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.

August 10th – International News Round-Up (Part II)

United States

Sputnik News

US ambassador to the UN (Hayley) made a statement on the role that the government and the rebel groups have played in the escalating humanitarian issue in countries like Yemen.

Shadow Proof

New Democracy is an organization that plans to broaden the reach of the Democratic Party. Going by this article alone, I’m not certain how they plan to achieve that.

National Interest

Fairly surface level article on processes of assimilation in the United States and Europe. Though it does point out an interesting point that has been made over the past 4 years, since the European migrant crisis began (and I do believe it is a crisis).

China

Sputnik News

The Chinese base at Djibouti is to act as a logistics supply facility rather than for military operations. China joins Germany, US and France among others in having a base in the uniquely strategic location. Article also quotes a Chinese rear admiral as saying that they were perfectly within their rights to establish a base in Djibouti and that Indian opposition to it was based on nothing.

China's PLA (Image Source: Wiki Commons)
China’s PLA (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

Religion

Christian Today

Practicing Christians have of course been a part of the Trump ship since day one. Here’s evidence that it’s not a monolithic whole. If you follow the link to the tweet at the end of the article, you’ll see some stuff about people of faith calling on congress to prevent nuclear war.

Right Wing

Zero Hedge

Article by Ilana Mercer (a libertarian), on the state of American federalism and the fact that she considers the government to be overstepping its boundaries. I don’t really know the American constitution, so I’m not going to take a shot at this. I’m going ahead and putting it down under right wing because there are lines of thought that are fairly right wing, along with all the libertarian ideas being thrown around.

July 26th – International News Round-Up (Part III)

Right Wing/ Conspiracy Theorist

Stefan Molyneux on Info Wars

Stefan Molyneux and Alex Jones have a talk on what to do about the world. That’s actually the general topic of discussion. It’s actually pretty confusing what they stand for. Molyneux, I remember from a documentary about cults. From what I recall, Free Domain Radio was all for “unshackling” their kids from their parents. In this interview however, Stefan proudly says that he is in fact a father and that he is working with other members of the alternative media to create a better world for his child. It’s difficult to tell where these guys come down on various subjects. They conflate globalization, communism and socialism. There’s a very real fear of the left. I think you would have to be American to understand where they’re coming from here, and I don’t mean to agree with them, I just mean to understand them. Though, in many ways the idea of large scale narratives explaining certain phenomena that we see isn’t new to me. You see the same kind of fear when people talk about Love Jihad and the wiping out of Hindu’s in India. We don’t mind smaller narratives to explain why we scraped our knee or why we fell off the bike, but I think when it comes to explaining larger phenomenon, like why our daughter won’t pray or why half my son’s friends are brown, we might resort to bigger explanations.

United Kingdom

LSE Blog

It’s been such a roller coaster in the UK. From Brexit to the partial rejection of Theresa May. Article explores the political currents that have shaped the fact that conservative party in Scotland has been putting up a solid performance at the ballot box. The author think that this is a combination of the fact that the conservatives were able to market themselves as unionists but also as those who believed in the devolution of powers. While the idea of being Scottish might be different from the idea of being British, they funnily enough are both euro-sceptics.

Media

Ritholtz

Earthquakes are the most covered natural disasters. 33% of the media coverage that natural disasters get in the media are focused on earthquakes. Couple of reasons for this, I think. Earthquakes affect urban centers much worse than they affect rural areas. At least in terms of casualties. Putting aside the idea of it being a “disaster” only if it takes human life. Storms are 14%. I think the American east coast accounts for a huge portion of this. It is also the country that produces the most amount of media. Again, I could be dead wrong. I haven’t bothered to check if I’m right on this one. Let me know.

Mongolia

Mongolia Focus

Article on the state of Mongol-Turkish relations at the moment. Turkey has long considered Mongolia to be a neighbor to him they have deep ethnic linkages. The Turks are seen to have originated in the general region. The author doesn’t really talk about the state of relations as much as mention that Turkey could use a friend right now and that the friend is not coming from the west, which Turkey has pissed off enough this year alone.

