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How the West Faltered During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Authors: Ziyu He and Huaan Liao*

Not long ago, we were residing in the heart of Western Europe relishing sweet junior spring exchange lives, only to have them cut abruptly short by a sweeping pandemic that obscured the sun shining above outdoor cafes on lazy afternoons. In lieu of weekend getaways, we found ourselves scrambling onto a last-minute transatlantic ride back into the United States, lest a potential presidential order soon shuts its borders to. Unfortunately, our worst fear soon became the reality. On the shuttle ride from the airport terminal, news feeds flooded us with breaking alerts on Trump’s decision to close the border to foreigners coming from the Schengen zone. The entire fiasco was all too real—never could we have expected that so soon after the turmoil our parents experienced in China, this, too, would upend our lives for months to come with no end in sight.

As China wakes from the nightmare, the West, especially the US, struggles to flatten the curve. Though second waves of outbreak occurred sporadically, China has earned a prize it long desires—recognition for its leadership role during a time of crisis. At the same time, the West is faltering with no clear path ahead. After surpassing China in both total confirmed and death cases in the end of March, the US continued on a treacherous trajectory months after the outbreak. Fierce tension between state and federal governments and selfish decisions of the White House against its own allies are sabotaging US reputation even further. Across the Atlantic, UK prime minister Boris Johnson risked his life to testify for the inherent danger of the herd immunity strategy. When Western nations retreated from their previous roles as beacons of hopes during times of crisis, China stepped up its role in global governance, pledging material assistance to countries in need and touting its lockdown strategy. The sharp contrast between China’s success and the West’s failure has led many to question whether the COVID-19 pandemic will prove to be a “Suez Crisis” for the US and possibly the liberal world order.

So what has the West done wrong?

As all initial efforts to contain the virus failed within the first week of local outbreak in Western Europe and the US, serious measures came too late to stop sporadically imported cases from developing into a grave threat to national security. The confidence and calm Western leaders once evinced only became testaments to ignorance, arrogance, and irresponsibility.

Arguments acquitting Western leaders have been made by pointing out their lack of experience dealing with a pandemic as serious as COVID-19, deceptive reassurance from the Chinese authorities, and delay in WHO’s timely instructions. Settling for these excuses, however, signals weakness and resignation from the responsibility as global leaders. Although the lack of experience in handling global health crises can help explain the initial insouciance toward COVID-19, this ill-informed argument is not a total acquaintance, for not only could it have led the fight, it is also equipped with more means than anywhere else in the world. With more established medical infrastructure and the fortune of managing the health crisis not first but second to the outbreak in Asia, havoc in the West could have been assuaged if not averted altogether under rapid and effective policies in place.

Similarly, assigning blame to China and the WHO does Western countries more harm than good. It is no secret that the Chinese government silences dissidents, manipulates statistics, and restricts transparent journalism to protect its legitimacy and defend its rhetoric for audiences everywhere. Feigning astonishment and blaming heavy casualties on the Chinese government is thus either a testimony of the administration’s incompetence to anticipate imminent risks and allocate appropriate resources to combat the crisis domestically and globally or a foolish bet on the goodwill and transparency of Beijing. Neither is good publicity.

Ideological considerations, rather than pragmatic calculations, explain Western democracies’ failure to implement timely responses to the crisis. Though the fear of economic recession and lengthy democratic procedures in formulating a response surely contributed to Western administrations’ reluctance to lockdown economies, indiscriminate aversion of China’s “draconian” authoritarianism played a more important role in postponing stay-at-home guidelines and issuing lockdown orders as last resorts. In January, when Western media and leaders rushed to denounce China’s snap containment policies as extreme measures with no respect for basic human rights, lockdown essentially became a symbol of authoritarianism and a taboo for the Western world in the name of liberty and democracy.

This was made clear to us in February right after the outbreak in Italy. In our Spanish Politics class, the professor led a discussion about the contagion and asked for reactions. Students from different European countries and the US voiced their opinions, mostly denying any possibility that the virus may end the fun of weekend travels and dismissing lockdown as an unreasonable restriction to personal freedoms followed by “I know China did that, but I mean, it’s China…” The only dissenting opinion came from a girl from Taiwan, who lamented on the then already lacking supply of face masks from all pharmacies before most Spanish people even learned the name of the virus. Drumbeats and trumpets celebrating Day of Sant Medir still resounded on the streets of Barcelona as late as early March. Similarly in the US, without timely restrictions from each state, students celebrated the premature end to their semester with COVID-19 parties that were directly responsible for more infections. Racist sentiments against people of Asian descent in the West ironically caught on much more quickly than preventative measures.

Unfortunately, as the centers of the outbreak shifted from Wuhan to Italy and then New York, Western leaders were compelled to contradict their previous stances and issue lockdown orders, halting national economies to a standstill despite reluctance. As extraordinary measures like social distancing, closing of non-essential businesses, and stay-at-home orders became inevitable, Western countries handed the victory to Beijing. Not only was Europe and the US “following” China’s lead on implementing unprecedented restrictive orders to minimize exposure, they have also fallen steps behind due to their initial obstinate dismissal. As China recuperates after a month of “zero increase” while death tolls continue to increase at alarming rates worldwide, few can deny that China is becoming the safest place in the world. While China’s extreme measures are recognized and praised by the WHO as “a new standard of outbreak control,” Western leaders, especially President Trump, are experiencing confidence crises from domestic constituents.

