Month: March 2020

The new world disorder

COVID pandemic has exposed the fragility of global society and governance — and pointed to the way forward.

World Order, Shashi Tharoor, Samir Saran, SAARC, G20, Indian Imperative, Coronavirus, Pandemic, Indian Leadership
Getty

It is unfortunate that the coronavirus pandemic should have plagued the international community at its weakest moment, where national politics and economic parochialism are upending the idea of “one global village”. As Professor Sridhar Venkatapuram correctly notes, we take issue with the current state of the international order in our book, The New World Disorder & the Indian Imperative. It is not the values and norms that it ostensibly professes that we take objection to, but the means through which they have been devised, exercised and often betrayed.

Among the many crises of global governance we document, two, in particular, stand out in regard to this new pandemic. First, the waning legitimacy of international institutions. The WHO’s response to the outbreak, with its indulgence of the official Chinese line for far too long, is an important case in point. Many of our global institutions and their agencies suffer from politicisation, manipulation and a lack of representation, independent leadership and purpose. The second crisis relates to national sovereignty, and its resurgence amidst the wave of nationalism sweeping the world.

Headlines from around the world bear testament to these symptoms. The Trump administration’s “America First” instinct has seen it attempt to source a vaccine for the American people alone from Germany, to cancel pharmaceutical imports from China and to stymie global consensus on the response by insisting on the divisive “Wuhan virus” formula at the G-7 and, currently, at the UN Security Council. Beijing, meanwhile, has got away with letting the virus loose, handling it initially in an opaque manner, and manipulating the institutional architecture that should have responded to it. It is now attempting to play saviour by supplying emergency medical equipment to the world and emergency medical teams to Italy. Experience suggests that nations will pay for this help with silence on China’s misdemeanours. Even the EU has struggled to support its member states in their worst public health emergency in modern history.

We can only look on with disappointment as the thesis of our book plays out in real-time, with such fatal consequences. Our sweeping critique of global governance should not lead to the mistaken conclusion that it is a futile enterprise. Here, we’d like to engage with Professor Venkatapuram’s criticism that our book does not “go into how the global order creates and distributes health risks like COVID19”. It is, in fact, the recognition of the interdependence and shared resilience — and fragility — of our global society that prompted us to undertake this exercise. Had global governance been working effectively, the world would have identified the coronavirus as soon as it emerged; sounded a global alarm earlier about its dangers; and publicised the best practices that should have been adopted by all countries to prevent or limit its spread. That this did not happen is a damning indictment of the state of our new world disorder.

Had global governance been working effectively, the world would have identified the coronavirus as soon as it emerged; sounded a global alarm earlier about its dangers

As our book demonstrates, the coronavirus is far from the first global bug to have bitten us, nor will it be the last. In 2001, we learnt that anger and malice in Afghanistan could take down skyscrapers in New York. The year 2008 saw dormant financial malpractices in the US rapidly metastasise into a global financial crisis. In 2016, Russia tried to register itself in the voter rolls for the US elections. It is clear to us that the sheer complexity and immeasurability of our interdependence requires more global governance, not less.

This perspective also informs the subtext of our book, “the Indian imperative”. The coronavirus outbreak has drawn attention to what these imperatives are in the decades ahead. The first, is providing for our people. India’s vast, mostly undocumented and migrant informal workforce, is already suffering the heaviest damage from the economic fallout. Professions that are predominantly underpaid and unprotected will be collaterals. We remain hopeful that the Indian government and its society will see in this crisis an opportunity to resolve the many socio-economic inequities that plague our country.

This leads us to the second imperative: To use these domestic experiences and policy lessons to shape India’s international engagement. The pandemic has accentuated the governance challenges confronting most emerging economies. Responding to their needs presents India the opportunity to be a very different type of power. The source of the US’ power was its vast geopolitical network of military and diplomatic alliances and economic institutions. China’s rise, on the other hand, was facilitated by its geo-economic power and control over supply chains and trade. As we argue in our book, India will likely be the world’s first development power- with its rise being linked to its ability to provide governance solutions to the development needs of millions from Asia and Africa.

It is also incumbent on India to reboot the ethic of global cooperation. The world is slipping into spheres of influence of exclusive arrangements, limiting our ability to respond effectively to global challenges. India’s early outreach to the SAARC community and its proactive role in the G20 demonstrates that it remains adept at navigating ideological-political diversity comfortably, something it needs to do at home too.

India’s early outreach to the SAARC community and its proactive role in the G20 demonstrates that it remains adept at navigating ideological-political diversity comfortably, something it needs to do at home too.

