature of the Chinese bureaucratic model whose representatives in Wuhan – possibly to avoid political instability – reprimanded and muzzled the doctor who initially reported cases of a pneumonia-like disease in December 2019. Nonetheless, as the spread became overwhelmingly palpable, the authoritarian Chinese government swung into action and imposed brutal lockdowns, which at the end became the primary reason for the country’s obvious victory over the virus.

As China was able to significantly control the menace at home, it embarked upon “health diplomacy” which consist of dispatching relief, medical equipment, and assistance to some of the worst sufferers of the pandemic. Shrewdly, China was trying to fill the void created by the US withdrawal and the recipients of aid did not hesitate to shower their “Chinese friends” with praise and gratitude.

The US Federal Government’s response, on the other hand, was lack lustre and lethargic. President Trump initially downplayed the threat; next, he peddled dubious and unverified medical treatments to the virus; following were the spats of President with his own governors and finally, he tried to dodge the responsibility. Devoid of leadership at the federal level and without a coherent plan to combat the virus, the US health system faced overwhelming setbacks and casualties till now has touched 77,000 which President Trump fears reaching as high as 100,000.

However, humanitarian loss is only one aspect and economic devastation caused by the virus is even overpowering. The US economy shrank by 4.8% in the first quarter of 2020 and is estimated to contract by 11% in 2020 while the unemployment rate has reached as high as 14.7% – economic demolition not seen since the great depression.

A devastated economy – as opposed to a robust one, which President Trump would have marketed to win a second term in the office – is a nightmarish scenario for the Republican incumbent. Amidst his declining popularity at home, President Trump intensified his attacks on China calling the COVID-19 as “Chinese virus” and peddled unsubstantiated theories that the COVID-19 was leaked from a Chinese lab – a claim even contradicted by his own intelligence community and members of Five Eye intelligence-sharing partnership. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo also touted the virus leakage theory – only to backtrack later on – joining President Trump and both the high-ranking officials claimed that they have seen evidence to the claim. Regardless of China’s own initial shortcomings to deal with the virus, the mudslinging by President Trump and his top foreign policy aide clearly had any angle of safeguarding the declining popularity of GOP by finding a scapegoat abroad.

Imitating the response of their ally across the Atlantic, European countries at the outset also downplayed the threat and approached the calamity without apt preparation marked by overconfidence and procrastination. Resultantly, Europe became the second epicentre of the pandemic with the United Kingdom leading the count with thousands of deaths.

The initial reaction in Europe was also anti-China flare-up and as opposed to the past – when the Western countries used to maintain an equilibrium between the USA and China and evaded directly confronting China – this time the USA found cronies among its traditional allies in Europe against China. The criticism of China’s initial mishandling of the virus only softened after it lobbied extensively in European Union and pressurized some members to account positively about its COVID-19 response. 

 Australia – another US ally and exporting about 38% of its products to China – joined the party and called for an inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19; a call that regularly reverberates in the Western press also along with demands of compensation from China for the damage caused by the virus.

The intense information campaign was then augmented by calls for economic coercion. As the fate of phase one trade deal between China and the USA hanged in limbo, President Trump threatened to cancel the strenuously reached contract if China does not abide by its promises – a condition which China may not be able to meet given the slowness of its economy by the virus. Furthermore, a proposal to cancel the US debt obligations of US$1.1 trillion towards China was also discussed in White House prompting Chinese media to impart the USA about the repercussion of such a move.

In response, China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomats also did not mince words and departing from their traditional way of conducting diplomacy in a circumspect and calculated way, pushed hard against the West for trying to “demean China”. The unusually aggressive Chinese diplomatic behaviour was surprising for many and conveyed the impression that China may be offhandedly repudiating the Deng Xiaoping dictum of “hide your strength and bide your time”. Chinese State media resorted to derision for the countries criticizing and questioning China’s initial response, and personal attacks were made against the high-ranking US officials. Some of their diplomats based in the Western countries – who recently flooded the twitter with their presence – attracted the ire of their hosts owing to their reckless comments. Lijian Zhao – a deputy spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs – went as far as to peddle a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 may have been brought by the US Army to Wuhan – an observation that would earn him widespread criticism.