AI

Daily Dot

China is using AI to predict and preempt crime. The system works by putting together various points of data that can span days or even weeks. It then creates a pattern out of this, along with the individual and predicts crime. The article also mentions that the United States is attempting to do this in Chicago. It would be very interesting to see how that turns out. How would you predict gang violence?

Cambodia

The Cambodia Daily

The CPP heavy constitutional council passed amendments to the constitution on Tuesday. This will pass on to the National Assembly and the Council of Ministers (who will both approve it) before it will have to be signed by the king. He of course, isn’t home. Funnily enough he left as soon as the opposition kicked up a fuss about the law. According to law, in the absence of the king, the acting head of state (The Senate President) can sign legislation into law.

France

SPERI

Article on the awful performance by the French Socialist party in the recent elections which saw the French public deliver the throne to one Emmanuel Macron.

China

South China Morning Post

The Honk-Kong and Mainland China railroad link throws up some interesting legal questions about whose jurisdiction various parts of the station and train belong to. For example, a baby born on the train counts as a citizen of mainland China and will not be granted residency in Honk Kong.

The high-speed rail link is set to be completed by 2018. It’s been delayed quite a few times, is projected to cost almost twice as much as it was supposed to and resulted in the demolition of 200 homes. That’s the price to pay for high speed connectivity, right?

United States

Breitbart News

Trump is making enemies out of some of his best friends. I’m not sure how this is sustainable. Almost every conservative worth his/her salt has stood behind Sessions. He is seen as a respectable figure who stood behind Trump from the very beginning. Immigration policy and immigration cities are seen as some of his biggest talking points in his job as AG. Does all this come down to the fact that Trump really wants to go behind Clinton? After all this time?

Jeff Sessions being sworn in (Image Source: Wiki Commons)
Jeff Sessions being sworn in (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

July 25th – International News Round Up (Part II)

Energy Markets

Zero Hedge

Barclays allegedly unloaded the last bits of its oil contracts to unidentified buyers. This is expected to raise prices of futures and also make oil riskier.

“Perhaps the best news from today’s book sale is that it concluded smoothly and without any major market impact, suggesting it was planned well in advance. The question is what would happen to the oil derivative market if a similarly-sized block hit the tape ad hoc and without prior warning. For the sake of the Fed’s “market stability” mandate, let’s hope we don’t find out.”

Saudi Arabia

Trend via SPA

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain have added 9 new entities and individuals to their Qatar linked blacklist.

“The countries accused some of the individuals named with roles in raising funds to support Nusra Front jihadists and other militia groups in Syria, the SPA reported, while others were said to have contributed to and supported Al Qaeda.”

China

China Digital Times

Bao Tong, former aide to Zhao Ziyang, has come out with a series of tweets in support of Guo Wengui’s allegation fueled scandal.

HNA Group is a Chinese company that has been the subject of Guo’s ire. The allegations tie top Chinese leaders such as Wang Qiashing to the company. Bank of America has since stopped any transactions with the HNA Group. Share prices have since dropped and stayed low.

Follow the link to read the original tweets in Mandarin.

South Sudan

South Sudan Tribune

Article by an independent journalist on the state of the South Sudanese Peace. He accuses the government of the country to be full of sectarian elements and blames corruption for the state of the country.

“In Conclusion, the world must impose sanctions on the government of South Sudan by not giving or donating foreign aids to the Country. All the European Union (EU) funding projects should be put to an end, United States of America (USA) projects should be put to an end. Japanese developmental projects should be put to an end. Peace will ONLY be achieved in South Sudan when world leaders stop sending money to South Sudan. Let all Organizations withdraw their funding’s from South Sudan and within a week, peace will come to the South Sudanese people.”

