With the Chinese making a conciliatory statement, the war of words, of accusations and counter-accusations between the USA and China appears to be moving towards a thaw. As the epicenter of the pandemic has shifted from China to Europe and the USA, there may be a window of opportunity. China with its successful handling of the Corona crisis, while the rest of the world is still battling the menace, may be thinking of making diplomatic capital out of such humanitarian overtures.
A case of schaudenfreude . Foreign leaders from the Serbian President to the Hungarian Prime Minister and Italy’s Foreign Minister have thanked China for the medical supplies and teams of doctors received by them, while at the same time chiding their neighbours for abandoning them. Spain has already decided to buy from China a few hundred million dollars worth of medical equipment and supplies.
Pakistan is reported to have opened its land border with China on the Karakoram highway in order to receive a generous consignment of medical supplies. In fact, there is also an informal offer of building hospitals in India on the pattern of Wuhan. And despite all the controversies, China continues to be the biggest supplier of medical equipment to the USA. Talking of controversies, there are some that refuse to die, even with time.
Considering the widespread human interest involved, some of these continue to be kept alive by conspiracy theories. In the context of the Corona virus, a lot has already appeared in print but in its latest salvo President Trump has targeted the World Health Organization, while China has spoken strongly in its support. However, there is a background to the accusations of USA vis-a-vis WHO. The contention is that despite the disease in its initial stages remaining confined to Wuhan, it was neither tagged with China nor with Wuhan. Even when all the details were not available, it could have been tagged geographically or simply named as the Chinese virus.
It was much later that WHO named it as COVID- 19,avoiding any mention of China. On the other hand, we have seen in the past that Spanish flu, Japanese encephalitis, German measles and some other such like country or place-specific diseases, breaking the geographical barriers to become international pandemics. China has somehow managed to escape this tag. We are aware that both H5N1 bird flu and Severely Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had originated from the Chinese province of Guangdong, yet both these afflictions, even at their peaks, had managed to avoid the Chinese tag.
Sometimes, the name tags can also be greatly misleading with disastrous results. It is now known that the 2009 pandemic, which was popularly known as Swine flu, was actually spread by humans and not pigs. But in its attempt to prevent the contagion, a country in the Middle East mistakenly slaughtered a few lakhs of pigs. Undeniably there appears to be a certain degree of politics attached with the nomenclature of labeling such fatal diseases. In this regard, decisions are taken at the level of WHO which hosts the international classification of diseases (ICD).
The current guidelines for nomenclature have been criticized by a number of scientific organizations. It is the general opinion that by simply giving numbers to alphabetic codes, people at large are unable to appreciate the gravity of the disease for instance the letters HN denote the genetic size and sequence of the virus Hemagglutinin Neuraminidase. On the other hand geographical labels tend to convey some very useful information for the world at large.
The Chinese by leveraging their financial clout over certain international institutions have disturbed the existing order which has not gone well with western powers, who in any case had been increasingly looking inwards. Besides there has been the question of financial support to such institutions. This is also bound to make an impact on the post corona economic revival. In the given situation, the Chinese stand to gain substantially at the cost of others and emerge as a domineering influence.
Such a situation had been in the making for a long time. In fact,ever since the economic downturn of 2008-09 and with the drying up of resources there appeared to be some kind of a vacuum as far as investments in Europe were concerned. This space was readily occupied by the Chinese. According to data compiled by ISID New Delhi, the Chinese investments in Europe between 2010 and 2017 have been of the order of $ 318 billion which is 45 per cent more than their investments in the USA.
In fact they have been targeting technologies which can in the long run provide a key to their own critical infrastructure. During this period China has since taken over 360 European companies ranging from Pirelli&SpA of Italy to Kuka AG robotics of Germany. ChemChina has acquired the Swiss giant Syngenta for $ 46 billion. The penetration of the communication giant Huawei with its 5G networks has already raised hackles amongst the NATO countries. It is in the backdrop of these developments that the postcorona scenario will have to be viewed.
With the Chinese effecting a quick economic revival with heavy investments in all the continents, others are still reeling under the corona onslaught, coupled with their outreach programme for medical and humanitarian aid that are bound to pay them handsome dividends. For the decades to follow the next few months are going to be crucial for politics, economy, diplomacy and the world order.
(The writer is a former Governor and a Sr. Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)