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Covid-19 pandemic: Legal, political and environmental questions for China

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The outbreak and worldwide spread of COVID-19 is bound to raise questions about where and how the infection originated and turned into a global pandemic, what legal and political implications this may have and how a recurrence can be prevented.  Despite the rather farfetched allegation that “the US army might have brought the epidemic to Wuhan” and the sobering assertion that “we may never know where this deadly coronavirus originated,” there is general consensus that the disease originated in China where it had been confined to animal hosts before turning into a human killing pathogen.

The actual mode of spread of the disease has been in dispute with prominent figures in the American administration claiming incompetence in ensuring safety in a Chinese virology center. The least contentious view, however, is that the initial medium of transmission was contaminated flesh of wild animals sold for human consumption in a wet market in the city of Wuhan in central China.

This is not the first zoonotic epidemic to surface in China and spread to other parts of the world. Although never before on such devastating scale, previous epidemics were also serious enough to prompt warnings about causing “significant public health concern” and “considerable socio-economic problems globally”.  It is for the World Health Organization (WHO) as an independent international body entrusted with protecting the health of the world population to investigate and ascertain the origin of the illness and its human outbreak. If necessary, the organization should be expected to advise and intervene in order to prevent a repetition.

Doubts have also been cast on the reliability of official Chinese reports of the time of the outbreak of the illness, its progression into an epidemic and the extent of the ensuing infection and fatality in that country. It has also been suggested that the reporting may not have been entirely transparent, and this may have adversely affected preventive planning by other countries.

Despite sings of diplomatic reticence in view of China’s upper hand in supplying medical materials needed by other countries to combat COVID-19, allegations have been made by the US Secretary of State that “China didn’t report the outbreak of the new coronavirus in a timely fashion to the WHO” and that “even after the CCP did notify the WHO of the coronavirus outbreak, China didn’t share all of the information it had” (Pompeo, 24 April 2020). As regards information supplied by the Chinese, too, suspicion has been voiced by France’s President Macron that “there are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about”.

In response, the Chinese authorities have vehemently denied any coverup and have even offered additional explanations about the apparent discrepancies between the impacts of the virus there and in other countries. To resolve the conflict and provide a clear picture, it is again the responsibility of the WHO, as an impartial institution in charge of international exchange of vital medical information, to investigate these allegations and if verified, decide on the appropriate response.  

From the legal point of view, too, there is the need for expert opinion on whether there should or should not be international consequences for China if the country is proven to be the origin of the pandemic. Assuming that the source of the infection was contaminated meat, it has to be ascertained whether the meat was on sale in an authorized and regulated market in Wuhan, in which case Chinese officials in charge of food hygiene and consumer safety may be liable for criminal negligence. Or, as suggested by some sources, it had been smuggled and sold illegally, which would intimate professional incompetence on the part of the country’s law enforcement agencies.

It is up to international lawyers and legal entities to determine whether either or both cases constitute grounds for domestic and/or international litigation against the Chinese state or its functionaries, as was, for example, in the case of the contaminated blood scandal of 1980s or are only matters for internal disciplinary action for the Chinese government to pursue.

Less urgent, but perhaps more significant implication of the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 for the future of international relations are possible reasons behind the Chinese government’s long-running neglect of the need to take serious action to stem the insalubrious trade in wild animals, including endangered species. In a country where the state keeps a watchful eye on citizens and has firm control over many aspects of their lives, lax attitude of the officialdom toward the destruction of wildlife cannot be put down to lack of information or want of power to intervene. Rather, it has to be seen as part and parcel of politics in a country where political development has lagged far behind the impressive transformation and colossal progress of the economy.

Before the People’s Republic of China gradually opened its economy to the outside world from late 1970s, the country was under an ideological regime obsessed with economic autarky and political regimentation at home and a belligerent, isolationist stance in foreign relations. Thanks to two decades of ideological compromise over the economy, China entered the 21st Century as a fast-growing economic power and has remained the singularly most impressive example of success of an emerging economy.

