India has to balance its relationship with China, but also be a part of the global efforts to investigate into the origin and agenda of the killer virus.
China reflected its aggressive posturing by thwarting the draft resolution put forth by Tunisia on behalf of the 10 non-permanent members of the UNSC calling for “an urgent coordinated and united international action to curb the impact of Covid-19”. The UNSC President in May, Estonia called the handling of the Covid-19 issue by the UN a shame. The resolution was not as much condemning China for being irresponsible in handling the coronavirus epidemic as it was for a serious review of global efforts in tackling the virus related socio-economic crisis. But an “overwhelming sense of guilt” prevailed upon Beijing to disallow any discussion on the coronavirus, earlier referred to as the Wuhan virus.
The global solidarity in tackling the effects of the virus and finding a vaccine took a back seat when countries that were affected the most, albeit economically, decided to name and shame China publicly for the errors of commission and omission in relation to the origin, spread and information opacity of the virus. The pandemic proportions of the virus have affected more than five million people and resulted in a lakh and more deaths. Little wonder therefore that the political establishment in every democracy is under pressure to perform, assure its respective population of greater insulation against the current losses and future shocks and also revive the economy, a truly uphill task. Democracies also have to outperform their political opponents by inventing an enemy to blame. The best to fit the bill is China, and rightly so. The fact that the killer virus originated in Wuhan is undeniable and Beijing did very little, whether by design or by error of judgement, to inform the world on time.
Finally, it was Australia which took the lead in drafting a stronger resolution to be admitted, discussed and acted upon by the 194-member strong World Health Organization’s executive body, the World Health Assembly, which met last week. Amidst accusations of acting at the behest of Beijing, the WHO chairperson came in for strong criticism for not doing enough to stall the virus from turning into a pandemic. The virtual 73rd session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) was held on 18-19 May, where 122 of the 194 members including India, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, UK and Canada voted for a resolution asking for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) response to the pandemic, as well as the identification of the “zoonotic” source of the coronavirus. The origin of the virus is currently believed to be a wet market in Wuhan, China.
Although the resolution does not name China, it is evident from the wording and discussions that the finger of accusation would soon point to Beijing as the culprit and the epicentre of the virus. China so far has not only strongly denied any culpability in the origin and spread of the killer virus but also threatened countries that join the anti-China chorus. The resolution does not prescribe a time limit for the investigations and also does not mention any methodology. To that extent Beijing need not worry in the immediate future but it has already lost the first round of the battle of perceptions. Soon after the resolution was adopted, China’s strongman Xi Jinping announced total cooperation and a $2 billion donation to the United Nations, besides promising to set up hospitals and a massive health infrastructure in Africa. In the last two decades or so, Africa has emerged as the biggest investment centre of China, mainly for tapping into its rich mineral and other natural resources.
Meanwhile, Beijing has initiated punitive action against Australia for taking the lead in cobbling support for the WHA resolution. Ridiculing Canberra as the puppet of the US, Beijing has banned beef imports from four Australian producers and imposed a steep 80% tariff on Australian barley. China carried on a similar “vilify Australia” campaign on Canberra’s anti-China stance on the South China Sea, foreign interference legislation, the 5G ban on Huawei, and the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. On its part Australia has refused to buckle under Beijing’s pressure but also distanced itself from US President Donald Trump’s narrative. China’s another target seems to be New Delhi, which has openly sided with Australia, while maintaining a diplomatic distance from the global anti-China platform led by the Trump administration. From Doklam like border skirmish to prodding India’s neighbour Nepal to rake up the border dispute over the Kalapani area and publishing new map showing India territory as their own, Beijing’s pin-pricks are likely to increase over time.
New Delhi has to be alert on all fronts, balance its relationship with China, but also be a part of the global efforts to investigate into the origin and agenda of the killer virus. India will have to learn to live with the virus, but also judiciously prepare for future eventualities of similar nature in the changed geopolitical reality.
China must show some degree of accountability if it has to be perceived as the power going to lead the world order. The pressure on China will keep growing especially from the United States’, European Union and India as reflected in the World Health Assembly for initiating an inquiry that would investigate the pandemic in a holistic manner. The blocking of Taiwan from participating at the WHA was another damaging blow to the credibility of WHO. It must be reiterated here that China has been blocking Taiwan since 2016 after President Tsai Ing-Wen won the election in 2016.
The WHA came up with a final resolution but remained silent on a direct accusation to China on Covid-19. The resolution was adopted by consensus, without a vote. The wording of the resolution passed was done with usual UN style. How and why China concealed the information and whether WHO had any direct role in supporting China remains a major question for the debate and discussion. China’s attempt to set the narrative for the nature of international system seems to be successful. China’s goal of emerging as a more powerful player after handling this pandemic will be a new epoch in geopolitics and international relations. Cornering China from the centre stage will remain a distant reality for the rest of the world in general and India in particular. The world will remain a precarious place to live in, under China’s stewardship. India will have to be highly proactive in reflecting its assertiveness as well as mobilising global public opinion on the truth of the origin of Covid-19. WHO, in real sense, has failed in accomplishing its tasks while dealing with Covid-19.
Dr Arvind Kumar teaches Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal. Seshadri Chari is a well-known political commentator and strategic analyst.