Can China’s Rise Be Contained in a Post-Coronavirus World?

Coronavirus lockdown UK
Image credit: Dan Burton / Unsplash

One country, other than the US which has lashed out at China for its lack of transparency, under-reporting and underplaying its casualties arising out of the coronavirus epidemic, is the UK. 

The total number of cases in the UK are estimated at 19,522 as of March 30, 2020, while deaths caused by the epidemic are estimated at 1,228. As of March 30, 2020 the number of individuals infected by the coronavirus epidemic globally was estimated at 7,23,000 while the number of deaths worldwide  was estimated at 34,000.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, UK Health Minister Nadine Dorries and Prince Charles have been tested positive. Significantly, a couple of months ago, the United Kingdom had earned Trump’s ire for allowing Huawei’s participation in Britain’s 5G network (UK had stated that it will only allow participation in the non-core part of the network). It is believed that given the current tensions UK may be compelled to do a rethink with regard to allowing participation of Huawei in its 5G network.

US and UK in denial

There is no doubt that many countries including the US took the threat of the coronavirus lightly . The US President Donald Trump did not pay adequate attention to the warnings from senior intelligence officials which he had begun to receive from the month of January itself. On Feb. 25, 2020 the US President stated that ‘The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA’. Many would argue that even the UK took long to respond to threats regarding the spread.

Asian countries successful in controlling the Epidemic

Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore were quick to react to warnings with regard to the spread of the virus. While a lot of attention has focused on the response of Singapore, and its success in containing the spread of the virus (the total number of cases as of March 30, 2020 was 844).

While Singapore is a city state, South Korea’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has been truly remarkable. The death toll in South Korea from the virus as of March 30, 2020, stood at 158, while total number of individuals who had tested positive for the virus were estimated at 9661. South Korea was quick to set up hundreds of testing centers. Tests of suspected cases began in January, and by March, it had the capacity of carrying out 20,000 tests a day. The US also sought South Korea’s assistance in the fight against the epidemic. During a telephonic conversation with South Korean President, Moon Jae-In on March 24, 2020 Trump requested the former for medical test kits, saying that he would assist South Korean producers in getting approvals from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

While some countries such as South Korea have been able to reduce the impact of the epidemic, Beijing not sharing crucial information with the rest of the world in time, and the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) role too have come under criticism (Taiwan has accused WHO of not informing the rest of the world about the possible human to human transmission of the virus, even though doctors in Taiwan had learnt about the same from their colleagues in mainland China).

Trumps criticism of China not taken seriously

The US President Donald Trump by being simplistic and dubbing the ‘coronavirus’ as a ‘Chinese Virus’ as usual did turn the attention away from the main issue – lack of China’s transparency. A number of countries are beginning to take note, and may not be open in their condemnation of China but will be cautious in their dealings.

China’s aid and assistance to various countries

China is trying to build a positive image by providing assistance, not just to developing countries but also to Europe. It was the first country to provide assistance to Italy, something which was appreciated. China has also been quick to provide assistance to a number of developing countries including Pakistan. In recent days, the Founder of Ali Baba, billionaire Jack Ma has also provided assistance through the Jack Ma foundation, in the form of masks and kits to Africa, Asia, Europe and the US. Many have dubbed this assistance as a mere PR exercise, though this is rather simplistic.

It would also be pertinent to point out that multilateral institutions like IMF and World Bank are also coming to the aid and assistance of developing countries. IMF has come up with a $50 billion plan, which comes under the rapid-disbursing emergency financing facilities, with the specific intention of helping out developing countries, in their fight against the coronavirus. A number of countries have sought assistance from IMF, including Iran.

Some key takeaways 

A few points need to be underscored with regard to China’s handling of the coronavirus, as well as its ties with other countries, once this crisis gets over.

First, while China has been speaking about greater international cooperation and been criticizing the US for becoming more insular under Donald Trump, its reluctance to share important information with the rest of the world when cases in China began to rise is a serious issue, and cannot be swept under the carpet. 

Second, South Korea’s success in dealing with the virus clearly reveals that a democracy through transparency and good governance can deal reasonably well with even the severest of crises. This is a lesson for many analysts who often complain that decision making in a democracy is messy and authoritarian systems are better placed to handle crisis situations.

Third, while currently a number of countries are facing their own problems, merely criticizing China is not enough, a counter-narrative is needed which is also effective on the ground. During the course of this crisis, multilateral institutions like the IMF and World Bank have stepped in to help out developing countries, but no other country has extended a helping hand like China. 

Finally, once the coronavirus crisis has been dealt with, there is a high probability that many countries will re-examine their economic relations with China (the UK may re-examine China’s participation in its 5G network). The BRI project too could face serious challenges. Apart from this, manufacturing is likely to shift from China to other countries – especially South Korea, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

While at this point of time the key challenge is dealing with the coronavirus epidemic, we are likely to witness different economic and geopolitical dynamics globally. There is no doubt that China is likely to play an important role; however, it may not be able to ride rough shod over developing countries and buy its influence as easily as it has been able to in recent years. For this to happen, developed democracies need to show the way and come up with an effective economic narrative which is effective in addressing the needs of developing countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. 

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