What has changed little over these decades has been a totalitarian, one-party political system that “sees human rights as an existential threat” and denies the citizens many of the rights and freedoms taken for granted in democratic countries. The Chinese officialdom may present the ossified one-party rule in the People’s Republic of China as essential for “political stability” but in fact, not only it is no guarantee against internal political instability, it can pose a serious threat to world economic and political security.

It is natural to sympathize with people living under totalitarian regimes as victims of tyrannical rule, but in a wider picture, authoritarian rulers themselves are unwitting victims of their own tyranny. Of course, it is they who deprive their citizens of basic human rights and political freedoms because they are conscious of their own lack of political legitimacy and consensual authority and live in constant fear that without political and social control, the undercurrent of public discontent and frustration may erupt into open rebellion and subvert the regime.

Yet, by suppressing freedom of expression and repressing open dissention, the authoritarian state fosters a political culture of disingenuous acquiescence and false conformity which deprives the rulers of reliable means of identifying and responding to people’s expectations and grievances and assessing their genuine opinion of the actions of their government. Moreover, unlike democratic countries where people assume ultimate responsibility for the actions of the state by virtue of the right to elect and dismiss their government, the authoritarian regime alone bears the blame for failing to recognize and respond to people’s expectations, legitimate and rational or otherwise.

In this atmosphere of mutual fear and distrust, state politics and policy is governed by a bizarre rationale. Having deprived citizens of many of their legitimate rights and freedoms, the authoritarian regime is reluctant to put into effect measures that are likely to add to limitations already imposed on people’s lives even if such limitations are clearly in the public interest. In choosing between restrictions that protect the regime against public frustration, and those that serve public interest, the authoritarian ruler prefers to forgo the latter because of the fear that people’s limit of forbearance may be reached and the fragile veneer of political and civil compliance give in to conflict and confrontation.  

The Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 epidemic reveals the mindset of a political establishment fearful of further antagonizing a nation that lives under controlling, authoritarian rule. It is alleged that official acknowledgement of the outbreak was delayed because the state did not wish it to interfere with public celebration of the Chinese New Year.

The tendency to understate the extent of the fatalities, in contrast to largely transparent public awareness campaign by democratic governments, can only point to a regime that is wary of citizens’ accusing fingers even in the case of a natural disaster. The whole episode is symptomatic of a regime uncertain of its popular-based legitimacy and suggests a fundamental rift and lack of understanding between state and citizen in the People’s Republic of China.    

This atmosphere of mutual mistrust must also be blamed for the Chinese government’s failure to prevent this global tragedy in the first place by persistently turning a blind eye to the harm done to wildlife by a section, perhaps only a small section of its population. These are people who continue to kill even rare species not to satisfy their hunger, but to gratify antiquated gastronomic obsessions or practice superstitious pseudo-medical rituals. The Chinese authorities’ neglect of the need not only to strengthen and seriously enforce legislation on prohibition of consumption of wildlife but more importantly, their hesitation to take the necessary corrective cultural steps can only speak of concern about further alienating a people already deprived of many democratic rights and freedoms.

Today, China’s political stagnation can no longer be overlooked as an internal matter because it can have wide-reaching global consequences. An authoritarian regime is inherently unstable. Instead of free consensus of the people, its survival depends on successfully manipulating some into acceptance and coercing others into submissiveness. In this age of global communication and globalization of ideas, neither can ensure but a fragile existence.

The problem is that China is no longer a reclusive, isolated country on the fringes of world political and economic stage with a population on the breadline. As the rapid spread of COVID-19 outside China showed, the country interacts extensively with the rest of the world and has extensive worldwide connections and contacts. Political turmoil in a major economic and military world power and home to nearly one-fifth of humanity is certain to entail grave ramifications for the political and economic security of the world in the same way that its rich market for rhinoceros horn, tiger body parts, bear paws and elephant tusk can drive endangered species to the brink of extinction.

