Abraham M. Denmark, Director of Asia Center, Woodrow Wilson Center, speaks to The Sunday Guardian.

The fear of a corona pandemic has gripped mankind like never before. Not even the devastation from the most destructive wars and tsunamis compare to the tragedy currently striking the modern world. Another battle rages in the media and among the top Asia experts—if the accountability for this “worst destruction ever by any deadly virus” is on China and what liability the Dragon holds for the loss of human lives and capital worldwide. Abraham M. Denmark, a top expert on China, US and East Asia and the Director of Asia Center at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC spoke to ITV Network Editor ­Maneesh Pandeya at length on a range of issues and said, “China bears tremendous responsibility for all this suffering.” However, making a clear distinction between the Chinese people and the Chinese leadership while fixing accountability, Denmark cautions the media by saying, “Beijing will continue to avoid accepting responsibility out of fear that such an admission would dramatically undermine China’s international power.” Excerpts:
Q: It seems that the entire world is fuming at China as the source of this pandemic, and the actions it took attempting to cover it up. Your take on this.
A: First, it’s important to make a distinction between “China” and China’s leaders. It was the Chinese people that suffered from the disease, who were quarantined, and who were denied the ability to understand what was happening in their own communities. Some were even silenced when they sought to raise the alarm in the early days and weeks of this outbreak. That said, a sense of anger and resentment against China’s leaders is completely understandable. While they did not create the virus, their actions allowed it to fester and spread beyond Wuhan and around the world. As we discuss these issues, almost one million people around the world have been infected and more than 50,000 have died, and I fear these are still the early days of this pandemic. China bears tremendous responsibility for all this suffering.
Q: How much blame does China deserve for not allowing the world to know until mid-January about Covid-19, even as their first case was identified in the third week of November? Are any deliberate reasons coming to light now?
A: I don’t believe that China’s actions were intentionally hostile. Instead, I see the actions of China’s leaders as reflecting the weaknesses and pathologies of their system. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is reluctant to allow a public display of significant internal weakness, which drives officials to fear transparency, silence reporters, and fail in their responsibilities to the international community. It was also China’s system that drove international institutions to reflect the interests of the CCP, even when those interests conflict with the core mission of the institution itself. This is not to justify the actions of China’s leaders or officials, but rather to explain why they acted in such a myopic fashion.
Q: Do you see any nefarious reasons for China to allow the Covid-19 virus to spread, including theories expressed by some that it may be a bio warfare weapon that was either purposefully or accidentally released by the Chinese military?
A: I do not believe that Covid-19 is some sort of a biological agent that was either purposefully or accidentally released by the People’s Liberation Army, based entirely on the existence of a bio-safety level-four (BSL-4) laboratory located in Wuhan. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the United States has six BSL-4 labs, including one within an hour’s drive from the White House, which makes the presence of such a lab near the epicenter of the epidemic seem less ominous. Moreover, scientists have studied the virus itself and found that the virus had all the markers of a natural, rather than synthetic, origin.
Q: First Europe and now the US are suffering tremendous numbers of sickness and death as a result of Covid-19. Is this the predictable result of globalization? Why has the US become the epicenter of the vaccine, and will this get even worse?
A: Unfortunately, while greater connectivity between societies generally benefits each side involved, globalization also entails costs and risks. A system that facilitates fast travel and engagement between societies also facilitates the rapid spread of the disease. I would argue that the benefits in the end greatly outweigh the downsides, but globalization had already come under fire from some quarters before the pandemic, and I expect this debate to escalate dramatically after the current crisis.
Additionally, just because a disease came from China and was spread through globalization doesn’t mean that the world needed to suffer so terribly. China could have acted responsibly by informing the world early on and moved swiftly to contain the disease. Moreover, several countries outside of China that have been hardest hit—including the United States—failed to recognise the threat and act quickly and decisively. South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have demonstrated that this pandemic did not have to result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The virus originated from China, and Beijing is responsible for its failure to contain its spread. But the governments of other affected countries shoulder the responsibility for their responses.
Q: Why isn’t China owning up to its role in starting the pandemic? Will their denial of responsibility have strategic repercussions?
A: China’s leaders have so far refused to explicitly accept responsibility for the pandemic, and Chinese officials have sought to muddy the waters of the origin of Covid-19 by pushing a conspiracy that the disease was actually planted in Wuhan by the US Army. I expect Beijing will continue to avoid accepting responsibility out of fear that such an admission would dramatically undermine China’s international power and authority while also exposing China to international repercussions.
Q: Many in the media here see China’s actions as a “betrayal to mankind”. Will Beijing’s responsibility for causing the pandemic result in China losing its sheen as an attractive international partner? What will be the domestic human and economic costs for China?
