How coronavirus has stirred a new Cold War

The Covid-19 pandemic has set the stage for a long-term geopolitical conflict between China and the United States-led Western alliance.

 |  4-minute read |   02-05-2020
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A new Cold War is brewing. The Covid-19 pandemic has set the stage for a long-term geopolitical conflict between China and the United States-led Western alliance. The US and Western Europe have suffered disproportionally in the global pandemic. Of over 2,35,000 deaths due to Covid-19, more than 1,70,000 have taken place in just five Western countries; the US, Italy, Spain, France and Britain. Three of those countries are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC); four are members of the G7.

The Wuhan riddle

China has recovered fastest from the pandemic. Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated, was declared Covidfree on Monday, April 27. The second wave of infections expected to run through China has not been as lethal as Beijing had feared. Meanwhile, the US continues to reel under the virus. Over 60,000 Americans have died due to Covid-19, twenty times the number who perished in the 9/11terror attack on New York and Washington in 2001. China has lost less than 5,000 lives though no one believes the figures officially put out by Beijing. The real death toll in China from Covid-19 may never be publicly known though it is likely to be many multiples of the official number. Beijing has for several years been the neighbourhood bully. It forced the Philippines to withdraw its case against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for violating its territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea. It pressurised the University of Queensland to seek the expulsion of an anti-China Australian student Drew Pavlou. Earlier this week, the Australian government sought an inquiry to determine precisely how the coronavirus originated in Wuhan.

Stung to the quick, China warned Australia that Chinese consumers may stop buying AusAustralian products "in revenge". China is Australia's biggest trading partner and buys a third of Australia's exports. Australia, home to lakhs of Chinese migrants and recipient of significant Chinese investment, reacted coldly to China's threats. Responding to Beijing's warning over Australia's demand for an independent inquiry into the source of Covid-19, Canberra was unusually blunt. It cautioned China against any threats of "economic coercion". Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the country had made a "principled call" for an independent review of the coronavirus outbreak. He added: "We reject any suggestion that economic coercion is an appropriate response to a call for such an assessment." In light of China's refusal to allow neutral international inspectors entry into Wuhan to independently examine the circumstances that led to the worst global pandemic in over a century, the belief that Beijing is engaging in a cover-up has grown. The consequences will be both geo-economic and geopolitical.

China vs the world

At last count, over 50 foreign companies operating in China have decided to relocate manufacturing and global supply chain units to Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. Only three firms have reportedly chosen to relocate to India due to its red tape, over-regulation and whimsical judiciary. The bigger problem for China is geopolitical. Last year, Beijing was set to challenge the US-led Western alliance for global leadership. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was establishing a new Silk Route from Asia to Europe, through the energy-rich Middle East and sweeping across Africa. Those plans are in deep freeze. Chinese workers, already accused of racism and high-handedness at BRI infrastructure projects in several African countries, are now shunned because of the stigma of Covid-19.

Big clash likely

Meanwhile Mike Pompeo, America's Secretary of State and a former director of the CIA, laid out the challenge to China in clear terms: "We need to hold accountable the parties responsible for the deaths here in the United States and the enormous economic costs that have been posed on the US. We are also working with (other) countries to make sure they understand that this was in fact a virus that originated in Wuhan, China, that the Chinese government knew about this certainly by December of 2019...and that they (China) failed to comply with their most fundamental obligations as a nation, and importantly, too failed to comply with the international health regulations of the World Health Organisation and then did a lot of things to cover that up." India remains on the sidelines watching the new geopolitical contest between China and the West unfold. It has trod a neutral line, focusing on controlling the pandemic at home. On Monday, May 4, the unprecedented 40-day lockdown will be relaxed in nonhotspot zones. The economy will take a big hit in the April-June 2020 quarter, contracting for the first time in decades. India's extended lockdown - among the harshest globally - has kept the death toll at around 1,000 compared to America's 60,000. But the damage done to the economy and jobs, causing widespread malnutrition and hunger among the poor, could have caused many more deaths not classified as being due to Covid-19. History will judge whether India got the balance right between an extended lockdown and a crippled economy.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor. He is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations

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