Shrewd business-oriented China also dragged-in the economics and Chinese Ambassador to Australia threatened to reconsider his country’s business relations with Australia if the later continues to push for the inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. These were the latest unveiled threats by China after intimidating some of the Western countries with “consequences” for their questioning of China’s human rights record.

On the face of it, China was augmenting medical aid with an aggressive diplomatic campaign and economic coercion, which in turn would benefit the beleaguered Xi regime to incite nationalist sentiments at home and thus, fortifying the domestic support base in the wake of the crisis, which irrefutably has dented the Chinese economy and has aggrieved masses. May be useful at home, the aggressive Chinese diplomatic blitz is damaging the country’s international standing and the carrot in the “health diplomacy” now seems to be overwhelmed by the stick in belligerent rhetoric and intimidation.

Undeniably, the COVID-19 crisis deepened the divisions between China and the West, especially the EU nations, and given the recently enlarged trust deficit, the relations between the deeply entangled economic partners may never restore to pre-COVID-19 state. With the USA, China is already engaged in a geostrategic tussle for global dominance, and “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy marked by aggression and bellicosity does not seem to be convincing wherewithal to woo the traditional allies of the geostrategic peer.

Undoubtedly, China has made remarkable rise during the past few decades and has virtually shaken the international system but it may be too early for China to acquire the wherewithal to act as a global hegemon. The USA may be in a retreat and the West may be facing a decline, but by virtue of globalization, the two sides are so deeply interconnected and interdependent that even a little downsizing of economic relations will be more devastating for China than the West. The trade war with the USA already slowed the pace of Chinese economic growth and if a retrenchment happens with the West also, it will be business-oriented China taking most of the brunt.

China’s own geopolitical venture, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – disguised as a benign scheme focusing on geo-economics – is in its initial stage of implementation and China has yet to erect its own world order parallel to the liberal one led by the USA. China has certainly expanded its influence in the BRI host countries and there are bright prospects of BRI turning into a Chinese led bloc; but can those countries substantially compensate for the economic partnerships at this moment if a retrenchment vis-à-vis the West happens, remains a big question mark.

Given the aforementioned limitations of China with respect to its economic relationship with the West, a more preferable and prudent approach will be to deal with the Western criticism with unyielding but discreet diplomacy while maintaining the “fighting spirit”. Unveiled economic threats and insensitive derision for other countries –as opposed to the previously exercised policy of delicately balancing between diplomatic and economic relationship – will only result in a backlash, as happening in the current scenario. Resultantly, the Western world will turn even warier of China and the dragon’s aims to strengthen its economic relations and create space for itself into the Western tech market will receive jolting shocks. The resultant state of affairs will be in complete contrast to the liberal policy of engagement which the western world adopted towards China; ultimately leading towards China’s ascendance to the world stage and will effectively push the world on a path to de-globalization.

Hamdan Khan is an alumnus of National Defense University Islamabad. He has previously worked for Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) & is currently associated with Pakistan Council on China (PCC). His major areas of interest include Geo-politics, Great Power Competition, Nuclear Affairs and Revolution in Military Affairs.

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East Asia

From Patriotism to Humanity: China Leading the Fight of the COVID-19

Sabah Aslam

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The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has not only impacted human and social life in terms of disease and infection but also created a controversy in the international media and social network to the point that some western media fell into the trap of racism and xenophobia showing an unusual and an inhuman reactions, instead of solidarity and unity exhibition.

Since China is the first country infected with this virus, so it has already started its fight, the government as a leader has put a clear and effective strategy with successful measures of treatment, protection and prevention. In order to maintain the situation the government dedicated all kind of resources and today’s statics shows an increasing of the confirmed infections and death cases and a considered decrease of healed people’s number.

As a matter of fact, the World Health Organization’ Chief TedrosAdhanomGhebreyesus has defended his earlier praise of China’s response to the outbreak and mentioned that all the member of the WHO has praised China for what it did by taking action in the epicenter, helped to prevent cases of being exported to other provinces in china and the rest of the world. This formal statement just confirmed the truth to the world about China’s reliability and the sacrifices made to safeguard the world.