The coronavirus epidemic is a devastating reminder of the consequences of disorder. It is also a timely memo to sovereign states that the re-assertion of sovereignty must not imply an abandonment of global responsibilities. When the current pandemic is over, the globe must learn lessons about what happened, and how international systems and institutions can be strengthened and radically reformed in order to forestall its recurrence.

Many will find in this pandemic an opportunity to close themselves off to the international community. India must defy such impulses. If anything, Indian leadership in these times — and a new resolve for global governance — may be just the vaccine that the international community needs to navigate a new decade.

#Covid19: Dr WHO gets prescription wrong

COVID19, Pandemic, Coronavirus, Tedros, Behaviour, SARS Epidemic, WHO, COVID, World Order, Western Democracies

Comparisons, as the proverb goes, are odious. Hence comparing the raging outbreak of Covid19 with any other pandemic of recent times is best avoided. Yet, it is difficult to track the pandemonium unleashed by Covid19 without recalling how the SARS epidemic of 2002-03 had let loose fear, concern and death in a similar manner. Then, like now, China was slow to acknowledge the epidemic domestically and failed to inform the global community about its possible spread.

There was one crucial difference however: the reaction of the World Health Organization. During the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, WHO was quick to recommend travel restrictions and criticise China for delaying the submission of vital information that would have limited the global spread of SARS.

Even as it was celebrating the successful eradication of SARS after a fierce eight-month battle, WHO warned that the world would not remain free from other novel forms of the coronavirus. The then Director-General of WHO, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, implored the international community to investigate possible animal reservoirs that could be a source for future outbreaks and better study the movement of the virus to humans. China’s wet markets were specifically identified as a likely environment for the virus to incubate and jump from animals to humans.

The mutable nature of the virus, coupled with China’s rapid urbanisation, proximity to exotic animals and refusal to tackle illegal wildlife trade and commerce were together termed a ‘time bomb’ by a research paper in 2007. As late as December 2015, the coronavirus family of diseases was selected to be included in a list of priorities requiring urgent research and development. It was earmarked as a primary contender for emerging diseases likely to cause a major epidemic—an assessment which was reiterated in WHO’s 2018 annual review of prioritised diseases.

It is surprising, then, that when a pneumonia-like virus was detected in Wuhan in late-December 2019, the WHO, armed with data and years of subsequent research about the SARS outbreak, reacted as sluggishly as it did. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, better known as Dr Tedros, the DG of WHO, applauded China’s “commitment to transparency” in the early days of the epidemic in January, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The WHO then denied evidence of human to human transmission of the novel coronavirus, barely a day after the first case was announced outside China. This is despite the fact that Taiwan, whose exclusion from the WHO deserves an article in itself, had warned the body of this as early as December.

While Beijing informed the WHO on December 31, there are expert estimates that the virus had spread to humans as far back as October. Even after being told, the WHO showed no urgency to send an investigative team, careful not to displease the Chinese government. A joint WHO-Chinese team went to Wuhan only in mid-February and wrote a report with decidedly Chinese characteristics.

Covid19 continued to exhibit characteristics of a pandemic, spreading rapidly around the world. Not only did Dr Tedros and his team fail to declare a public health emergency, they urged the international community to not spread fear and stigma by imposing travel restrictions

Meanwhile, Covid19 continued to exhibit characteristics of a pandemic, spreading rapidly around the world. Not only did Dr Tedros and his team fail to declare a public health emergency, they urged the international community to not spread fear and stigma by imposing travel restrictions. The global health body even criticised early travel restrictions by the US as being excessive and unnecessary. Following the WHO’s advice, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) suggested that the probability of virus infecting the EU was low, likely delaying more robust border controls by European states.

These early missteps by the global health body have proved fatal to thousands around the world and will likely adversely affect the lives of millions who now confront a prolonged tragedy and an economic slowdown. Part of the problem can be traced to the WHO’s long-simmering organisational challenges. It is chronically underfunded and has come under repeated scrutiny for its unwieldy bureaucracy and opaque regional offices. Indeed, the WHO’s response to Ebola was similarly criticised by the international community.

But that is not the only problem. It is equally clear that shaping the international health response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is one more front in the shifting sands of global power. This is not a first in the WHO’s history. In the 1950s and ’60s, the WHO found itself manoeuvring between the Soviet led Communist bloc and the US. Later, through the 1990s and early-2000s, the WHO was embroiled in a ‘North-South’ debate over pharmaceuticals, intellectual property rights and access to medicine.