Scientifically, preventing human contact offers the best hope of stopping the spread because COVID-19 can travel in aerosol from asymptomatic patients. Restrictive measures will slow it per the logic of nature, and determination to avoid “authoritarian measures” serves only political motives at the cost of millions. Western policymakers failed to distinguish the concept of lockdown and China’s implementation of it. Scientific measures such as social distancing and lockdown should not carry political color, even when China’s execution violates many basic principles of a just government. When China issued lockdown orders, it ignored the wellbeing of small business and vulnerable individuals, stranding thousands in foreign cities without assistance. The lack of planning and coordination caused multiple scandals during the lockdown: the price of necessities and protective gear skyrocketed; the Hubei Red Cross hoarded medical supplies donated to local hospitals, and high-level officials were exposed expropriating masks from pharmacies and Red Cross warehouses.

Beijing and Wuhan should not be criticized because they resorted to lockdown as a way to control the outbreak but because they disregarded the lives and wellbeing of their own citizens. China implemented restrictive orders through command rather than consensus. As current situations demonstrate, the West could have adopted similar policies much earlier without putting the welfare of millions in jeopardy—what true leadership should have been like, instead of playing an opportunistic game of petty politics. Measures to aid the economy and individuals, including state-funded job retention schemes and appeals to big banks to stop stock buybacks to bail out clients, accompanied lockdown orders in Western administrations’ policy considerations but were not implemented in China. Voices calling attention to the collapse and disappearance of small businesses were censored on Chinese social media platforms for “breaking rules and regulations,” further attesting to the woes of an authoritarian regime. Actions as such made China “authoritarian”, not the lockdown itself.

Though East Asian democracies such as South Korea and Taiwan demonstrated alternative and more efficient paths of outbreak control, ignoring and rejecting the merit of China’s efforts is a dangerous sign of hubris and ignorance. As the West squandered the opportunity to “know its enemy” by learning from China’s success and failure, it effectively conceded victory to China, at least for now.

For the first time, a major setback of Western democracies was not brought by natural causes—the COVID-19 virus—or external enemies—China—but by the very fear and insecurity the West itself possessed. Though strong rhetoric condemning China’s atrocious human rights records and clandestine political maneuvers exudes confidence as the West chants aloud the slogan of freedom and justice, insecurity about China’s increasing economic prowess, political clout, and military capabilities alert Western countries as the rise of populism shifts policy focus from global prestige to domestic prosperity. Facing a rising competitor who aspires to command greater influence and become a rule-maker for the international order, the West has resorted to craven condemnations rather than confident example-setting actions. The COVID-19 crisis could have been a showcase opportunity for the West, especially the US, to consolidate its global leadership status by demonstrating the best practices of outbreak control and providing public goods for the international community. Instead, retreat from global responsibilities and the fear of mimicking a “draconian” lockdown made China the hero and the West the disheartened losers who barely protect itself. As more countries push back against China’s attempt to retell the story of the COVID-19 outbreak and its successful response, the West still has a chance to redress its mistake, though the window of opportunity will not stay open for long.

As competitions between China and the West elevates to a value-clash between efficient authoritarianism and free democracy, the West has repeatedly emphasized the value of personal freedom and autonomy. Protests frequently erupted amidst challenging lockdown orders. The zealous quest for personal freedom has held back a nobler pursuit for justice. Caring for the vulnerable and upholding a fair and just system is what made the West leaders of the world decades ago, and so should its priority be today. Freedom should serve as a building block to that system, never a stumbling rock.

*Huaan (Amber) Liao, from Xi’an, China, studies Global Business with a European Studies Certificate at Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service. She spent a semester abroad at Esade Business School in Barcelona, Spain. She has researched for The Brookings Institution’s China Center.

Ziyu (Harry) He studies Asian Studies with a minor in Political Science at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and is currently on an exchange program at the University of Oxford. He currently works as a research assistant at in the Georgetown Security Studies Department.

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East Asia

Who would bell the China cat?

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If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.

China’s tit-for-tat response

The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”

Bitter truths

Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20. 

Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.

India’s role

India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.

India’s main problem

Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.  

Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.

The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is  thrice  the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.

Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”

It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.

History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.

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East Asia

Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell

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While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.

In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world.  No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development.  Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.

Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.

Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’.  More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report.  It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.

The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.

People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps.  Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’:   The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful.  Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat.  Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.

Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates.  Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.

Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless.  Wake up at 5am.  Make bed — it had to be perfect.  A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am.  Then to the classroom.  Back to the canteen for lunch.  More classes after.  Then dinner.  Then more classes before bed.  At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted.  You never see sunlight while you are there, they said.  That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.

The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.

Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China.  If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case.  Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds.  He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president.  President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi.  His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified. 

An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China.  Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era. 

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Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident

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modi xi jinping

Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.

Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020

One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.

It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.

The LAC as an idea

Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.

The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.

In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.

Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.

What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?

One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.

The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.

For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.

Post-Galwan engagement

Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.

The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.

By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.

Diplomacy is gone with the wind

All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.

The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.

India’s diversification of fronts

Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.

Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.

Economic ties, yearning to decouple

Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.

Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.

But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.

The broader picture

The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.

Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’

The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.

India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.

Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.

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