There is a neck and neck contest between two connected but disparate debates that link China and Covid-19. The first one, with China in the red corner and almost the whole of the rest of the world in the blue one, concerns the origin of the Coronavirus. China is using all its autocratic might and harsh domination of its domestic social media on the one hand, and all its diplomatic and not so diplomatic machinations on the other, to convince its own populace and the global community that the Wuhan P-4 laboratory was not where the virus originated. The second debate focuses on whether, once the Covid-19 crisis phase is over, China will come out stronger than before it all started, or will it take a beating geopolitically. With China an established inimical neighbor and an unambiguous economic rival, India stalks this poser with self-centered interest.
The Corona origin debate is vitriolic and has US and China locking horns. Both these nations were, even before Covid-19 appeared, battling it out on the economic front which was a part of the bigger geopolitical game being played out in Asia. Their war of words and brinkmanship from their trade wars has glided into the Covid-19 arena. China appears to have contained the spread of the virus reasonably well while, in contrast, the US (and Western Europe led by Italy and Spain) are paying the price of complacency and a misplaced sense of invincibility. China’s ceaseless rhetoric denying culpability (for developing the virus as a bio-weapon and for intentionally keeping a veil over its human to human transmissibility during the initial phase) is supplemented by sub-liminal insinuations that its anti-Covid-19 campaign was an unequivocal success while democratic governance models were not proving effective in combating the pandemic.
Self-evidently, China is making all efforts and noises to turn the pandemic into an opportunity for its rise in the world polity; the unfortunate progression of events which have led to a massive setback for US provide supplemental grist to the mill that sees China emerging as the world leader once the world has seen the last of Covid-19. It is hard to predict with a high degree of accuracy which of the two — China and US — will be able to shrug off the debilitating after effects of Covid-19 and bounce back faster. Opinion is divided on the subject but some dynamics deserve attention.
The elemental key to China’s future lies in how successfully it counters the economic downturn that Covid-19 has brought to China (and indeed the whole world). If we were to hark back to the beginning of this year, the Chinese affliction with Covid-19 had spawned predictions boding ill for China, the Chinese Communist Party and for President Xi Jinping. As Covid-19 unfolded, China began to get a grip on itself while in the US and Europe things went clearly out of control. Understandably, a section of the narrative began to swing towards the other end of the pendulum, predicting that all other nations would suffer catastrophic economic impairment while China would emerge on the top of the world. The comparative recuperative capacities of China and others (especially US) are an area of uncertainty as there are no precedents to Covid-19.
China has been making some overtures towards India in recent months since India has not gone overboard in denouncing China over the virus. It ignored a recent Pakistani request to initiate a discussion in the UN Security Council on Kashmir, and the India-China territorial disputes are on the back burner as no new incident has erupted over the last few weeks. The Alibaba Foundation had even gifted some masks, ventilators and PPEs to India, which could not have been done without the blessings of the state. However, for India, the opportunity is clear and that is to align with the US which sees India as an ally in its rivalry with China.
Business confidence in China is certainly taking a beating — the most prominent symptom being the Japanese decision to pull out all manufacturing units from China. How many of the withdrawing or wavering foreign industries can be weaned away from China to neighbouring and equally attractive Indian ecosystems will, in the final analysis, indicate how much India benefited from China’s geopolitical setback.
China has not shown any let up on its geopolitical ambitions, most pertinently defined by the Belt and Road Initiative which, incidentally is now looking at the Arctic Region — not only for the benefits from the subterranean munificence of the region but also as slowly melting ice in the region presents the possibility of exploiting trans-Arctic maritime traffic. A substantial 46% of China’s GDP is shipping dependent and cutting through the Arctic will reduce distances on some routes by thousands of kilometers. Many of China’s iterations and actions display its burning ambition to come out at the top of the world. While that posture cannot be faulted, it is likely to prevent China from a cooperative and collaborative approach to dealing with Covid-19 and its aftermath. Its adversarial approach towards the US is unlikely to lead to either of them emerging a clear winner but, considering all the possible scenarios for the next couple of years, India’s geopolitical interests would be best served by reaching out to the olive branch extended by the US.
Author: Gp Capt AK Sachdev (Retd)
The Author has commanded an operational IAF station in the North during Op Parakram. He was a Senior Research Fellow in Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi and has published a book, and numerous academic and aviation related articles.