COVID-19: Failing BRI to Health Silk Route

Chinese medical shipment to Italy/ Getty images

Backdrop

The beginning of 2020 brought a wild card entry into global strategic equations in the form of Coronavirus Pandemic, with Wuhan being the initial epicentre in December 2019. China will continue to be accused to have done global damage by hiding crucial timely information from the rest of the world to be able to respond to COVID-19. China has gone through the full cycle of initially hiding it, being late in quarantining affected people, not being able to prevent community transfers causing exponential rise in affected cases in the beginning, taking harsh measures to control it after peaking, bringing down the affected cases, declaring victory over the pandemic, reopening lockdowns and boosting ‘COVID-19 Economy’ over ‘Health Silk Route’. The trends in January and February suggested a sheer drop in Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of China with a combined effect of US-China trade war, failing BRI and COVID-19. The last week of March 2020 saw the epicentres of COVID-19 shifting westwards with the US, Europe and UK emerging to be worst affected, entering stage three of the pandemic cycle and China posing itself to be helping the world to combat the pandemic, trending a comparative steep rise in its CNP, by pushing down everyone else. Rest of the world continues to be engaged in protecting its citizens in the critical phase of their pandemic cycle, rightly looking at saving its citizens with every possible means as first priority, even if it amounts to taking Chinese help, leaving out the blame game for a later occasion.

Italy coronavirus health silk route
Italy has a world-class health system. The coronavirus has pushed it to the breaking point/Image: NBC

What does Global shift in Epicenters of COVID-19 Indicate?

By March 30, 2020, 22:07 GMT, the coronavirus COVID-19 has affected 200 countries and territories around the world and two international conveyances.  The worldometer indicates over 856,000 cases of coronavirus with over 42,000 deaths and over 177,000 recoveries as of 31 March. The WHO puts the death rate continues to be low but the biggest danger being faced by mankind is its exponential rise due to community transfers. USA has emerged to be the largest epicentre of COVID-19 having more than 19 percent of global confirmed cases with nearing three thousand deaths, earmarking $2.2 trillion allocations for combating the pandemic. Europe led by Italy (with over a hundred thousand cases and 11,500 deaths overtaking China in a number of cases) closely followed by Spain, Germany, France, Iran and the UK. The biggest jolt suffered is the number of deaths on March 30, 2020 counting 913, 812, 418, 385, 247 in Spain, Italy, France US and UK respectively. All these are cases of taking the pandemic lightly initially resulting in quick entry into the third stage of community transfer. Now most countries in the world are struggling for capacity building to take the challenge of the peak period, which is yet to come. This lockdown/quarantining patients/suspects have brought global economic/commercial productivity to almost a grinding halt.

Failing BRI
Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan/ Image: FT

China was quick to declare that it has conquered the disease with reporting 75,700 recovered cases, only 31 fresh cases, four fresh deaths and only 2466 active cases.  (March 30, 2020, 22:07 GMT) as reported by the National Health Commission (NHC) of China. Considering Chinese credibility, these figures cannot be taken at its face value, because some media reports of sudden silencing of much more mobiles connections, restrictions on reporting COVID-19 cases do create a doubt as to what exactly is happening in China. The community lockdowns and stringent measures of social distancing helped China in flattening the trend. If we add the unreported cases the potential of the second cycle of the pandemic in China cannot be ruled out. Chinese effort of shifting soft power balance is also evident from alleged effective use of its influence and media to propagate conspiracy theory against the US and later trying to shift the blame to Italy using paid media, think tanks and institutions. The world, however, will continue to accuse China of this pandemic, with many legal notices already filed against it globally.

China cannot deny that by its own admission, the coronavirus broke out in China late last year whereas Wuhan was locked down on January 23. The US efforts to evacuate its people at that point of time were seen as ‘triggering panic reaction’ by Beijing, which had already over-delayed global response by then. China tried to shift the narrative to the belligerent superpower wrangling between Beijing and Washington great power competition, viewing each other through a lens of conspiracy theories, hostility, trading stinging barbs on everything from the origin of the virus, permitting medical experts to visit Wuhan to who should be blamed for the pandemic. China and US were already at lowest trust level over issues, such as the trade war, South China Sea, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, hence the same narrative was used by China to confuse the world and shift global anger away from it. With evidence destroyed, denying access to global bodies, the script of the global pandemic was already written. China has a reason to be keen to repair its damaged global reputation caused due to mishandling of the crisis in the initial stage, with exploding infections around the world in last two months, possible loss of face, ensuing disrespect of other countries; hence it behaved so assertively in the diplomatic repairs including ‘Mask Diplomacy’. The slow reaction and reluctance to lockdown by the US might show that the US-China competition is moving China’s way, but the Chinese follies of making the world suffer by their late reporting may not put Xi Jinping in a comfortable position either, although it’s too early to predict. 

