China’s growing challenge

China’s growing challenge

Beijing’s Behaviour

Beijing: In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the G20 Extraordinary Virtual Leaders' Summit on COVID-19 via video link in Beijing, capital of China, March 26, 2020. Leaders of the world's most powerful economi

Earlier this month, the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated last year, raised its official Covid-19 death toll by 50%, bringing the toll in the city to 3,869 and increasing the national Chinese total to more than 4,600. Reiterating that there has been no lack of transparency, the Wuhan officials suggested that this increase had to do with updated reporting and deaths outside hospitals. But these new numbers have further muddied the waters around claims and counterclaims of Chinese officialdom since the very beginning of the pandemic. There is a widespread belief across the world that the Chinese Communist Party had managed to keep a tight lid on the information flow, leading to a significant under-reporting of deaths in China. The CCP’s opacity in dealing with the crisis in the initial stages, it is now widely acknowledged, led to the pandemic turning this severe along with its humongous human toll.

As a consequence, screws are being turned on China and its perceived mismanagement.  The US President Donald Trump has halted US funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO), accusing it of making deadly mistakes and overly trusting China. Though he has been severely criticised for this move, WHO’s toeing of the Chinese line on the pandemic has dented its global credibility. Trump has continued to target China and the information emanating from there even as he seems to be hardening his position with each passing day. “Do you really believe those numbers in this vast country called China, and that they have a certain number of cases and a certain number of deaths; does anybody really believe that?" Trump reiterated a few days back.

The US is also investigating the source of the coronavirus and seems to be examining unverified reports that the coronavirus may have emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan rather than in a market in the city. And in an unprecedented step, the US state of Missouri, along with a few others, is now suing China, claiming that China concealed the coronavirus, which led to deaths and economic losses. 

While one can think of the US-China discord as a continuation of their great power rivalry predating Covid-19, the toughening up of the European response is a more interesting development. Senior political leaders in Europe are robustly questioning Chinese behaviour and policies now. Challenging the conventional wisdom that China had handled the coronavirus outbreak better than others, French President Emmanuel Macron has termed the view as “naive,” adding that things “happened that we don't know about.” He made it clear that there can be no comparison between open societies like democracies and those where truth was suppressed. The UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has also been very critical of China, arguing that the world will “have to ask the hard questions about how [coronavirus] came about and how it couldn't have been stopped earlier” and that there cannot be “business as usual” with China after the present crisis ends.

This European assertion vis-a-vis China has come after the European Union (EU) failed to handle the upsurge in cases in countries like Italy and Spain, leading China to make a further dent in European solidarity. Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte’s urgent request for medical equipment was ignored by the European governments for days. The divisions became starker when some countries like Germany, France and the Czech Republic decided to block exports of emergency equipment to the needy neighbours, until they had finished counting up what stocks they had. This led to stark warnings about the very future of the EU, resulting in the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s “heartfelt apology” to Italy for not helping at the start of its deadly coronavirus outbreak.

China has been busy not only with using the crisis to enhance its geopolitical influence where it can, but it has also announced its intent to use this crisis to start working on a “Silk Road” of healthcare. China has been reaching out to countries from Europe to Africa with medical supplies and kits and has not been shy of underscoring its own leadership at a time when the West has looked divided and inward-focused. Over the last two decades, Chinese companies have made notable acquisitions and investments in European technology firms. There is a danger that this pandemic and the resulting economic crisis can open up new possibilities for Chinese inroads into Europe. But there is a new resolve in Europe to fend off the threat of a Chinese takeover. In fact, Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s Competition Commissioner, recently suggested that European countries should consider taking stakes in companies to fend off this threat.

Beyond Europe, China’s continued military aggression, even amidst the pandemic, has not gone unnoticed. It is making military moves in the South China Sea, threatening Taiwan, Japan and even South Korea and even allegedly conducting dubious nuclear activities. Its attempt to weaponise trade and even health will have a great bearing on its future acceptability as a global leader.

As nations across the world take a serious look at their global supply chain and move towards decoupling from China to reduce their dependence on the Chinese economy, it would be important for them to work with like-minded countries not only to create a new global supply chain but also to insulate themselves from the negative externalities of Chinese malevolent behaviour. For all the socio-economic toll on humanity that the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked, it has exposed the Chinese Communist Party in ways that wasn’t happening before. Hopefully, the debate on the scale and scope of the China threat will end for good now.

(The writer is Director, Studies, at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)