(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.
Helena Cobban is an analyst of global affairs, with special interests in the Middle East and the international system. She is the author of seven books on world issues, four of which focus on the Middle East. She contributed a regular column on global issues to The Christian Science Monitor, 1990-2007.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (Alessia Pierdomenico / Shutterstock.com)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”