It is equally clear that shaping the international health response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is one more front in the shifting sands of global power 

China’s growing clout in international organisations is creating new fault lines in global politics, and the WHO has been an early frontline victim. Remember, the WHO, then led by Margret Chan, was one of the first international institutions to have signed an MoU with China to advance health priorities under the contested Belt and Road Initiative. Chan, a Chinese-Canadian, has strong links to the Mainland. Her successor, the Ethiopian politician Tedros, was also seen as a Chinese-backed candidate, a view that recent weeks have only reinforced.

Although the outbreak of the novel coronavirus may bear many resemblances to the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, China’s response and that of the international community do not. During the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, the WHO had strongly criticised China’s opaque data practices and delayed efforts at international cooperation. Subsequently China fired its Health Minister and the Mayor of Beijing in a rare public admission of the early errors it had made.

At that time, China officially disclosed over 1,800 infections and nearly 80 deaths. Today, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 persons and killed over 3,000 individuals in China alone. Yet, China has not only attempted to censor all official accounts of its early failings but has also employed an overt global disinformation campaign, trying to pinpoint the source of the outbreak as the US or Europe.

The WHO’s overt deference to China’s interests despite this behaviour should be an immediate warning sign to democracies around the world. Over the past decade, Beijing has steadily filled the vacuum in international institutions resulting from the Western democracies, especially the US, cutting funding and participation in these institutions. India has lost battles to China as well—most recently withdrawing its nominee for the Food and Agricultural Organization facing inevitable defeat at the hands of China’s candidate.  It is an irony of our times that the world’s most potent authoritarian state heads over a quarter of all specialised agencies in the UN, ostensibly the centrepiece of the international liberal order.

The WHO’s overt deference to China’s interests despite this behaviour should be an immediate warning sign to democracies around the world. Over the past decade, Beijing has steadily filled the vacuum in international institutions resulting from the Western democracies, especially the US, cutting funding and participation in these institutions

Belatedly, the free world has begun to hit back. The recent victory of the Singaporean candidate in elections to appoint the new director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization was a setback to Chinese attempts to capture a prized regulatory and norm-setting institution. Will the WHO be the next battleground? To prevent #ViralGlobalisation it must.

 

#Covid19: Made in China pandemic

WHO, Medicines, Pandemic, COVID, Coronavirus, WTO, World Order, Economic System, Geoeoconomics
Getty

Ever since he assumed the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping has repeatedly announced the Middle Kingdom’s intention to occupy a position of global influence by the middle of the century. Over the past eight years, China has steadily manouevered itself into leadership positions in international institutions, has deepened its stranglehold over global supply chains and has animated old and new geopolitical conflicts. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan and China’s domestic and international response to this pandemic has forced the world to confront the grim realities of Chinese leadership.

Research indicates that had China taken proactive measures to contain and suppress the pandemic earlier in December 2019, the number of #Covid19 cases could have been mitigated by up to 95 per cent. We now know that the opposite happened: local authorities in China suppressed information about the outbreak, even destroying proof of the virus sometime in December. Official censors scrubbed social media posts from medical professionals warning of a new “SARS-like” disease. And as late as mid-January, Chinese authorities denied evidence of any community transmission, allowing the lunar new year celebrations to proceed despite having known about it for at least a month.

As a political regime centred around the absolute inviolability of the Communist Party, China’s domestic reaction should surprise nobody. In many ways, the CPC’s international response reflected the idiosyncrasies of its domestic politics. China delayed notifying the WHO and in permitting it to inspect the situation in Wuhan; released vital genetic information to the international community a full week after it was isolated; and allowed millions of individuals from Wuhan to leave the city unscreened, many of whom then travelled the world. Countries which received much of that traffic are now grappling with more deaths than they can handle.

We know that China was certainly aware of the scale of the health crisis: in the early days of the outbreak, General Secretary Xi was conspicuously missing from state media reports, despite claiming to have addressed the Party about the outbreak in early-January. This would have happened only because of the uncertainty surrounding China’s efforts to contain the virus.  He was made the focal point of the response after his ‘Ides of March’ visit to Wuhan when the CPC was confident that it had the situation under control.

On cue, China’s international response changed gears. The prevailing theme that now dominates Beijing’s state-controlled media is one of China “buying time” for the international community to react—a claim that attempts to deflect attention from the CPC’s and the Chinese State’s failings. Laughably, Chinese officials now appear to be engaged in an authorized and concerted misinformation campaign, with several diplomats and even the MFA spokesperson ludicrously claiming that the US Army was responsible for smuggling the ‘Virus’ into Wuhan.