COVID-19
Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan

Trade War to Mask diplomacy and Health Silk Route

The CNP of a country is a combination of hard and soft power and includes a sum of economic, military, technological, human resource, diplomatic and other levers of power. China claims to have successfully encountered COVID-19, has kickstarted its industry after being the cause of paralysis of the industrial power of everyone else, with a focus on the largest emerging demand of medical equipment related to combatting COVID-19. After IMF Chief’s revelation that the global economy has entered a recession, which could possibly be worst of its kind, China got a new lifeline to its economic revival with a competitive advantage in comparison to others. Chinese economy seems to be benefitting from others peril, with factories commencing work at 66 percent efficiency including foreign companies like Apple, domestic flights commencing in most areas, life limping back to normal and upsurge in demand with more people in markets. China after exporting the pandemic globally, is now making the best of COVID19 economic model by switching from failing BRI to COVID19 related production. It is also disposing COVID related equipment surplus to mute expected accusations of risking humanity. China has thus tried to benefit itself not only in comparative economic terms but also shift the equation in soft power, by projecting itself as a better resource provider in this crisis. China is also trying to economically benefit from the monopolistic opportunity from the crisis by focusing its manufacturing base on the production of testing kits, personal protection kits, ventilators and other crucial medical equipment. China, therefore, leads the global supply chain with other major manufacturers paralyzed due to the pandemic, although like BRI, its reliability is suspected, due to the fact that five countries have reported supply of defective equipment.     

COVID-19: Failing BRI to Health Silk Route; Global silence
Head of States from G7 States (*Theresa May 1st from Left is the Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom)

Why is the World Silent?

The fact that Coronavirus was detected, and it spread exponentially in Wuhan, China may find difficult to prevent the accusations from the world, angered by sufferings caused due to pandemic. It is however understandable that not many have started blaming China, due to their domestic compulsion and priorities to check the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, instead of involving in the blame game for the time being. Most countries are also expecting Chinese assistance in their fight against the pandemic, as China is seen to have controlled the same, having gone through the peak of infection and successfully controlled it. Most countries also hope that a suspected creator of the virus is in the best position to find an antidote and help in combating it. Countries also do not want to disturb the supply chain of medical equipment from China at this juncture. The outcome of G20 virtual Summit was also on the same lines, wherein the G20 leaders issued a statement at the end of the summit calling for a coordinated global response to fight the coronavirus pandemic and adopting measures to protect the global economy, minimize disruptions in trade and take steps to enhance global coordination. The G20 leaders pledged to inject $5 trillion into the global economy to reduce the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. I do feel that this issue of holding China accountable will not be dead but re-appear sometime in future. There are already few lawsuits already filed against China for the same and some more may be in the offing.

On a practical note, it is understandable that the world cannot fight this pandemic without global cooperation, which includes China. It owes a responsibility to act first and help others with the capacity to fight the Coronavirus, after letting the genie out of the bottle, more so when the US has to focus inwards due to looming domestic crisis of COVID-19. It’s also in China’s interests to act to repair and restore its global image. Curbing media will not suppress global criticism. If technologically advanced countries can utilize their capacities, especially on joint research and development of a vaccine, and strengthening the global value chain of supplies of medical equipment, it will help humanity.

Click here to read the second part of this article: How COVID-19 is Changing Global Strategic Equations?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Maj. Gen. Shashi Asthana

The author is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years of experience in national & international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst authored over 350 publications. Interviewed by various National and International news channels/newspapers/organisations. Currently Chief Instructor, USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India. On Governing/Security Council CEE, IOED, IPC, ITVMNN and other UN Organisations. On Advisory Board of SWEDINT, member EPON. Expert Group Challenges Forum, Former Additional Director General Infantry. Awarded twice by President of India, United Nations, former Prime Minister Moldova and Governor of Haryana

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