By K S Tomar, Shimla
13 July 2020
Covid-19 has had a unique and unexpected repercussion for China – its isolation by United States and some of its powerful allies amid claims that the communist nation purposely delayed communicating the outbreak of a deadly infections disease. As that infectious disease becomes a global pandemic laying waste to world economy and human lives, China is being cornered like never before. This is an immediate setback to China’s ambition to becoming a global superpower.
The US has stepped up its denunciation of China, evident from the latest outburst of US Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and Environment. Keith Kratch declared that the Trump administration is considering a proposal to accelerate its efforts to move its industrial supply chains from China to other nations. He warned that the US may consider imposing sanctions and new tariffs on China to push companies to shift outsourcing and manufacturing out of China. Experts say the US and some other nations are taking a hard stance on the matter, declaring they will not depend on the authoritarian, unaccountable and insecure government of China. In 2018, the escalation of the trade war between US and China had created a wedge which has now gotten deeper in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
The US may opt to shift towards Asian countries, such as India, where labour costs are lower and the political environment is friendlier. Even Japan has set up a $2.2 billion fund to move operations out of China.
In order to create an atmosphere against China at international level, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo recently issued a strong statement alleging they had evidence to prove the origin of coronavirus from a lab in Wuhan – a claim immediately rebutted by China which demanded proof backing Pompeo’s allegations. Pompeo argued that millions of lives could have been saved and the downturn in world economy would have been avoided had China been transparent and refrained from covering up the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan.
US president Donald Trump has already started this tirade and concerted campaign as he has directly accused China for the spread of coronavirus. He claims China was aware of the contagious nature of the virus back in January when several thousand Chinese had died in the city of Wuhan. To add fuel to the flame, Trump is further accusing China of trying to sabotage his chances of reelection. He also claims, just as Pompeo, to have evidence relating to the origin of the virus from a Wuhan lab. He sounds confident about his claim and disclosed that an investigation has been launched to ascertain the truth about the virus originating from Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The US president, furthering his conspiracy theory, has questioned why the permission to travel out of China was given to foreign visitors but no-one was permitted to go to Beijing or other Chinese cities. As per US officials, 7 million foreign nationals were permitted to leave Wuhan city through various flights. They were either infected or became virus carriers, thereby spreading it in at least 175 out of 195 countries that appear on the list shared by the World Health Organisation.
As he continues his attack on China, Trump has bitterly criticised WHO for conniving with China in the cover-up and acting like a PR agency for the communist nation. He questioned WHO for criticising the US when it stopped the flights from China.
While Trump’s agenda towards China and Chinese isolation might have reasons beneficial to the US and his domestic political standing, the cascading impact on the world could be harmful. In particular, his posturing and criticism toward WHO. The Trump administration was the top donor to WHO providing financial aid of $400-500 million (it was $107-119 million during the last decade). In comparison to the United States, China has made a contribution of $57.4 million only whereas others include the UK ($21.9 million), Germany ($29.1 million), France ($21.2 million), Japan ($41 million), Italy ($15.8 million) etc. Thus, it is clear as day that the US withdrawal may put a serious question mark on the very survival of WHO and its work across the world, specifically in developing nations.
Three independent bodies from US, UK and Germany have filed law suits against China demanding billions of dollars in compensation for damages caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Australian Prime minister Scott Morrison favours an inquiry to ascertain the truth about the origin of the virus.
Not one to take things lying down, China has hit back ferociously and threatened to send US to hell by banning export of medical supplies. China maintains that it did not delay communicating information about coronavirus outbreak and that it kept WHO updated all the while and WHO in turn took proper measures to inform the world. It claims that the origin of the virus was related to bats and described Trump allegations as baseless.
As cases in America continue to rise and it tops the list of nations with the most infected and coronavirus deaths, Trump’s regular outbursts against China seem to betray his worries about the 2020 presidential polls, as his bid to get re-elected may be hampered due to his government’s failure to tackle the virus and save American lives. Analysts opine that Democrat candidate Joe Biden, a former deputy of Barack Obama, may take Trump to task during the election campaign by strongly working on Trump’s handling of the current crisis and his constant efforts to shift the blame on China to hide his failures. Joe Biden, a worthy candidate in his own standing, is emerging strong among Democrats post the withdrawal of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Trump’s twin attack on China and WHO may get flipped in the coming months as he faces the challenge of steadying the US economy which is on the verge of facing another Great Recession. Trump has already announced a relief package of $17.6 trillion and more than 21 million jobless persons have applied for financial benefits, which may lead to a decline of 24 percent in the GDP, even though recovery is being predicted by experts by the end of this year. As per the US Bureau of Labour, the United States may have GDP 95,352 billion in 2021 adversely affected by Covid-19. China is expected to start recovery by the end of this year which can be attributed to its early control of the virus, even as the US and other nations struggle to meet the expectations of their citizens.
It is clear that if Trump succeeds in convincing his voters about the conspiracy theory of blaming China for the spread of the virus, it will prove to be a blessing in disguise for him, as the focus would shift from the mess created in managing this healthcare crisis towards retaliation against China. However, if the voters can grasp the reality, he is poised to face one of the toughest challenges of his career, as his presidency is bound to be at stake.
Writer is a former Editor of Hindustan Times’ Rajasthan edition. A political analyst who has spent four decades in journalism, K S Tomar spent six years in Nepal in the run up to the restoration of democracy in 1990 covering the complex and highly sensitive trilateral relations between Nepal, India and China.