From Trade to Virus : China- US Pandemic Geopolitics

Dr. Nalin Kumar Mohapatra
April 14, 2020


Covid-19 is emerging as a major pandemic affecting the world for the last two months. However, the two worst victims, China and the US, also major global powers, instead of addressing the issue are at loggerhead with each other, which is acquiring a geopolitical overtone. This is complicating the adoption of a common response to fight against this global menace. 

The world is currently grappling with the Covid-19 virus, which has brought human life to a halt. The standstill which all the countries are facing today is affecting their socio-political spectrum along with their health care systems. As per a report of the World Health Organisation, 58,620 have been killed by this deadly virus, with 1,093,349 confirmed cases worldwide till April 05, 2020. Because of the pandemic, the Olympic games, which were scheduled to be held in Japan, has been postponed. The leading stock markets are crashing down. It is not only the developing countries that are confronting the recession, but even highly advanced countries like the US, China, Japan, and the EU are facing the economic crisis. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is also envisaging the impact of the same on the global economy. IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva recently outlined the blueprint of the global economy by stating that “For 2020 it is negative, a recession at least as bad as during the global financial crisis or worse, but we expect recovery in 2021“. Recently. World Trade Organisation ( WTO), on its website, added that “The COVID-19 pandemic represents an unprecedented disruption to the global economy and world trade, as production and consumption are scaled back across the globe“. Similarly, the US, which claims itself to be global power both strategically and economically, has exposed itself badly as its health care sector is unable to combat the Covid-19 pandemic with the rapidly rising cases, and the economy is also on the verge of a slowdown. President Donald Trump has also extended the lockdown instructions necessary to combat the crisis until April 30, 2020. An influential academician of United States Stephen Walt from Harvard University has written an interesting piece in Foreign Policy magazine titled “The Death of American Competence”, in which he questions the US preparedness to combat the crisis. He emphasizes that “this epic policy failure will further tarnish the United States’ reputation as a country that knows how to do things effectively.” 

Looking at these above-mentioned narratives, one can state that not only humanity but even global commons are in a state of crisis because of the outbreak of the pandemic. However, a few questions need to be raised: who is responsible for creating this global mess on a wider scale? How is the international community responding to the crisis? Why China, the epicenter of the crisis failed to inform the international community early about the impending virus attack? To what extent is the crisis contributing to a “geopolitical flashpoint” between China and the US? Some of these questions need to be elaborately discussed to get a clearer picture of the crisis. 

The pandemic that we all are confronting today has originated in the city of Wuhan in the month of December 2019 and known as “Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”, ( SARS 2), also known as COVID-19. Initially, it was confined to the city of Wuhan, however being a communicable disease, it spread to Italy and later to Spain ( the most severe hit country by the virus after China), Iran, South Korea, and the US. Given the rapidity of its spread across the globe and severity, the WHO called it a “Pandemic” in March. What policymakers and analysts are questioning now is why China kept the issue of Covid-19 from the international community despite knowing its intensity and fatality. The crisis took a geopolitical turn when US President Trump, while speaking to the journalists called it, “China Virus”. It may be recalled here that even before the pandemic reached to such a scale, one Israeli bioweapon expert Dany Soham was quoted in Washington Times on January 26, 2020, stating that “Certain laboratories in the institute have probably been engaged, in terms of research and development, in Chinese [biological weapons], at least collaterally, yet not as a principal facility of the Chinese BW alignment“.

The view articulated by Soham is gaining wider acceptance, especially in Western countries. Strategic analysts are increasingly questioning China’s role in the whole episode. Grady Means, a columnist for the newspaper The Hill has also echoed the words of Soham. Means says, “Regardless of the source of the coronavirus, it is now a roadmap for future bioterrorism…It represents the perfect asymmetric warfare strategy“. However, a group of scientists from across the world including the US published a paper in the prestigious journal Lancet in its March 2020 issue, where they rejected the theory that Covid-19 is a biological weapon and stated, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin“. Hopefully, this statement issued by a group of scientists will end the “mistrust”, which crept into the relations between China and the US. 