All Chinese government’s management and measures wouldn’t be successful without the great response of the society. As a matter of fact we need to acknowledge the high level of patriotism of the Chinese citizens. No matter their social status;the military, police, engineers, workers, doctors and nurses, business and company owners, celebrities, civilians and ordinary people, students and volunteers, young-middle-old generations, all this people responded to the call of duty applied and followed meticulously all the recommended measures by the government, indeed by their own free will, they sacrificed wealth, made many donations, provided help and assistance donated free masks , free supplies, goods, food and even provided free services, and differently some people made a priceless contribution such the doctors, fully dedicated, working on clock on the front line risking and even sacrificing their lives to save other people’s lives.

Meantime, in the other side of the globe the coronavirus kept spreading, the virus is traveling the world it has no boundaries and it’s affecting the economy, the social life and the public health, it becomes a public enemy, presenting a threat especially for the African communities, in fact many of them they do not have neither the financial means nor a good health security. But since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Africa CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) took many actions and followed the Chinese in term of union and solidarity.

Indeed Africa CDC collaborated with the World Health Organization to train in-coming analysts in event-based surveillance. Also The Africa CDC has been working with member states to build infection prevention and control capacities in healthcare facilities and with the airline sector to support screening of travelers.

These prevention measures may help control the COVID-19, but African leaders still need to pay attention and follow suit to avoid an outbreak and not reproduce the Italian or Iranian scenarios. Recently, World Health Organization chief TedrosAdhanomGhebreyesus warned about the efficiency of the prevention measures and said mediocre preparations could have fatal consequences. He also said the real struggle lies in management of the situation in case of an outbreak.

Generally, Africa doesn’t have a high level of public health. Many diseases and viruses have appeared on the continent, such as HIV, Ebola and tuberculosis. In order to fight and eliminate this threat, a number of African governments have increased expenditures allocated to health and started cooperation for health development with the Chinese government.

China promised to continue to scale up assistance to African countries by creating a health care intuitive allowing the African countries to achieve independent and sustainable development. The plan also contain a long-term strategy of health development, exchange of scientists and new research and technical support for strengthening health-related capacities under the International Health Regulations. China aim to improve African medical and health service and hospital management to provide a better services to the African people by training medical staff, public health workers and administrative personnel. Besides China promised to upgrade its medical and health aid programs for Africa, particularly flagship projects such as the headquarters of the African Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The cooperation’s plan shows the Chinese-African comity, the friendship and the mutual respect and we can clearly see that China is determined to the contribution in the development of the African nations. The actual epidemic situation of the COVID19 in Africa needs more attention and prevention, the collaboration precisely with china will be a wise action considering the Chinese experience of management, logistics, and organization to maintain the situation in case of outbreak and bringing out the best of the Sino-African alliance.

Despite that China is still fighting this epidemic in its own territory, the government express his readiness to help the other infected countries, recently the Chinese Foreign Ministry expresses sincere thanks for the support and assistance provided by many countries such South Korea and Japan, adding that China is ready to improve and strengthen the mechanism of responding to health and epidemic emergencies and promote the exchange of epidemiological information, exchange of experiences, prevention and control, to implement cooperation In the areas of diagnosis, treatment, research programs, and the development of medicines and vaccines.

China is acting heroically; in the middle of its own fight against the virus the PRC still showing gratitude and good will to help others countries. Till now Africa still has the chance to prevent and learn the Chinese experience, sadly some Africans countries still didn’t take serious prevention measures but China can provide the help and the assistance.

During the outbreak of the COVID-19 we all have seen the Chinese citizen showing patriotism and helping to maintain the situation, meanwhile the Chinese government have shown the same to the world, the lockdown was a strategy to stop the virus from spreading globally, if the Chinese government didn’t take the decision to lockdown cities and stop flights and traffics, experts confirmed that the COVID-19 could infect much more of global population, in fact it was a noble and human act, full of altruism and unselfish, all the matter was the human life.

Now China jumps to the next step which is helping the affected countries and proposing ways of preventions, sharing the genetic code for the virus with researchers around the world and providing medical trials information, treatment, and research programs for the development of medicines.

It’s time for solidarity and support and to have hope. This is a matter of life or death, and China can fight against the outbreak with the rest of the world to the safety…. to restore faith in humanity.

