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Covid crisis brings new global influence for China?

As “post-Covid” countries continue reopening their economies to business, the world may soon become divided into “Covid-safe” and “Covid-unsafe” zones.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

(This is Part 4 in my series “Covid chronicles.” Click here for the earlier parts. Note that on that portal-page the blog-posts are presented in reverse-chronological order.)

The coronavirus has affected just about every country in the world, though it has affected them all very differently. China’s death toll has not risen at all for several weeks now; its death rate remains at 0.33 per 100,000 of population. The United States’ death toll continues to mount: the number of reported Covid-19 deaths now stands at 77,744. Its death rate now stands at 23.59 per 100,000 of population. Spain, Italy, France, and the UK all have higher reported death rates than the United States. In many countries, producing anything like an accurate count of the deaths is probably impossible; and in all affected countries, the total death toll is considerably higher than the toll of deaths just from Covid, given the stress this virus has placed on health systems as a whole.

These are sobering facts. Even more sobering is the demonstrable and continuing failure of the United States (and the UK?) to enact anything like the response that would be needed to contain, reduce, and eradicate the virus. Meantime, China and some other much smaller East Asian countries (and New Zealand and Australia) have succeeded in either wholly eradicating the virus from their entire human population, or coming very close to that, while demonstrating an impressive, multi-layered  capacity to deal effectively with any recurrence of this virus– and also, most likely, the eruption of the other similar viruses that may come along in the coming years.

From mid-January on, the Chinese government took extensive lockdown and quarantining measures (as described by Vijay Prashad, Du Xiaojun, and Weiyan Zhu here.) These inflicted a big hit on the Chinese economy which in the first quarter saw a year-on-year contraction of 6.8%. But April saw the country’s provincial governments announcing a broad swathe of new infrastructure-construction projects. These were in line with the recommendations of a report that current Vice-Premier Liu He released back in 2013 on how nations can most effectively recover from economic shocks like the 2008 financial crisis or the Great Depression.

For many years now, China’s economy has been tightly connected, in numerous  ways, to those of the United States and Europe. Crucially, Chinese manufacturing plants have played a key role in the supply chains of advanced industries in both those zones. (Through the end of last year, each of them accounted for around 17% of China’s exports.) The current near-seize-up of the U.S. economy– which   looks set to last for many more months– will clearly continue to inflict damage on those parts of the Chinese economy that have been reliant on it; and the effects of the coronavirus will continue to impact many of China’s other trading partners, too.

But the Chinese government does seem to have a strong, credible plan to bring the country’s economy back into good operation. It also has a functioning, World-Bank-like instrument, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), through which it can help (re-)build other significant markets around the world. (Except, probably, in the United States and Japan: according to this excellent survey  of the AIIB’s history and current priorities, these are the only two significant players in the world economy that have not joined it.)

Yesterday, the AIIB announced its directors’ approval of a US$500 million loan, co-financed with the World Bank, to India, to “support India’s efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the threat posed by COVID-19 by strengthening the preparedness of the country’s national health system.”

All in all, it looks as if China may well be able to meet the forecast that IMF Research Department chief Gita Gopinath expressed in mid-April that it could see year-on-year GDP growth of 1.2% in 2020.

In that paper, Gopinath predicted that the United States’ GDP would see a contraction of 5.9% in 2020. Since she published that paper, the scopes of the twinned health and economic crises in this country have both increased significantly, so the U.S. economy will almost certainly contract by considerably more than 5.9% this year.

How might an economically recovering and generally self-confident Chinese leadership be expected to treat the United States in these circumstances?

It seems clear that as China, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, and the handful of other countries that have wholly or almost wholly eradicated the coronavirus from their populations turn their attention to economic recovery, they would be crazy not to institute some form of pretty strict quarantine on all the countries that have not yet done so. Until there is a vaccine, any country that has just about eradicated the virus would be crazy to allow an uncontrolled influx of people who could be vectors.

As the “post-Covid” countries continue reopening their economies to business once again, the world may thus soon become divided into two zones “Covid-safe” and “Covid-unsafe.” And those of us living in “Covid-unsafe” countries may find it extremely difficult to travel to many other countries… but especially to the “Covid-safe” ones.

I am old enough to remember those little yellow booklets you would be required to tuck into your passport when traveling internationally, that testified to the shots you had received for cholera and other communicable diseases. Those will almost certainly be making a come-back. But in the continuing absence in the United States of anything like adequate testing for either the virus or its antibodies, many countries may well simply not want to admit U.S. residents, period.

As the gears of industry and construction start spinning once again in China and a few other countries, Americans may discover that our whole country has been quarantined.