The Chinese rulers may consider it too costly and unsettling to set in motion the necessary political reformation in the interest of long-term national and international security, but they can act upon their declared commitment to wildlife and environmental protection  to redeem themselves.

The People’s Republic has the propaganda machinery to advocate faith in the blessings of single-party rule, the facilities to “re-educate” doubters and the apparatus to detect and suppress dissent. It is hard to accept that it is incapable of promoting universal values of the modern age among those in the population who are still unaware of their country’s newly gained international status and the responsibilities that go with it.

Hamid Elyassi is Regional Research Director of Namaya Consultants, London, UK. He specializes in political economy of developing countries and emerging economies.

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Considering the Continental Dimension of the Indo-Pacific: The Mongolian Precedent

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The Indo-Pacific is now the site of global great-power competition and contestation. And, as a reflection of its growing importance in international discourse, a number of extra-regional actors adopted the concept last year. Among those adoptees, Mongolia set a unique precedent for the regional security discourse to actively consider the continental dimension of the Indo-Pacific by highlighting geopolitical convergences with other regional actors, and the strategic threat posed by Beijing’s “Silk Road Economic Belt”.

Mongolia in the Indo-Pacific

Actors who have adopted the Indo-Pacific concept vaguely define it as beginning in the Arabian Sea and ending in the Western Pacific Ocean. Much of the discourse is also driven by the US-China strategic competition in Southeast Asia, and the US’ attempt to counter Chinese influence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, along with its regional partners and allies, e.g the India-Australia-Japan-US ‘Quad’. As a result, actors in the Indo-Pacific have generally focused on the development of maritime military and economic measures.

In early October, during a Japan-Mongolia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, both sides agreed to continue consolidating their efforts in pursuing a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, in line with the promises of the 2018 Japan-Mongolia Summit.

Mongolia’s participation as a continental, extra-regional actor with limited maritime significance, shifts the geopolitical locus of the theatre, ever so slightly, north of Southeast Asia (the current focus). Ulaanbaatar’s adoption of the geostrategic theatre appears to be driven by continued Chinese antagonism, and a result of its “third neighbour” policy.

China continues to threaten Mongolia’s territorial sovereignty by claiming Inner Mongolia,clamp down on its cultural identity, and impose costs on Mongolia’s export-oriented economy. The last issue is critical, since Mongolia’s largest export partner, approximately92.78 percent of overall exports, is China. Enclosed between two large countries, Russia and China, Mongolia has traditionally maintained a “third neighbour” policy approach: building political and economic relationships with actors other than the aforementioned.

Given the continued animosity with Beijing, Ulaanbaatar has increasingly emphasised these other relations over the years. e.g. with the UK, the US, Japan, etc. In 2019 President Khaltmaagiin Battulga visited New Delhi to develop deeper ties with another “third neighbour” state. Mongolia also shares the “like-minded” characteristics – a liberal democracy – to maintain and preserve a “free, fair, open and rules-based” order in the US-Japan Indo-Pacific strategy.

And so, actors looking to potentially partner with Mongolia or others with similar economic and connectivity deficits in Central and West Asia, will have to include, within their Indo-Pacific approaches, measures that involve non-littoral actors.

The BRI and Continental Asia

China’s rise as an expansionist Asian military and global economic power is at the core of the  Indo-Pacific security discourse. Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea (SCS), China’s growing naval power, and the colossal Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) form the major strategic threats to regional multilateralism and collective security.

The most long standing threat among them, the BRI, is divided into the transcontinental “silk route” and the maritime “silk road”. However, much of the Indo-Pacific discourse is dominated by the silk road, especially those projects directed towards the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). BRI projects in the IOR are crucial to Beijing’s expanding influence in South Asia and control on international energy and trade supply routes. Also hidden among the maritime/trans-continental connectivity and infrastructure projects, is China’s growing security presence in the region.

