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 11th – International News Round-Up (Part II)

Right Wing

Mother Jones

McMaster apparently fired some kind of member of the White House who wrote a memo that Trump read that detailed the deadly nexus of Islam, Cultural Marxism and Corporate interests that were aligning in the war against Trump. I wish I had access to the full memo. This is starting to seem more and more like the Red Scare from back in the day.

North Korea

Rewire

Fascinating history of the North Korean nuclear program, the geo-politics of the Korean Peninsula and how the world got to where we are now.

Op Ed News

Pepe Escobar on the current stand-off between the United States and North Korea, the various players involved and what they hope to gain from this.

India

The Wire

PM and VP comment on the outgoing VP. Class act.

Economics

Evonomics

On corruption and co-operation.

Data and Advertising

Sputnik

In the US, you can’t collect data from mobile applications that are designed for children. Disney is in trouble for doing just that. They’re still denying the charges. This also isn’t the first time that Disney has got in trouble for this. Sticky ethical situation.

Israel

Vox

Bibi is facing corruption charge upon corruption charge. In rhetoric that sounds familiar to most people in the world at this point of time, he’s blaming the media and left-wing politicians of engineering all of this against him.

Benjamin Netanyahu (Image Source: Wiki Commons)
Benjamin Netanyahu (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

August 5th – International News Round-Up (Part II)

Philosophy

Nautilus

Great article on the constraints that physical processes place on the computational power of various organism. Hypothetical and otherwise.

The Wire

Article on life extending technologies and the fact that we need to think about them more, going forward. I think it’s put in a very interesting way. Also, some of the facts that he mentions are absolutely shocking. I mean, just intra-country wise, the fact that rich and poor counties in the United States can have a gap of 15 years in terms of life experience. If this argument is taken to its logical extreme, if we could create life extending technologies which could work, and were expensive, we would in essence create two strata of society. One would just be struggling and dying, and the other would be able to survive for a much longer period of time and would accumulate more wealth than they otherwise would have. This would then provide their offspring with the chance to do the same. I feel like life extending technologies would have a kind of multiplicative effect on an already unequal world.

India

The Wire

Article on the recent fuss about Karnataka (a state) that wanted a state flag. States in the US have flags. Some of them do at the very least, if not all. I agree with the author on a couple of things. What are we creating this unitary sense of being for? Why do we feel this fear when it comes to how we identify?

Media

The Imaginative Conservative

Thoughts on the show about William Shakespeare. It’s called Will, I believe. Might be wrong. Article points out that he was a catholic and the show takes his faith as forming part of the narrative of his life.

William Shakespeare (Image Source: Wiki Commons)
William Shakespeare (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

July 30th – International News Round-Up (Part II)

Media

Fair Observer

Alternative media sources are getting bigger and bigger. People aren’t going to the same big newspapers to get opinions on how to view the world. I get that you’re going to have a fair amount of skepticism about that statement, because alternative news is mostly alt-right. Which is true. This article though speaks of non-profit newspapers and smaller publications that have alternative business models and stay up and running through a combination of factors, which are not related to advertising income.

Slate Star Codex

On twitter practices and feuds. The ethics of signal boosting a person’s awful/embarrassing comment.

Yemen

Trend

Almost 2, 000 people have been died in Yemen due to Cholera. Red Cross estimates that there will be 600, 000 cases by the end of 201.

India

Scroll

On the issue of a right-wing organization asking for Tagore to be removed from NCERT text books. I don’t think anyone can really deny that there has been an obvious attempt to color society and the national narrative a certain way, over the past 3 years. The one thing that surprised me was the fact that the author mentions that the RSS is not a registered organization. That’s literally the first time I’m hearing this. That’s quite a shocker.

The Wire

A wealth increase of 300% for Amit Shah, and articles being pulled off the TOI website. Looks bad.

Amit Shah (Source: Wiki Commons)
Amit Shah (Source: Wiki Commons)

July 26th – National News Round-Up

Kovind Presidency

Kovind’s aides were allegedly all appointed by the PMO. I’m not sure if this is without precedent and I don’t want to make the mistake of saying that the office has gone to the dogs. We’re going to have to wait and see how this turns out. The article also points out that Pranab Mukherjee was also a long serving politician and was able to talk to MPs through the stranger parts of politics.

NEET Scam

The NEET exam that was conducted for post-graduate admissions in August of 2016 was compromised. Apparently, the National Board of Examinations (NBE) hired Prometric (an American company that conducts a lot of the standardized tests that are taken in India) without floating a tender and inviting offers from other companies. This is either complacency or corruption. I doubt anybody can tell which it is. Yet.

DD is getting a facelift

DD is looking for a new logo and is organizing a design contest. The last date for submission is August 13th. I think that centralized broadcasting networks can do a lot for creating a general awareness among people. In India, a lot of the outreach that the government does is still over radio, but I think eventually DD will have to come up with more robust offerings on their channel, one television reaches the more remote parts of the country. I mean, I assume It will eventually. Right?

Doordasrshan (Image Source: DD India)
Doordasrshan (Image Source: DD India)

Our President?

Modi claims another victory. This one is about the fact that Kovind is the first BJP affiliated president that the country has ever had. Kalam was president during their last tenure, but he was decidedly apolitical.

Aadhar and Privacy

The AG and a 9-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court are going at it over the issue of Aadhar. After initially declaring that the right to privacy was a fundamental right, the bench has seemingly backtracked a little bit. The article goes into the details of the argument and they are pretty interesting. Something that is mentioned in the article is the debate on whether this idea of privacy is an “elitist” construct.

Yechury: a third term?

Yechury might not stay a third time in the upper house. The Bengal unit of the CPI(M) wants him, and the Congress is willing to support him, but apparently the Kerala unit of his party might not be willing to send him for a third term.