* * *

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has a distinctive, Southern Pacific vantage point from which, as a professional, Mandarin-speaking China specialist as well as a political leader, he has watched China and its relationship with “the West” for many years. On May 6, he published an article in Foreign Affairs in which he warned of a coming “anarchy” in the international system due to what he portrayed as a parallel and roughly equivalent weakening of both the United States and China under the impact of the coronavirus– and the absence of any other power that could be the guardian of an orderly and rules-based international system.

He wrote, for example:

"the uncomfortable truth is that China and the United States are both likely to emerge from this crisis significantly diminished. Neither a new Pax Sinica nor a renewed Pax Americana will rise from the ruins. Rather, both powers will be weakened, at home and abroad."

Regarding reputational damage, he wrote:

"China’s standing has taken a huge hit… Anti-Chinese reaction over the spread of the virus, often racially charged, has been seen in countries as disparate as India, Indonesia, and Iran. Chinese soft power runs the risk of being shredded.

For different reasons, the United States does not come out of the crisis much better…"

(His wording there leaves it possible that the United States may come out of the crisis with its global reputation less badly shredded than China’s. A very dubious proposition.)

After reading his article carefully, I concluded that Rudd had very significantly under-estimated the weakening that the United States has already suffered as a result of the coronavirus, at a number of different levels…as well as the weakening  it will continue to suffer for many months ahead.

Numerous epidemiologists have noted (e.g. here) that the United States faces large numbers of additional infections and deaths from Covid-19 over the coming months. And given the inability of the health authorities at state or federal level to quash the disease, any economic “resumption” such as Pres. Trump has been urging will be very partial, spotty, and sporadic. The worst economic and medical effects that this crisis inflicts on the American people are yet to come. It has already caused the immiseration of millions of Americans, and will inflict the same on many millions more. The social and political sequelae of this crisis, including the shredding of whatever trust Americans have had in their institutions, will reverberate for many years to come.

Rudd portrays both sides, the United States and China, as engaging in belligerent rhetoric as the Covid crisis has continued and warns that,

"as U.S.-Chinese confrontation grows, the multilateral system and the norms and institutions underpinning it are beginning to falter. Many institutions are themselves becoming arenas for rivalry. And with a damaged United States and a damaged China, there is no “system manager,” to borrow Joseph Nye’s phrase, to keep the international system in functioning order. It may not yet be Cold War 2.0, but it is starting to look like Cold War 1.5."

I see a number of problems with this framing. Firstly, as a historical point, the international institutions of the United Nations continued functioning fairly effectively throughout the whole of Cold War 1. So it is not the case that the non-functioning of the U.N. is synonymous with some kind of Cold War confrontation.

Secondly, it is true that a number of global norms and institutions have been “faltering” for many years already. But who has caused this faltering? There was the arrogant disregard Washington displayed in 2003 toward the norm of not launching wars of aggression. There was Washington’s distortion of the intent of UNSC resolution 1973 which authorized the use of military force against Libya only for purposes of averting atrocity. There was Trump’s highly illegitimate exit from the UNSC-endorsed JCPOA with Iran. There has been his flouting of decades-worth of UN resolutions on Jerusalem and Golan; his abrupt defunding of UNRWA and now the WHO… The list goes on and on.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, has acted in defiance of some of the liberal-democratic norms that Westerners would like to consider are “global.” (As have the United States and numerous other government around the world. Guantanamo, anyone? Drone warfare? Sanctioning whole countries even in a time of pandemic?) But China has done nothing to challenge or undermine global institutions. Indeed, over the decades since Beijing was seated at the United Nations in 1971, it has joined numerous other global institutions including the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, etc. It is the second-largest contributor to both the UN’s regular budget and its peacekeeping budget. A September 2019 report wrote that: “Currently, China has 2,534 military and police peacekeepers in seven of the 14 on-going UN peacekeeping operations, ranking 11th among the 122 contributors to UN peacekeeping and the largest contributor of peacekeepers among the five permanent UN Security Council members.”

So it may be true, as Rudd writes, that “Many [global] institutions are themselves becoming arenas for rivalry” between China and the United States. But it is also true that, especially under Pres. Trump, a very large number of global institution s themselves have come under intense fire from Washington. For many years now, Beijing has acted as if it is much, much more committed the survival and effective working of these institutions than Washington is.

For a long time, many European governments acted as  enthusiastic guardians of the idea of norms-based, collective international action that is embodied at the global level by the United Nations. But now, Europe is weaker and more divided than it has been for decades. It seems that China may now be becoming the most powerful guardian world has for this idea.

A newly emerging, global-level Pax Sinica? Perhaps not quite that, yet. But maybe, if Beijing’s leaders can continue to lead their country effectively out of the many-layered crisis that Covid has inflicted on all the world’s nations, something very like it.

This article has been republished with permission from Just World News.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (Alessia Pierdomenico /
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