However, looking into the issue from a wider perspective, the Chinese government could have apprised the world public about the virus, when the outbreak occurred in December 2019. As reported by Times Magazine, “Chinese laboratories identified a mystery virus as a highly infectious new pathogen by late December last year, were ordered to stop tests, destroy samples and suppress the news“. Similarly, the Nature Magazine in an issue dated March 17, 2020, has also mentioned that “Wuhan authorities were slow to report cases of the mysterious infection, which delayed measures to contain it“. It has also been alleged that in the aftermath of the outbreak, the Chinese government banned all kinds of discussion over the issue in the popular Chinese social networking site WeChat and suppressed facts.

Another reason why the opposition is growing against China about misinformation apropos the pandemic is that despite being the signatory to all the treaties banning biological weapons, it has a large functional biological weapons complexes, as alleged by The Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The FAS, in its website, highlights that “China is believed to have an advanced chemical warfare program that includes research and development, production and weaponization capabilities. …Chinese forces have conducted defensive CW training and are prepared to operate in a contaminated environment“. One may recall here that a few years ago, when the SARS pandemic broke out, even then, there were reports that it was part of Chinese biological weapon strategy. 

When the Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the BRI strategy in 2013 at Astana, he contextualized the strategy by eulogizing the past. He reminded the gathering that “more than 2,100 years ago, during China’s Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), imperial envoy Zhang Qian was sent to Central Asia twice to open the door to friendly contacts between China and Central Asian countries as well as the transcontinental Silk Road linking East and West, Asia and Europe“. In the post-2013 era, China initiated many such strategic initiatives aimed at connecting China with Asian and European countries (reminiscence of ancient silk road strategy of China), which include constructing railway lines to connect European countries. This, the Chinese policymakers thought, will facilitate the flow of trade and commerce with the European countries. Similar is the case with Asian countries. One may underline here that over the years, although the trade relations flourished, some of these countries developed a growing dependence on China economically. Cheap Chinese products flooded the European and American markets, which affected their domestic industries. This created asymmetric economic and trade dependence on China for these countries. For instance, in the middle of this pandemic, China threatened to stop the supply of essential medicines to the United States, which put Washington on the back foot. Also, as highlighted in the press, China supplied sub-standard face masks to Spain, which the Spanish government rejected. Thus what appears to be a global health crisis could also turn into a geopolitical clash, thus straining international relations. Even at the UN Security Council, which China is chairing, it blocked a discussion on the issue. 

While the world is facing the crisis in the form of this pandemic and “distrust” between the US and China is at its peak, it is India that is providing leadership to the global community. Even on the debate on the issue of whether this pandemic owes its origin to China’s biological weapon program or not, India took a responsible and neutral position. Outlining India’s position on the 45th years of Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), the Ministry of External Affairs stated that “India reiterates the high importance that it has always attached to the BWC as the first global and non- discriminatory disarmament Convention, prohibiting an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. We give a high priority to its universalization and full and effective implementation by all States Parties to it“. This statement itself is a clear indication of the fact that India intends to oppose and favors banning all kinds of overt and covert biological weapon programs. 

At the policy level, India took the lead in bringing countries together to fight the menace of Covid-19, both at the regional level as well as at the international level. Prime Minister Narendra Modi not only held discussions with SAARC countries but also took the initiative to participate in the virtual G-20 Summit. While addressing the Summit, the Prime Minister called upon member countries to 

“strengthen and reform intergovernmental organizations like WHO and work together to reduce economic hardships resulting from COVID-19 particularly for the economically weak“. So also, despite facing the Covid 19 crisis, New Delhi provided assistance to the neighboring countries. The recent UNCTAD report also appreciated the Indian economy when it stated that “Even so, the world economy will go into recession this year with a predicted loss of global income in the trillions of dollars. This will spell serious trouble for developing countries, with the likely exception of China and the possible exception of India“.

This demonstrates India’s resolute fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in a humane manner and without hostility, which has won accolades from many quarters, including the WHO. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is having a catastrophic impact on the entire global community, and none of the countries seem to have dodged the virus. However, the menace can be overcome only through cooperation among all the countries and following international norms. The China-US rivalry in the midst of this global crisis will have negative consequences on the common response to fight against COVID 19. Hopefully, both China and the US will learn lessons from India about how to address the pandemic crisis in a humane manner rather than confront each other to reclaim geopolitical space. At the same time, China will also have to adopt a transparent policy, especially on its biological weapon program, which is generating a lot of apprehensions in the global community. 

*** The author is Assistant Professor, CRCAS, in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India ***