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Chinese dream and the post-Covid world order

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By: Mihir Bholey

The actual post-mortem of Covid-19 pandemic leading to the global disaster will be possible once it has been contained. As of now the whole world is struggling for survival amidst uncertainty and panic. The overriding distrust for China particularly in the west and its own characteristic reticence in maintaining transparency has given birth to conspiracy theories as well which it’s finding hard to counter. By now the world knows that the virus was first detected in Wuhan in 2019 but China did not disclose it for months. The information was tightly controlled, assistance form CDC was refused and even WHO had been given limited access. Shockwaves and anger spread when Dr. Li Wenliang, the young whistle-blower died of Covid-19. Chinese government had accused him for spreading rumour and was silenced. Amidst all this, the death toll kept rising behind the iron curtain. Even today nobody knows the actual figures of infected people, casualty and how China managed to control it. 

However, the good news is by mid-March 2020 China reported negative about fresh cases of domestic transmission in Wuhan. If visuals on Chinese TV channels are to be believed, Wuhan seems to be up and running while the US, Italy, Spain, France, UK and many other developed nations look awfully helpless, tactically confused and emotionally traumatized. Japan has announced national emergency. While the world is struggling China is sending all well signal and has accelerated its diplomatic outreach to woo affected nations in Europe, Asia and Africa with its generous offer of aid to fight the pandemic.

But many western analysts are taking China’s overture with a pinch of salt. Elisabeth Braw of the Royal United Services Institute questions the motive of China (and Russia too) and doesn’t see any altruism in it. She describes both Russia and China as “Bad Samaritans” using their ostensible assistance for narrow geopolitical gain. Kurt Campbell, former US Assistant Secretary of State and Rush Doshi, Director of Brookings Institution’s China Strategy Initiative believe Beijing is trying to turn its early success in controlling Covid-19 into a larger narrative for the world and thereby trying to cover up its initial mismanagement. China has cleverly leveraged this adversity to its economic and diplomatic advantage. It’s making new friends, creating goodwill among European nations by presenting itself as a good Samaritan and eventually trying to reinforce its own global stature.

Consequently, helpless Italy instead of looking up to EU finds its saviour in China. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, becomes so overwhelmed with Chinese offer of help that he says: “Serbia mustn’t forget this: China will be our friends for many centuries and millennia to come.” He even calls European solidarity a ‘fairy tale.’ In a telephonic conversation President Xi Jinping assures Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of all possible help to fight the pandemic and the same day medical aid supplied by China’s Alibaba Group Holding arrives at Spain’s Zaragoza Airport. What more traumatized nations would look for? Chinese embassy loses no time in communicating on Twitter their benevolent overtures. 

Estonia, another member of the EU has also been overwhelmed by China with its largess to fight Covid-19. In the game of winning hearts and minds China seems to be ahead of all – EU, US, Russia, G-7 and G-20 at least for now. It’s also trying to make Europe and the world believe that looking at China as a threat is a cold war mindset and has no place in the new world order. Has China’s “affirmative nationalism” rooted in President Xi Jinping concept of the “Chinese Dream” become the new reality of global geopolitics? Will this pandemic give China the opportunity to dislodge the US from its position of global pre-eminence? 

Compared to China’s bilateral diplomatic overdrive, India’s response to the crisis has been measured and multilateral. It first woke up SAARC from its hibernation and called upon the member states to chalk out the strategy together to fight the pandemic in the region. To combat it at the global scale Prime Minister Modi also nudged the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to call an extraordinary virtual meeting of G-20 nations. The idea was to evolve “a coordinated response” to tackle the pandemic and its “human and economic implications“. It resulted in World Bank Group’s willingness to deploy US$160 billion to help member countries respond to the pandemic over the next 15 months. This help according to the World Bank will facilitate countries like India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Haiti and Mongolia among other in bringing more medical staff onboard and train them deliver emergency care diligently. India’s  method was far more democratic, transparent and humane as compared to China’s sledgehammer approach. 

Nevertheless, the optics of China’s geopolitics has given a new spin to the things. There’s also a strong feeling as if China is trying to show off its capability of managing such global crises better than the US and other developed nations. It’s taking the opportunity to demonstrate that it has better strategy, economic prowess and scientific wherewithal. In the west Italy, UK, US  all faltered in putting up timely response and fell one by one. With over 307,318 confirmed cases and growing, over 8,358 deaths, US has surpassed China. As compared to China, US, the superpower of the world seems awfully unprepared and vulnerable in the face of the crisis. Trump’s decision to go alone has even exposed America’s inability to create global partnership for handling crisis of an international scale. Situation is so precarious that US had to approach Russia for ventilators. 

Is China going to replace the US from its position of global pre-eminence and emerge as the new superpower? Will it create a new world order under its leadership? While these questions may not  be entirely baseless to contemplate, but it’s be too early to predict anything. At the moment world is more concerned with combating this pandemic, consequent global poverty and economic slowdown. At  its worst it will leave 35 million people in poverty including 25 million in China alone. World Bank’s baseline forecast for the regional growth of East Asia predicts a 2.1 percent slowdown in the current year compared to estimated growth of 5.8 percent in 2019. 

Nevertheless, Covid-19 pandemic has surely woken up the world about its lopsided economic integration and over-dependence on China besides the flip side of economic globalization. Japan has already announced $2.2 billion package to relocate its corporation out of China. They can either set up at home or spread all over southeast Asia. Experience tells us existing global orders do not change overnight. Initially they change slowly and then change all of a sudden. It will be interesting to see how the global geopolitics realigns itself to face China’s assertive nationalism and its global ambitions. Post-Covid geopolitical realignment will decide whether China will coexist as a benign neighbourhood or the new superpower capable of defining the rules of engagement on its own terms. 

(Author is a Senior Faculty of Science and Liberal Arts at National Institute of Design)

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