A: In the long run, international perceptions of China will depend greatly on China’s ability to prevent another outbreak of Covid-19 and to restore its economy, especially in comparison to the United States. China’s international power has been based more on economic opportunity or coercion than on attraction—especially with democracies. I expect this pandemic will deepen international scepticism about pursuing close integration with China, which had already been expressed in debates surrounding Huawei, political interference, and the theft of intellectual property.
If the United States is able to recover rapidly from the pandemic, it may send a signal that concerns about the resiliency and dependability of the US had been overblown—with China losing out as a result. Yet if China is able to recover quickly, and if the United States suffers to the point where its status as the leading force in the international community comes into question, the rest of the world may seek to engage China economically while also atomizing away from globalization and toward a less integrated, more chaotic system.
Q: Has this also tarnished Xi Jinping’s global image? How do you see his future as a CCP leader and global figure? How has Russia reacted to this?
A: Xi has sought to use the coronavirus as an asset, not a liability. Chinese state propaganda routinely praises his leadership in leading China to win the “People’s War” against Covid-19, and declaring that only the CCP with Xi at its core could have executed such an effective response. Moreover, Beijing has used the crisis to expand surveillance and control of the Chinese people, using both technology and human assets to closely monitor what people do, where they go, and what they say.
Nonetheless, Xi’s image has almost certainly been tarnished among China’s political elite. The question is if Xi has been weakened to the point that rivals within the Chinese Communist Party seek to push him out of leadership. While the chances of that may increase should China’s economy struggle to recover from the epidemic, it is more likely that China’s political elites may see stability at the top as necessary to preserve broader political stability across the country.
I believe Russia’s leaders see the epidemic as something of an opportunity to demonstrate Russia’s continued strategic relevance as a great power and highlight indications of American weakness. To these ends, the Russian government has made a big public display of its efforts to send aid to Italy and the United States, among others. Moscow has also joined Beijing in spreading disinformation about the pandemic, claiming that the European Union was on the verge of collapse as a result of their national governments’ failure to respond to Covid-19. Additionally, Putin has used the crisis to formally sustain his hold on power until 2036, while also cause the price of oil to crash, thus hurting US shale oil production.
Q: With China markets out of bounds for western nations, including the United States and the Europe, can India become the new manufacturing hub?
A: Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, manufacturers had begun to move some manufacturing infrastructure out of China as a result of rising labour costs, concern about intellectual property theft, continued problems entering the Chinese market, and the US-China trade war. Many have looked to Taiwan and Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, as an alternative. While India certainly has significant advantages as a location for manufacturing, such as low labour costs (depending on the region and the sector) and the common use of English. Yet according to the World Bank, India’s lack of quality infrastructure lags behind China as well as several of its competitors in Southeast Asia. India also suffers in comparison to China in its business environment as well a highly bureaucratic approach to governance. India certainly has a tremendous amount of potential as a future hub for manufacturing, trade, and investment. Yet getting there will require significant amounts of investment and reform from Delhi.
Q: What impact do you expect the coronavirus to have on the international order, especially as it comes to balance of power, the role of international institutions, and globalization?
A: A great deal will depend on the relative ability of China and the United States to recover economically from the coronavirus and the success of their efforts to lead a global response. Leadership during a crisis, combined with the demonstrated ability to rapidly recover from a crisis, will translate into power after a crisis.
When historians attempt to answer this question in 50 years, I believe China will be seen as emerging weaker relative to the United States in the long run. Even though Washington has failed to contain the spread of Covid-19, and the human and economic costs of this failure are impossible to understand at this time, this crisis has revealed very little about the United States that the world did not already know. The United States has faced traumatic shocks before, but it ultimately emerged stronger as a result. Yet this pandemic has made clear for all to see that the CCP cannot be trusted to promote the common good, that China’s influence in international institutions is pernicious, and that close relations with Beijing ultimately end in regret.
Globalization will certainly come under even more pressure than it had been with the election of President Trump, Brexit, nefarious actions from Russia, the persistent threat of terrorism, and the return of nationalism around the world. This crisis should drive efforts to improve the international system rather than do away with it. Democracies need to work together to strengthen international institutions that play a vital role in promoting peace and prosperity. Leaders must find a way to promote greater international connectivity and integration while addressing the problems that globalization can bring, especially for the poor and middle class.
In the end, I hope that this crisis will remind people that there is no wall big enough to protect yourself from the outside world. That we can better address shared challenges like climate change and pandemics when states embrace cooperation and support international laws and institutions that facilitate collective action. That confidence is no substitute for competence. And that, in the long run, the United States is always the best bet.

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