New Delhi – The economic and social disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic are less severe in Japan than in countries that have imposed almost total lockdowns. But the geostrategic fallout from the pandemic is likely to hold major implications for Japan, which is already saddled with a multibillion-dollar bill for the postponed Olympics.
The world, beset by a crisis akin to wartime, will not be the same after the pandemic. Studies later will likely find that the pandemic set in motion higher rates of birth, divorce, obesity, depression, bankruptcy, unemployment, suicide and alcoholism (or heightened withdrawal symptoms where lockdowns blocked liquor sales).
The pandemic’s geopolitical effects, like those from a major war, are expected to be enduring, including altering previously dependable supply chains and reshaping bilateral relationships. The incalculable human and economic toll exacted by the spread of the killer coronavirus from China promises to shake up global geopolitics, including that country’s position in the world.
China faces lasting damage to its image — and possibly to its economic interests. The man-made calamity has fueled an unparalleled global crisis whose costs will continue to mount for weeks to come. But once countries ride out the crisis, there will be a reckoning.
After all, if China had acted promptly and decisively, the COVID-19 outbreak could have been confined to its central Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. Instead it has become a paralyzing global pandemic, sending the world hurtling toward a recession.
As U.S. President Donald Trump has said, “the world is paying a big price” for China’s initial, weeks-long coverup of the COVID-19 outbreak. China is actually a repeat offender because it unleashed in a similar manner the world’s first 21st-century pandemic, SARS.
The Chinese Communist Party has shown again that it cares more about its reputation than the people’s suffering. The CCP treated the COVID-19 outbreak as a political embarrassment rather than a public health emergency. This allowed the virus to spread far and wide before China instituted containment measures.
For the world’s strongest and richest dictatorship, power and control take precedence over everything else, including human lives. The result has been a man-made international calamity that has fueled unparalleled disruptions. This, in turn, has given rise to a popular tagline on social media, “China lied and people died.”
Worse still, a number of countries have been hit by a double whammy: China not only triggered the pandemic but also exported millions of inaccurate test kits that have accentuated the devastation. Multiple nations bought flawed test kits (and substandard face masks for health workers) from China. But nowhere has the impact of such imports been more devastating than in Spain, currently reeling under the world’s second-highest number of coronavirus deaths.
After the crisis is over, the West’s relationship with China is unlikely to go back to normal. Efforts would likely begin to loosen China’s grip on global supply chains. Moves are already afoot in the U.S. Congress to bring manufacture of essential medicines and medical devices back to the United States, which currently relies on China for 97 percent of all its antibiotics.
By accelerating the decoupling of the U.S. economy (and other Western economies) from the Chinese economy, the pandemic’s geopolitical effects could help transform international relations. The pandemic, by removing any doubt that China is America’s principal challenger and threat, could add momentum to the incremental adjustments that have been underway in the U.S.-China economic relationship. Indeed, the entire U.S.-China relationship could change forever.
It is against this background that Beijing has launched a public-relations blitzkrieg, seeking to rebrand itself as the global leader in combating a virus that spread from its own territory. Its rebranding efforts include counter-pandemic aid to developing countries, a pledge to donate $20 million to the World Health Organization, and a claim to have fully contained the coronavirus in its worst-affected areas.
With the help of the CCP’s propaganda organs, Beijing is trying to fashion a narrative that China is an example of how to control the spread of COVID-19. In fact, like the arsonist offering to extinguish the fire it started, China is now seeking to help other countries combat a dangerous pathogen that ran amok because of its gross negligence.
Beijing’s proactive attempt to rewrite the history of the pandemic, even as much of the world grapples with its escalating consequences, highlights its well-oiled propaganda machine. That machine has also been churning out unfounded conspiracy theories, including blaming the U.S. for the virus.
To be sure, fabrications and disinformation are integral to CCP’s “three wars” doctrine, based on three mutually reinforcing strategies: psychological warfare, public opinion warfare and legal warfare. China’s circulation of disinformation thus should come as no surprise.
In fact, having spawned the global crisis, China is now planning to exploit the financial and other disruptions. It is hoping to game the situation in order to gain greater technological and industrial advantage. But the international anger over its role in triggering the pandemic is likely to frustrate its plans.
It will not be easy for China to regain the trust of the world. Today, “social distancing” has become the catchphrase at the individual level to escape the new disease. But as countries in the post-crisis period seek to immunize themselves from the risks of dependence on Beijing, political and economic distancing from China, done subtly, could become the new normal.
In fact, the pandemic’s lesson for many countries is that, in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, secrecy and obfuscation are antithetical to globalization and international security. Transparency is essential to make us all safer.
One country’s authoritarianism and opacity have contributed to spiraling coronavirus infections and deaths, and mammoth economic losses across the world. China must fundamentally reform and embrace transparency or face lasting censure for complicity in the pandemic.
The pandemic has also dented the World Health Organization’s credibility. Instead of providing global health leadership, the WHO under Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — an Ethiopian politician who became the agency’s first non-physician chief in 2017 — has become part of the problem.
Tedros, who uses his first name, was accused of covering up three cholera epidemics while serving as his country’s health minister. But who could have imagined that, as the WHO chief, he would do something even worse — lend a helping hand to China’s initial COVID-19 coverup? Among other things, he delayed acknowledging COVID-19’s human-to-human transmission until China did so; warned that countries suspending flights to or from China risked increasing “fear and stigma”; and waited inordinately long before declaring a pandemic on March 11.
To restore its credibility, the WHO needs fresh leadership that can end the overt politicization of international health and demonstrate an ability to independently coordinate international health policy. But Tedros, whose term ends in mid-2022, is unlikely to quit.
Never before have transnational lockdowns confined billions of people to their homes for weeks, as if they were under house arrest. The pandemic is truly more global in its impacts than either of the two world wars, affecting people everywhere. But like the world wars, this once-in-a-century pandemic is a defining moment that promises to introduce profound changes in societies and economies.
If it upends the international order as we know it, China’s role will be the principal trigger.
Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.