However, Mongolia’s entry directs attention to a dimension unique to the current maritime Indo-Pacific discourse –the silk route, that cuts across Central Asia, towards Europe and South Asia, with a similar number of projects in Southeast Asia.

Among the six ‘silk route’ projects, Mongolia’s concern is the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC) that cuts through Eastern Mongolia, beginning in Ulanqab (or “Jining”) in Inner Mongolia, and ending at Ulan-Ude, in BurYatia, Russia. Similar projects include the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC).

Connecting the continental to the maritime is the main goal of the BRI. In fact, the project was first announced during a Chinese state visit to Central Asia in 2013. President Xi Jinping proposed the “Silk Road Economic Belt” with a vision to connect the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Beijing’s vision of comprehensive global economic and military power requires a built path to various regions of the world, i.e infrastructure to facilitate dual-use logistics. Given the recent spate of BRI loans going bad, this vision continues to remain unfulfilled.

The continental dimension, Asia, is what makes the Indo-Pacific a theatre of global concern. Trans-continental connectivity, between and within Europe and Asia, narrows the distance between actors, and the shared interest in maintaining regional multilateralism and collective security ensures their continued participation in the Indo-Pacific. As more actors like Mongolia adopt the Indo-Pacific concept, connecting the continental to the maritime and vice versa, sans BRI, will become a strategic concern.

Mongolia’s entry into the theatre offers a unique precedent for those involved in maintaining and preserving a “free, fair, open and rules-based” Indo-Pacific to evaluate and initiate relationships between non-littoral actors and the maritime dimension.

The On-Ground Reality

However, there are a number of obstacles to actively consider continental Asia in the Indo-Pacific discourse. The two most important are geography and geopolitics.

Mongolia for example, is completely enclosed by two actors – Russia and China – who are averse and hostile to the idea of the Indo-Pacific. And, any “counter-BRI” connectivity project envisioned by other regional actors will have to go through their territories. The case of Afghanistan is similar. Divergences in geopolitical interests and ties with actors in the Arabian Sea, particularly with regard to Iran and Pakistan, stays the idea of trans-regional connectivity between Kabul and the world.

The geopolitical obstacle here is the dependent economic relationships that non-littorals in Asia have with Beijing. Mongolia is just one among many Central and West Asian states that have local economies indelibly tied to the political whims of Beijing. During the coronavirus pandemic, a period that saw considerable anti-China sentiment in the international community, Beijing has managed to maintain a level of trust and shared security with many Indo-Pacific states. National vaccination plans are based on the delivery of Chinese vaccines.

There is another reason why the security discourse on the Indo-Pacific is focused on maritime measures – maintaining and preserving the integrity of international Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and the respect for territorial sovereignty. In that endeavour, multilateral platforms like the Quad allows members to share historic and strategic advantages in the IOR and Pacific Ocean to counter Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific’s various sub-regions.  On land however, in Central and South Asia, for example the clash in the Galwan river valley last year, Chinese incursions provoke bilateral responses giving it leeway to act with relative impunity.

Conclusion

While there are a number of real obstacles to consider the continental dimension of the Indo-Pacific, Mongolia sets a geopolitical precedent for a comprehensive geographic definition, one that includes both the maritime and continental. From this year on, states participating in the Indo-Pacific now have a reason to approach and include non-littoral actors in the Indo-Pacific.

This precedent also highlights the need to include the continental ‘silk route’ in the Indo-Pacific security discourse. Devising such a definition will be a similar exercise as to the amalgamation of the terms “Indo-Pacific” and “Asia-Pacific” to form the “Indo-Asia-Pacific”; now used at times in geostrategic discourse.

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Time to play the Taiwan card

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At a time when the dragon is breathing fire, India must explore alternative tactics, perhaps establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan can be a landmark step

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The standoff on the Ladakh border between the Indian Army and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) continues amid failing talks and casus belli measures being unleashed by the Chinese regime. While the union government and the armed forces make it clear that they will do whatever it takes to protect India’s sovereignty and integrity, precious little has been done on the foreign policy front. While India and its democratic allies which comprise the Quad security grouping declare their intent to form the ‘Asian NATO’, the Quad continues to suffer from indecisiveness which was pretty much evident when the Quad did not even issue a joint statement to condemn China at the foreign ministers meeting held last year, only America publicly called out China.

