A Tale of Two Viruses

According to Fidler, a global health expert at the Council for Foreign Relations, Gro Harlem Brundtland (Director General of WHO at the time) did something in the early 2000’s that was unprecedented. She spoke international norms into existence. In February of 2003, WHO officials were beginning to suspect that China was hiding the outbreak of a disease that had already “killed a 100 people.” With no clear mandate on what the WHO was supposed to do, Brundtland was incredibly critical of China and asked for the WHO to be brought in on the SARS epidemic. Then something incredible happened – China fell in line and started sharing their data[i]. Much of the consensus on WHO norms were crafted in the wake of the SARS epidemic.

Fast forward to two decades later and the WHO is under an incredible amount of scrutiny from all sides of the political spectrum. Even those who do not accuse them of being complicit in helping China hide the outbreak aren’t convinced that they did a good job. Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the current DG of the WHO delayed naming the virus a public health crisis, repeated China’s line about the non-communicability of the disease between humans and also took a stance against travel restrictions to mitigate the spread of the disease[ii]. All of this builds on the fact that Tedros was elected as a result of Chinese lobbying[iii]. He won out against David Nabbaro, who was backed by the United States and the UK.

All this points towards one thing. The sphere of Chinese influence at multilateral institutions in general and the UN in particular is increasing. Furthermore, while they jockey for position within established institutions, they have also been involved in creating parallel institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that were broadly modeled on the older Bretton Woods institution the International Monetary Fund (IMF)[iv]. the BRICS bank which became the New Development Bank is another example of this. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is closely married to the functioning of these development banks. Loans from China are quite puzzlingly both a carrot and a stick and have been used to seize ports as a means to service debt that is unsustainable. Chinese debt trap diplomacy as a strategy also has domestic implications since the building of infrastructure projects is also a means to off-load excess production and to generate employment and GDP growth. Strategically, it allows China access to ports around Africa and also the world.

Chinese state craft is calculated. There are advantages in using both bilateral as well as multilateral institutions. In bargaining with smaller countries in Africa and Asia, as the bigger power in a two-person game, China can manage favorable outcomes[v]. On the other hand, China does not have pockets as deep as the United States and as a consequence cannot take on all of the financial burden on its own. Thus, the need for parallel development institutions like AIIB and NDB. Being of primacy in a multilateral institution also provides China with an aura of legitimacy, something that the United States used to have as a result of their leadership at the UN.

Ever since 2016, the state of American diplomacy has been without direction. Trump’s obsession with the art of the deal has led American diplomacy to become increasingly transactional in nature, and the desire seems to be getting wins on specific issues and taking punitive action when there is a perceived slight against America. At the height of the crisis in New York, Trump pulled $ 400 Million worth of funding to the WHO and stated that this was because of preferential treatment to China. At a time when more engagement seems to be the solution, America seems to be choosing less engagement[vi]. A good example to illustrate the lack of engagement would be the fact that the Chinese candidate won the election for the leadership of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in part due to the fact that America and Europe picked and backed different candidates. This split the voting bloc and allowed China to win that election[vii].

An increase in Chinese engagement at the UN also pays very real dividends like when the head of the UN and World Trade Organization (WTO) spoke at the Belt and Road Forum in 2017. This, according to Hilman in his testimony to the US China Economic and Security and Review Commission (USCC) “adds to the illusion that cultivated by Beijing that the BRI itself is multilateral.[viii]

There is a fundamental tension within the modern nation state and that is to give primacy to domestic concerns vis-à-vis their citizens while also engaging with other nations to manage security and economic concerns. The response to Covid from nation states has seen a closing of borders, minimal coordination between nations, the creation of strawmen to blame and a desperate scramble to acquire ventilators. There is an alternate version of events that would have seen a coordinated response between nations and no racial animus directed towards Africans. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. The richest country in the world appears weak at a time when China seems to have the situation well in hand. There are mass graves being dug in New York, but Wuhan has a dazzling light show in all the colors of the rainbow to celebrate.

The IMF estimates that this will be the worst recession since the great depression[ix]. America and Europe will be stretched thin. In a world where countries are still reeling from the effects of the virus, can China make gains in the international system especially when it comes to BRI platform? There are two separate concerns here – optics and economics. China just put out their revised version of the extent of the outbreak in Wuhan and the numbers seem to have jumped up a whole 50%. This essentially undermines the Chinese model of controlling the outbreak as being an effective[x]. It is also difficult to contrast the Chinese model as an alternative since it rests on the level of state control, which again is at odds with China presenting itself as a benevolent hegemon.

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, it seems that the quantum of investment on the BRI platform seems to have reduced. According to the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, the drop was as much as 41% from 2018 to 2019. Derek Scissors at the American Enterprise Institute sees this as a result of China being more aware of the negative reaction it had been getting to the nature of its investment as being predatory and not in good faith[xi]. Significant BRI projects in Indonesia and Pakistan have seen a freeze as a result of the coronavirus outbreak[xii].