Beijing’s industrial prowess and control over critical supply chains, including medical supplies, have also added a geo-economic element to the pandemic. It has raced to be seen as providing public goods when other powers are faltering. Like the proverbial Fifth Horseman who is hard to please, past experience informs us, however, that aid and largesse from China is highly contingent on limiting criticism of China and refraining from trying to hold it accountable, leave alone answerable for its many sins of omission and commission. The Belt and Road formula has gone viral – literally.

Beijing’s industrial prowess and control over critical supply chains, including medical supplies, have also added a geo-economic element to the pandemic. It has raced to be seen as providing public goods when other powers are faltering.

To put this in context of the Covid19 outbreak, China’s ambassador to the Philippines threatened to retaliate by cutting imports if Manila did not lift its travel ban in early-February, despite an overwhelming global consensus that restricting travel would contain the spread of the virus. In March, a Xinhua editorial loudly hinted that China may withhold life-saving medical supply chain ingredients from the US amidst the deadly outbreak should political tensions rise.

Barely three months into a new decade, the international community is now confronted by a prolonged public health emergency whose contours and impact are not even vaguely known at the moment. An equally paralysing and fearful consequence is the global economic slowdown as a direct result of China’s irresponsible domestic and international behaviour. A less than inspiring response to the outbreak in the US and much of Europe will likely whitewash China’s offences against the international community in the short term, but the long term implications will last.

After China’s entry into the WTO, scholars asked whether China would be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. While the answer has been definitely negative for some time now, China remains well-positioned to claim leadership over the forces of globalisation and the norms and institutions to manage a new wave of connectivity. The right question to ask now is: Can China be a responsible hegemon?

After China’s entry into the WTO, scholars asked whether China would be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. While the answer has been definitely negative for some time now, China remains well-positioned to claim leadership over the forces of globalisation and the norms and institutions to manage a new wave of connectivity.

The US was confronted with this question as well in the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War. The international order Washington built and sustained with its allies was certainly not equitable or just. But it was organised around the basis that the common interests of the American people were dependent on the well-being of the international community. It could be argued that the US too was a hegemon and the world lived under American hegemony. Yet it was an accountable hegemon, constrained by American democratic traditions and open to corrective pressure at home and abroad. Its democracy in the words of some was allowed to be penetrated by others including foreign interests and its policies were shaped and sometimes gamed by external actors who could lobby the Congress, engage with its media and be part of the academic and research ecosystems.

China’s global interests, like its domestic interests, stem from a primal survival instinct: preserving the legitimacy, upholding the authority and ensuring the continuity of the omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent Communist Party. The global outbreak of the made in China novel coronavirus irrefutably demonstrates that the CPC is more than willing to endanger the health of the international community to promote Beijing’s irresponsible hegemony.

As the world irrevocably drifts towards isolationism as an instrument of survival and the Iron Curtain makes a reappearance rebranded as ‘Lockdown’, there couldn’t be a more dismal and grim start to a decade that will increasingly be defined by China’s amoral leadership.

An old scourge in a new, uncertain age

Uncertainties will mutate for a long time.

 covid, covid-19, coronavirus, Pandemic, WHO, Health, Xi Jinping
Getty

Having dawdled for weeks, the WHO has finally declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Given that it is too soon to assess how well global institutions and governments have responded to the emerging public health challenge, that discussion is best left for another day. For the moment, three facets of COVID-19 merit comment.

First, we are witnessing what can be described as an “infodemic.” Thanks to social media platforms and an attention-hungry mainstream media, there is an overflow of (mis)information about COVID-19. For many, it can be hard to determine what is true and what is false since exaggeration is the new normal. The relatively restrained public discourse over HIV when it first made its appearance stands out in sharp contrast.

Second, the COVID-19 outbreak proves again that history tends to repeat itself. This is not the first time a killer virus has traveled along connected networks. Nor is it the first time that travelers have carried a virus. Colonial settlers carried gonorrhea, smallpox, and other diseases to the New World. Ships carried plague-infested rodents to foreign shores. Given China’s central role in the global economy and the outward flow of its tourists and labor through the Belt and Road Initiative, what would have once been a local epidemic, like the 2003 SARS outbreak, is now a global health crisis.

Third, COVID-19 has added a twist to emerging political realities. Will China reconsider its ruler-for-life decision or has Chinese President Xi Jinping demonstrated the benefit of opting for a reliable authoritarian system? Will American elections be altered by the national outbreak response and its seemingly significant economic implications? Will the EU be forced to rethink its immigration policy? As China provides aid to Italy and other affected countries, will we see a red dawn of another hue? These uncertainties will mutate for a long time even after the macabre march of the virus has been contained, if not halted.


This commentary originally appeared in Council of Councils — The Council on Foreign Relations.