In such a situation, it is imperative that India explore alternate diplomatic and militaristic routes to tame the dragon.

Recognizing Taiwan

Establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan after recognizing should be vigorously pursuing by South Block. Indo-Taiwan ties date back to the early 1950s when Chiang Kai Shek, the ex Chinese president and former head of state fled to the island of Formosa following the victory of Mao Zedong in the long drawn out Chinese civil war called on Nehru to establish and further ties with Formosa, however Nehru believing that Chiang was nothing but a “peanut” decided to ignore his call, choosing instead to concentrate on building ties with People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Seven decades on, plethora of changes has taken place on the foreign affairs front, while both China and India have developed considerably both militarily and economically the dragon has surpassed elephant to become an economic powerhouse in its own might. It has now embraced aggressiveness to enforce its 5th century vision of the ‘Middle Kingdom’. In such a situation providing legitimacy to the existence of Taiwan is a necessary first step.

Paradigm shift in policy

Establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan will bring about a paradigm shift vis-à-vis India’s foreign policy. It will enforce the idea that liberal democracy is the last word in the battle of ideologies as Francis Fukuyama had visualized in his landmark book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ and that there is no alternative to human rights and liberties, not even the Chinese model of ‘authoritarian development’. It will be the boldest step that any global leader has taken, not even the mighty US which has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan has taken this step.

Recognizing Taiwan will entail a lot of benefits for the mandarins of India’s foreign policy regime- firstly, Taiwan is a robust democracy with a booming economy, it will prove to be an alternative to China albeit in a relatively less proportion, secondly, India can bolster the legitimacy as the leader of the democratic world at a time when the democratic institutions in the US-often regarded as the cradle of democracy has been undermined.

Thirdly, India can get the support of another powerful ally in its attempt to carve out a new supply chain alliance which India-Japan-Australia formalized recently. Fourthly, recognizing Taiwan will make it clear to China that India means some serious business and if the need arises then India will not back down from sending dedicated naval and air assets in the disputed South China Sea region to enforce freedom of navigation principle in the resource rich region. Lastly, the Quad security grouping will be institutionalized which in the near future can even be extended to include new members, it will be the first time that India will be a part of any dedicated military and economic alliance which will deter the aggression of the Chinese war machine in the strategic Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific Region.

Caveats remain

However the recognition may invite severe ramifications for India. China will be infuriated and can choose to ratchet up tensions with India. India must be extremely careful while dealing with China as China is our second largest bilateral trade partner and a key export partner of India with regard to raw materials and goods. According to a FICCI report, India imports more than 40% of several important goods like the API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients), television, chemicals, chips, textiles and many more.

The dragon will as a possible retaliatory measure can activate its propaganda machinery to wage psychological warfare with India. It can also activate its terror financing networks which for years remained a chronic internal security for India in the northeast of the country. China will also collaborate with its ‘iron brother’ Pakistan to try and deter India by intensifying terrorism in the Kashmir valley and elsewhere. Further, China can use its potent disinformation empire to try and peddle fake news about the credibility of India’s indigenous vaccines at a time when the light at the end of the tunnel of a pandemic stricken world has appeared.

Exercising caution

Keeping all the dangers in mind, the Modi government must keep national interests in mind. Despite all the risks, it must work with all the like- minded countries to take own the mighty dragon responsible for unleashing a deadly virus which has wrecked havoc on humanity. For the sake of the free world, India must take the hard step which will reinforce India’s position in cementing its place as the leader of the free world.

