Man has spent so long fearing the power of the atom, he has forgotten the deadly power of the petri dish.
The long predicted pandemic has finally emerged to plague humanity. Whether it was natural or accidental or artificially made – may be time will tell. Whatever the final outcomes of a very fluid and dynamic situation, the scale of the tragedy portends greater political setbacks for China, which shoulders the responsibility for this ghastly situation. There will be challenges too for the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union. However for Russian, India and Taiwan the future looks promising as they edge toward recovery.
It is impossible to put an exact number on the losses, both human and financial. Due to both the quirks of statistical undercounting (deaths in the community around the world, as opposed to in hospital) and the fact that we are still only just beginning to understand the scale of economic setbacks. What is clear however is that at the end of a global pandemic where every human being has felt his or her life to be under some level of threat, there will be a strong public call for accountability and change. Hostility to China is likely to be high. While the consensus at this stage is that coronavirus could have been effectively contained earlier had the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not been so foolish as to try and cover up the nascent outbreak. Worse still, the Chinese government allowed thousands of people to fly out of Wuhan city, the centre of the outbreak, for their Chinese New Year holiday. Questions will be asked by governments across the world whether this was a deliberate act. The failure of Chinese coronavirus detection kits and personal protection equipment (PPE) around the world will only further heighten suspicion. This will have serious political and economic consequences for Beijing.
The Chinese government is already being sued by the US state of Missouri, with others likely to follow. It is not unlikely that Chinese officials could find themselves in the dock at the International Criminal Court for gross criminal negligence at the least. I am no law expert but it follows that Beijing is now vulnerable to hundreds of billions, if not trillions, in damages from countries around the globe. Further denial and obfuscation by the CCP are likely to make matters worse, potentially leading to global economic sanctions on China. There will be dedicated efforts by global intelligence agencies to ascertain the exact origin of the virus, whether it really came from the so-called ‘wet markets’ where all kinds of wild animals including bats are eaten, or whether it was some hybrid product of a Chinese lab. It is understood that there are many such labs in Wuhan. Even if the virus was an accidental release, China will still be liable and it will only make matters worse by obfuscation and denial. The worst case political scenario for China is comprehensive political change at the international level, with Beijing losing its UN Security Council seat. There is also a real possibility of a Great Power confrontation as a recovering US Navy enters the fray against increasingly aggressive Chinese warships in the Pacific. The world is in for interesting times.
The UK and US have both suffered significant economic losses, as well as the deaths of tens of thousands of their people. The British strategy of outreach to China to fuel domestic economic growth is in tatters. Huawei will no longer be tolerated as part of 5G infrastructure in the UK. Any engagement with China will likely create a significant public backlash, although given simmering feelings at the top of British government it is unlikely that there will be any further outreach. Given the extant economic challenges posed by Brexit, the coronavirus crisis was the last thing that it needed. Nonetheless slow recovery will happen as Britain develops alternative trade ties around the world. The European Union, which almost disappeared from the radar in the political sense during the crisis, will have some explaining to do once things are back to normal. Will it survive, as it was never a truly united entity? The US however will come out stronger after a period of pain, as more manufacturing comes back home from China. It also retains important military technological leads over China, and is drawing closer to India even as it strengths traditional partnerships with Japan and Australia. It will be a formidable challenge for China.
The winners as I see it are India, Russia and Taiwan. India has done superbly in containing the coronavirus, keeping infections low and bending the curve in many states, in spite of less developed medical care in many areas. India’s leadership under Narendra Modi has shown itself to be flexible and efficient. The rapid development of infrastructure in India, the fifth largest economy, is sufficient to support a large manufacturing ecosystem. It is likely to attract a vast amount of investment as manufacturers exit China in droves. Finally Delhi is seen as the natural counterweight to China as the country with the fastest growth rate, and a large and increasingly sophisticated military. It is already in an alliance with France to counter China and is collaborating with the United States in security. When the economic shift from China happens post-Covid, India will be the greater beneficiary.
Russia and Taiwan will gain because of the geopolitics of the situation. Russia is a major military power, with the capability to swing between China and the West. Can the West and Russia abandon their mutual dislike and suspicion in the face of a greater threat from Beijing? Much will hinge on that question in the 21st century. Taiwan now has far greater diplomatic support, both formal and informal than it has had in previously. It was Taiwan that tried to warn the world about Covid in December 2019. Had the world listened to Taiwan then, things might not have been so bad. It is highly likely that there could be a formal push for Taiwanese independence from Beijing.
The coronavirus pandemic heralds a time of great political, social and economic change. This may involve great upheaval, but it will ultimately be for the better. The process of holding China to account and the rise of India are positives for democracy and liberalism across the globe.