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East Asia

Predicting the course of US-China relations in the post Covid-19 era

Ayush Banerjee

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Authors: Ayush Banerjee and Dhritiman Banerjee*

The coronavirus pandemic is a natural threat to the geopolitical order. And it is needless to state that this majorly affects the currently international paradigm in a manner that the world has not seen before. Although there have been a few instances where pandemics have shaken the mortality rates, no pandemic has spread this amount of sheer panic among the public at large. This is largely due to the growing interconnectedness and the advent of the cyberspace. Just as the internet has influenced the lives of the most privileged public, data has been influential in academics and politics alike. However, this argument has its own set of problems that continue to affect public-politic relations in ways more than one.

In the same regard, one of the most strained and keenly debated relations in international politics is that between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. In the context of the virus itself, the virus originated in Wuhan, a province in China while the most number of fatalities have resulted in the United States of America. This idea fuelled with the new world media at the public level created an atmosphere of tension on such platforms. On Twitter notably, there were several instances of a tweet naming Covid-19 as ‘Chinese Virus’ spread like wildfire. This sparked a major controversy even at the diplomatic level. Even Donald Trump momentarily subscribed to the idea and deliberately worded his speech to use the phrase ‘Chinese/China virus’ to refer to Covid-19 at least 20 times between March 16th and March 30th 2020. The US Secretary of State- Mike Pompeo went on to accuse China of its lack of transparency, even scrapping a joint G7 statement after its members refused to refer to the virus as the ‘Wuhan virus.’ China has remained apologetic ever since. Hence, it can be rightly inferred that the relationship shared between China and USA have strained ever since the Covid-19 outbreak.

However to predict how the outbreak might jeopardise the current paradigm of world politics we must look no further than the Phase One Trade deal signed between the two countries. This deal previously ended an 18-month long trade war between USA and China. Through this deal, China committed to purchasing $200 billion additional foreign goods and services in the sectors of agriculture, energy and manufacturing. However, it is evident that in the post-Covid19 era, it will be rather implausible for China to adhere to the terms of the deal due to reasons more than one. The IMF estimated the reality of an unprecedented economic slowdown in which China is expected to grow at only 1.2% this year. Several reports suggest that investors are planning to pull out their investments from Chinese industries to fit in with the Western bandwagon.

The outbreak turned pandemic coupled with the authoritarian nature of China’s response to the entire situation has had a detrimental effect on their domestic economy creating various tremors in the anticipation of demand for various products and services. For instance, the 12 most Covid-19 affected countries account for over 40% of the Chinese exports. Nations like India and Italy that also make that list of twelve may voluntarily pull out of importing to China as they are set to gain from deferring of investments. These nations are also top suppliers of intermediate goods for the Chinese economy. The Chinese economy is quite dependent on external demand stimuli from the US and most western European states such as the United Kingdom. Therefore, until the point in time the US and EU economies completely recover from this pandemic, Chinese policymakers are bound to hold back domestic stimulus efforts as it will only have little effect if the global economy is in shambles.

The Chinese economy has crippled down considerably due to the ongoing trade war that has led to a disproportionate ratio of debt to the annual Gross Domestic Product. This ratio reached an overwhelming 248.8% by the end of March 2019 and it has only increased ever since. China has also been forced to restructure the debts of the Belt and Road initiative (erstwhile OBOR). This restructuring meant that the capital owed to China as loans by the contributing states have been readjusted to affect the projected collection considerably. As Covid-19 nearly decimates the economy of most developing nations, it is becoming increasingly difficult for these states to pay their loan back to China within the stipulated timeframes. Thus adding to the stress on the Chinese economy at large.

There has already begun a region-specific boycott of Chinese goods and industries, especially in conservative parts of USA, among the southern districts. Instances of racial abuse against ethnic Chinese communities have been on an unfortunate rise. These are all deterministic factors of public consciousness, if not, public opinion for the future that lies ahead of us. This reaction has already seen international spillovers and investors have become more anxious about investing in Chinese companies.

According to Deepanshu Mohan, the world may experience radical shifts in the global political economy post-Covid19 based on two factors namely, the relative degree of economic recovery in the affected nations and the existing domestic political scenarios in such nations. He further states that in the post-Covid19 era, protectionist trade policies are likely to increase in the developed nations who in the name of ‘supply security’ may disentangle trade relations with China which will inversely affect the current geopolitical world order. Donald Trump could also make the pandemic a focal point in the 2020 election campaign and therefore aim to capitalise on the anti-China fervour in the US and thus strain relations even further. There lies evidence for this as well. Trump recently presented his anguish towards China being categorised as a ‘developing’ state under the World Trade Organisation list and due to the low contributions of China to the World Health Organisation. Although this may seemingly appear appropriate accusations, this is far from the whole truth. The USA, themselves have cut major proportions of its funding capacity towards the United Nations especially concerning peacekeeping and security operations.

