While the world is engaged in a war against the coronavirus, another global confrontation is picking up pace—between the US-led West and China. The confrontation has been triggered by the suspicion in the US and some other countries such as the UK and Germany that China played dirty and let the deadly disease sweep across the globe to cause an unprecedented catastrophe. The US went to the extent of saying that the virus had originated in a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan, implying that it was not a natural catastrophe but manmade.
Underlying the brewing war are apprehensions in the US, Europe and other countries that the Covid-19 crisis could be used by China to spread its economic and military tentacles across the globe, and thus, possibly, create a new world order.
The concern about Chinese expansion comes against the backdrop of the plummeting economies of the US and other western powers, with projections of deep recession in the near future. US President Donald Trump, who has been describing Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus”, recently said he was convinced that it originated in a lab in Wuhan. On April 23, he said: “We were attacked. This was an attack. This wasn’t just the flu by the way.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo too said there was “enormous evidence” to show that the coronavirus originated in a lab in China. The Trump administration has reportedly tasked American spies with finding details about the origins of the virus. Trump has said he was looking at different options in terms of consequences for China. “I can do a lot,” he warned. Some individual states of the US have already filed lawsuits against China.
Amid the growing chorus that compensation should be demanded from China, Trump has cancelled a mega trade deal with it and vowed to impose new tariffs on Chinese goods. Demands for punishing China and seeking compensation surfaced in the UK too, while Germany’s largest tabloid newspaper, Bild, asked it to foot a bill of approximately 150 billion euros owing to the losses the country suffered due to corona. The UK is reportedly planning to punish China and one way of doing so could be scrapping of the 5G programme of Chinese company Huawei, according to reports.
China finally hit back at the US, which is leading the attack against it, saying its politicians are “lying through their teeth”. The war between the two countries has gone to such an extent that a summit of G20 leaders to discuss the coronavirus crisis, slated for April 24, was cancelled at the 11th hour.
Besides these countries, several other nations such as Spain, the Netherlands and Slovakia are also unhappy with China over defective medical equipment supplied by it, including testing kits and masks. White House Trade Advisor Peter Navarro too said that China had sent low-quality and even counterfeit antibody testing kits to the US. He accused China of “profiteering” from the pandemic by selling “fake” kits.
India, which too has been at the receiving end over the testing kits imported from China, has so far been a mute spectator to the growing war between the West and China. The government has, however, halted the use of these kits after complaints from various places.
Analysts feel that the underlying cause of the US anger against China might be the fear that Beijing could use the pandemic to expand its prowess across the globe. The possibility of a new world order emerging post-corona crisis cannot be ruled out, they feel.
The crisis has already crippled the economically powerful West and the condition of the developed nations is only worsening by the day. Lockdowns and shutdowns are shattering economies, even those of the most powerful. Almost all countries, including the US, are projected to go into recession because of the collapse of businesses.
Reflecting the worries, Trump recently said the US had the greatest economy in the history of the world, but now it was in a shambles due to the shutdown. Unemployment in the US has risen to worrying proportions, with one in every six American workers finding themselves jobless. To tide over the crisis, the House of Representatives has passed a bailout package of $500 billion.
Ironically, while most of the world is under lockdown, China, where the coronavirus emerged, has restarted normal activities. There are fears now that it could expand its economic prowess, with its companies taking over distressed firms across the world.
European Union Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan has warned that the “strategic assets” of the 27-nation bloc are vulnerable to acquisitions from abroad a veiled reference to China and pressed for tightening rules for foreign takeover bids. Countries such as Australia, Germany, and the Czech Republic have already done so.
In India, the government rushed to amend FDI rules on April 17 to prevent “opportunistic” takeover of its companies by firms of countries with which it shares borders, including China. An order issued by the commerce and industry ministry said: “The government has reviewed the extant foreign direct investment policy for curbing opportunistic takeovers/acquisitions of Indian companies due to the current Covid-19 pandemic.” It said any change in beneficial ownership will also require government approval.
The Indian government’s move rubbed China the wrong way. Reacting strongly, the Chinese embassy in Delhi said the move was not in line with India’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other multilateral commitments. A statement from it a day later said: “The barriers set by the Indian side for investors from specific countries violate WTO’s principle of non-discrimination and go against the general trend of liberalisation and facilitation of trade and investment.”
Analysts feel that it is not only on the economic front that China will try to expand its footprint now but militarily too. The Chinese military has been overactive in its neighbourhood and beyond. In recent weeks, a number of Chinese naval and air intrusions have been noticed in Taiwan and Japan. In early February, PLA fighter jets and bombers made sorties around Taiwan, whose airforce had to scramble its own fighters to shadow the Chinese aircraft. In a tweet, Taiwan’s foreign affairs ministry asked China to stop threatening Taiwan militarily, and instead focus on the coronavirus. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said that “provocations by PLA warships and planes which have frequented the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait in recent years to seek unification through military force gravely undermine the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and heighten regional tensions”.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R Clarke Cooper also slammed China for the manoeuvres. “It was completely inappropriate of China to take such an aggressive act,” he said. “There should be responsible behaviour to make sure that the region is free and open not just for navigation but also for trade and for relationships. Such coercive, aggressive behaviour is counter to having a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
However, China’s air intrusions into Taiwan continued in March and April. These aircraft came close to Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. Taiwan’s Ministry of Defence said it had to respond to Chinese fighters which flew above the waters southwest of Taiwan, conducting night time exercises. “After our air reconnaissance and patrol aircraft responded appropriately, and broadcast (an order) to drive them away, the communist aircraft flew away from our Air Defense Identification Zone,” it added. Towards the end of March, Taiwan again stated that there were as many as four “targeted” drills by China around Taiwan, which are “concrete evidence of provocations and threats”.
China’s hostility towards Taiwan is not new. But the latest military actions come against the backdrop of Taiwan seeking to expose China over the coronavirus crisis. Taiwan has often said that it had written an email to the WHO on December 31, alerting it about the virus being detected in mainland China and the possibility of it being transmitted from human to human. But WHO, based on information provided by China, remained in denial mode.
It was on January 13 that the WHO reported that a person in Thailand, who had visited Wuhan, was afflicted with the novel coronavirus, a strain that had not been previously identified in humans. “WHO reiterates that it is essential that investigations of the novel coronavirus continue in China to identify the source of the outbreak and any animal reservoirs or intermediate hosts,” the global health body tweeted that day.
At the same time, WHO warned that the possibility of novel coronavirus cases being identified in other countries was not unexpected and called for “active monitoring and preparedness” in other countries. It also issued guidance on how to detect and treat persons infected with the virus. The next day, WHO said that preliminary investigations conducted by Chinese authorities had found “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the novel coronavirus identified in Wuhan. Six days later, on January 20, the WHO said China confirmed 139 new cases of coronavirus in Wuhan, Beijing and Shenzen. “This is the result of increased searching and testing for 2019-nCoV among people sick with respiratory illness,” the WHO tweeted. All the patients were believed to have visited Wuhan.
On January 22, China confirmed that the deadly virus can be passed from human to human. It stated this while reporting that many people had died and more than 440 had fallen ill due to the virus. One patient was believed to have infected as many as 14 medical staff in one hospital, suggesting the disease could be spread far more easily than previously thought. Coronavirus cases were also detected in Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, and the US, with reports of potential cases in Australia.
The virus spread like wildfire, catching countries, including those with the most modern healthcare infrastructure, off-guard. Europe and the US were especially affected and the catastrophe continues to ravage the world, with no end in sight.
Lead Picture: fmprc.gov.cn