Religion

Torah Musings

Nachmandies/ Rabbi Moses ben Nahman/ Ramban was a medieval scholar whose commentary on Jewish scripture is considered to be of particular importance to the community. The article mentions particular teachings of Ramban in reference to the scriptures and asks the reader to go beyond simplistic explanations.

The Sefer Torah (Image Source: Wiki Commons - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/09/PikiWiki_Israel_4204_Sefer_Torah_from_Theresienstadt_concentration_camp.jpg/1280px-PikiWiki_Israel_4204_Sefer_Torah_from_Theresienstadt_concentration_camp.jpg)
The Sefer Torah (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

United States

Washington Post

Attacks on opposition leaders keep the voting public focused on individuals and not ideologies. This is a problem that Indian politics is in many ways beholden to. The narrative that you can create as the only hope against your opponent is important. Trump being elected in a lot of ways was a result of the fact that Clinton was a pretty weak opponent. Keeping the narrative anti-Clinton allows Trump to not be bothered by the rest of the problems that are plaguing his administration. It might work for 6 months but I doubt it’s going to work for 4 (let alone 8) years.

July 25th – International News Round-Up (Part I)

Yemen

Long War Journal

Yemeni Houthi’s launched a Burkan-2 ballistic missile at an oil refinery in the city of Yanbu, in Saudi Arabia. The Ansar Allah website declared that this was a new phase in the conflict, though details as to what that means are still in the offing.

“The Burkan-2 ballistic missile, which is akin to a Scud, is a relatively new missile design for the Yemeni rebel group. The Burkan-1 was introduced last year with a reported range to hit Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, approximately 800km away. Yanbu, however, sits 300km north of Jeddah. This indicates a longer range for the Burkan-2 missile.”

Turkey

Hurriyet Daily News

Turkey’s EU Minister has said that easing tension between the EU and Turkey is of significant importance. His call for a revival of ties comes as Ankara and Berlin have ramped up their offense against the other.

“Turkey will be represented by Çelik and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu at the political dialogue meeting, which EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn will also attend.”

The elephant in the room will be Turkey’s anti-terror law and its treatment of human rights activists.

Society

Defense One

A former Army Captain on Dunkirk and how watching this particular movie and engaging with more cinema that deals with issues that affect soldiers could be significantly important to a generation that is so far removed from the horrors of war as we knew it. With a possible military surge immanent under Trump, she feels that these are questions we need to ask.

Media

Al- Aqsa Agitation

Video that is allagedly from Al- Aqsa mosque. Shows a Israeli officer kicking a Muslim protestor.

United States

Fox Trot Alpha

A bill that is to be proposed in the United States Congress is all set to sanction Russia for meddling in the 2016 Presidential elections. The article explores what an incredibly difficult position this puts Trump in. What compounds the situation is that he has repeatedly maintained that the meddling did not actually occur. You can’t engage with something that you have maintained does not exist.

Shadowproof

Democrats have consistently let down the people of the United States. I get that they are trying to carve out an economic and social space for themselves and stand for something other than opposing Donald Trump, but general statements will only make things worse. Once again, the Democrats seem like a party without a strong message, and a conflicted leadership that is too far removed from middle America.

Chuck Schumer (Image Source: Wiki Commons - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/df/Charles_Schumer_at_the_Intrepid_Museum.jpg/1166px-Charles_Schumer_at_the_Intrepid_Museum.jpg)
Chuck Schumer (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

China

National Interest

On China and how the Chinese government’s use of soft power could be beneficial in creating an idea of Chinese society in the minds of the world.

“In 2013, Joseph Nye, the originator of the concept of soft power, chastised the Chinese government for relying solely on state-sponsored programs to expand China’s cultural influence. China, Nye wrote, was making “the mistake of thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power,” rather than recognizing that more lasting influence comes from civil society.

On a more irreverent note, the CCTV facebook page is awash with pictures of pandas. They do use the panda well, as something that represents the country. I’m not sure how ethical loaning animals is.