Minxin Pei, on the other hand, stated that the Covid-19 outbreak has led the average American to view the Chinese political system with chronic scepticism as Americans blamed the repressive Chinese political system for the pandemic with the Harris poll indicating widespread American dissatisfaction with the alleged Chinese cover-up of the virus. This poll also showed overwhelming support for US punitive measures on China and the removal of US investments and businesses from China. These developments could lock the two countries into a cycle of escalation that could trigger another potential international diplomatic conflict leading to numerous security issues and economic degradation. USA and China remain the two largest economies in the world. Hence, it can be inferred that this fallout of diplomatic and economic ties between the two states might amount to significant damage in the entire global political order and the globalised system of economies and markets. In the US itself, the number of jobs created since the recession in 2008 has been washed away in two weeks.

The trade war between the two economic giants had already shaken the world before the outbreak. And the prevalent fault lines will only widen in the post-Covid19 era just as a global economic slowdown is expected. Thus, it is imperative for the world economy that this US-China relation remains amicable and stable. However, the available narratives indicate a significant detour from the ideal stability that USA and China should normatively maintain to protect the global economy from crumbling down like biscuits. The USA has resorted to legislations that are actively anti-China in terms of financial relations and international trade while China has strengthened its protectionist response system both politically and economically during this outbreak.

The Covid-19 outbreak has not acted as an impediment to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea region either. China has recently renamed 44 features in the disputed region, a decision that is considered illegal under international law. This has been time and again criticised by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. With increasing US-China missile competition a reality in the region post the abrogation of the INF treaty, the post-Covid19 era will likely see more prominent conflicts in the South and the East China Sea regions which is a strategically important waterway for both the countries alongside other nations such as Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and India.

*Dhritiman Banerjee is an undergraduate student at the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. He has recently published for the Millenniumpost, a Kolkata based newspaper as well as contributed to publications like the Geopolitics and South Asia Monitor. His interests lie in International Relations in general and Strategic Studies in particular.

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East Asia

Political unrest in Hong Kong and Global Pandemic

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Things started from a murder of a girl in Taiwan ending up into an unseen scenario in Hong Kong. Rising tensions in the region of China and Hong Kong, situation is getting worse. First of all the episode of extradition bill and now becoming the series of different surprises, the advent of National Security Bill is not acceptable among the Hong Kong citizens. According to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong is ought to be the autonomous and free liberal region along china being constituted as a “one country, two systems.” As per this treaty, China is violating International law: which is a direct threat to its soft policy and international image.

 Secondly, the role of United States in Hong Kong is mainly concerned about the large number of U.S. Nationals working there especially at naval ports and their security. While on the national level the sustainability of democratic values and freedom in Hong Kong to whom these acts of China’s Communist party are challenging. United States being the global hegemon owns the responsibility to protect and keep the check on practice of international laws and its violation in any region of the world. Although the whole global community is concerned about the present situation of Hong Kong and its upcoming outcomes. States sign treaties and agreements on the basis of one’s predetermined political and social culture and works accordingly, so following the current scenario the Protest in Hong Kong is going to be game changing event. If the bill passed, Hong Kong will be a Chinese administered territory like another small city of Chinese Communist party but on the other hand if failed to pass this bill Hong Kong can have a victory to win the democracy and write the fate of their state in a new way.

Furthermore, the wave of global pandemic in the form of COVID 19 has already questioned the worth of human security. Millions of people are dying due to this disease originated from Wuhan, China. World is already questioning the Chinese role. Above all the differences, we all are human beings living in the world of chaos. Divisions led towards the more divisions. There is a dire need to fight collectively to this coronavirus. Being humans, we need to apply the only global value that is being human fellow. Social distancing is the new normal now but Hong Kong’s political situation is getting more anti distance campaign due to the political unrest. China needs to slow down the process. Human security needs to be the priority. Although to raise the voice of Hong Kong’s people social media can be a better platform. Let’s shake hands for peace rather than division.

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