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Pro-Communism warping Hong Kong

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The latest turmoil in the Covid-ridden strata of mainland China is not servile to any pandemic, however, the issue has been one of the most queer and rare kinds, enough to be classified as one of the endemic issues in the global affairs. The tension at helm is the chaos following the announcement of a “New Security Law” by the Chinese regime which is being eyed as one of the monumental events of this decade; slicing off a sliver of attention from the deadly Corona virus that continues to exponentiate around the world in its second wave and sporadic variants.

The law that set out by the Chinese lawmakers back on 22nd May 2020, threatens the liberties of subversion and sedition enjoyed by the citizens of Hong Kong under a constitution. Simplistically named “Basic Law”, it aims to tame the country scaffolded by the “One country, Two systems” framework since the power handover by the former colony to China back in 1997. This act came around amidst strained economic relations between the two superpowers of the world; China and USA, each passing the baton in the blame game of who sustains the blood-crown of the catastrophe impending on the world courtesy of the lethal virus that engulfs every periphery in each continent on the globe. The matters seem complex at sight and a glimpse to the historical timeline of how riddled the relations were could hint at how strained they could reach.

The colony, known as ‘Hong Kong’ today, had been the battle ground, figuratively, to the major competitors of the 20th century: The Great Britain and China. The British dominated the colony for more than 150 years, tracing back to the late 19th century; leasing the territory for the span to morph it into the modernised metropolis marking it as the hub we know today. In 1997, an agreement was reached via an accord, ‘The Sino-British Joint Declaration‘ between the two sides. The treaty allowed Hong Kong a semi-autonomous status, that is, relaying self-sufficiency in all the national domains except in defence and foreign affairs. The allotted autonomy arches under the sovereignty of China until year 2047, henceforward melding into the mainland China as harkened by the Chinese hegemony over decades.

Despite of the granted protection of Hong Kong’s own legislation, borders and freedom of speech, the liberties have been trampled on by the Chinese government over the last couple of decades. A similar law abolishing the right to sedition was initiated in 2003 yet mass protests calling out up and about 50,000 citizens impeded the efforts that went futile and drastically ended up being shunned for good. The Communist party under the wings of Chinese president Xi Jinping have expounded further in tightening their talons on the city since 2012 as efforts were made to corrode the educational system of the country via meddling with the curriculum, biasing the foundation to hail Chinese communism. These acts were proactive reactions to the advances of the United States forging relations with the city. China even tried to manipulate the elections in 2014, tampering with the selection their Chief Executive leading to a 3-month long protest known as the ‘Umbrella movement’ and ultimate downfall of Hong Kong’s autonomous political system.

The security law falls in tandem to the events of 2019; the legislation allowing the convicts from Hong Kong to be extradited in China causing a rave of fear of a massive tactical crackdown of the Anti-communist activists of Hong Kong, sighting it just as ruse to underwhelm the right of sedition of the people of Hong Kong. The Law passed by the parliament notions to only one thing; The ultimate end to Hong Kong. The lawmakers in China, hailing from the National People’s Congress (NPC), sight this move as extricating a threat to the national security and stability of the country while many of the pro-activists in Hong Kong deem the law as betrayal, accusing China of walking back on its promise of high-degree autonomy and freedom of speech, marking it as the final straw, the last struggle before the country could override the laws in the city and indirectly, transition from the entity holding the right to veto the laws to now gripping the law altogether.

Despite of the speculated protests to spark like the history dictates, many of the sage minds predict either a relatively dormant demonstrations or none at all, having a tint of finality in the statement shote the protests are “high stake in risk and repression”. The recent arrest of the leading activists of Hong Kong standing up to voice their disdain to the separatist efforts of China further solidify the notion. Despite of a global condemnation to the new law, the efforts of China resume to subdue any opposition in Honk Kong no matter how sparse. Foreseeing no way out for Hong Kong this time; the Covid-19 paralysis the United States in its own crisis and the legislature inclining towards the Chinese pressure, a complete erasure of Hong Kong is sighted and could not be restrained- for better or for worse.

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