There have been academics, such as Pang Zhongying who have argued that the coronavirus incident could be used by China to expand BRI to include public health infrastructure[xiii] but it remains to be seen if there will any appetite for Chinese investment in public health infrastructure given that the virus has been called the “Chinese Virus” all around the world. While the xenophobic nature of calling it a “Chinese virus” is unfortunate, the Communist Party of China and its handling of the virus has been widely noted as having aided the spread of the virus. As is very often the case, the open sharing of information could have saved the world time and money. Even within China, the treatment of Dr. Li Wenliang who was the first to report on a “SARS like illness” as early as December was a point of anger and contention on Chinese social media. This eventually led to an inquiry into the matter and the charges have since been recanted and he has been designated a martyr[xiv]. Dr. Wenliang who eventually succumbed to the illness is just one of many cases of popular dissent on social media against the Chinese state.

Two RNA based lifeforms 17 years apart and two very different reactions. What explains the different reactions is the position of China with regards to the rest of the world. China in 2003 was still a country that could not project power economically and diplomatically. The fact that China could convince Italy to sign on to the BRI is enormously significant. It would have been unthinkable back in 2003 that a NATO member would make that decision, but in the eyes of China, 2020 is a very different world. China today sees itself as having the power to influence major powers like Italy and to also influence multilateral institutions like the WHO.

China might make incremental gains on the margins in the current economic environment but one should be cautious about presenting this as an opportunity for China to make inroads into various countries. BRI projects that have already broken ground will be sustained by Chinese companies that will be hungry for a source of demand, but countries will be even more wary now of infrastructure projects that are dependent on Chinese supply chains – which is literally every BRI project. With regards to multilateral institutions, the outlook seems to be somber. There is a distinct lack of leadership and coordination. It took decades to build the deep diplomatic channels that sustained these institutions but it seems like mere years would be enough to dismantle them. The hollowing out of international institutions will not mean that they will become irrelevant. They will remain relevant, but their relevance will be to China and not to the nations of the world.

Extended Content

[i] Buranyi, Stephen. “The WHO v Coronavirus: Why It Can’t Handle the Pandemic.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 10, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/apr/10/world-health-organization-who-v-coronavirus-why-it-cant-handle-pandemic.

[ii] Mohan, C. Raja. “COVID-19 Has Sharpened US-China Conflict. WHO Is Caught in the Crossfire.” The Indian Express, March 24, 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/coronavirus-lockdown-pandemic-us-china-world-health-organisation-6328405/.

[iii] Collins, Michael. “The WHO and China: Dereliction of Duty.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed April 19, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/blog/who-and-china-dereliction-duty.

[iv] Hillman, E. Jonathan. “Hearing on ‘A China Model?’ Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards.” U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission, March 13, 2020, pg. 3

[v] Ibid., pg. 9

[vi] Gawthorpe, Andrew. “Trump’s Decision to Cut WHO Funding Is an Act of International Vandalism | Andrew Gawthorpe.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 15, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/15/trump-decision-cut-who-funding-international-vandalism-coronavirus.

[vii] Ibid., iv, pg. 7

[viii] Ibid., iv, pg. 8

[ix] Gopinath, Gita. “The Great Lockdown: Worst Economic Downturn Since the Great Depression.” IMF Blog, April 15, 2020. https://blogs.imf.org/2020/04/14/the-great-lockdown-worst-economic-downturn-since-the-great-depression/.

[x] Kuo, Lily. “China Denies Cover-up as Wuhan Coronavirus Deaths Revised up 50%.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 17, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/17/china-denies-cover-up-as-wuhan-coronavirus-deaths-revised-up-50.

[xi] Bloomberg. “China’s Belt and Road Plan Is Getting Lashed by Coronavirus.” The Economic Times. Economic Times, March 6, 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/business/chinas-belt-and-road-plan-is-getting-lashed-by-coronavirus/articleshow/74499725.cms?from=mdr.

[xii] Deutsche Welle. “Coronavirus Could Force China to Rein in Belt and Road Ambitions: DW: 17.04.2020.” DW.COM. Accessed April 19, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-could-force-china-to-rein-in-belt-and-road-ambitions/a-53159033.

[xiii] “How China’s Coronavirus Response May Shape Future of Belt and Road Plans.” South China Morning Post, March 22, 2020. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3076210/how-chinas-coronavirus-response-may-shape-future-its-flagship.

[xiv] Davidson, Helen. “Chinese Inquiry Exonerates Coronavirus Whistleblower Doctor.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 20, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/20/chinese-inquiry-exonerates-coronavirus-whistleblower-doctor-li-wenliang.

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