The Geopolitical Impact of Coronavirus: An Opportunity for Beijing to Dispel the Shadow of Deceit Cast by SARS on the International Community:

Tom Layhe is a War Studies student with an interest in China’s grand strategy and the doctrines of terrorism and counterinsurgency, regarding both domestic security and recent western interventions.

 

Allocating special commendations to President Xi, the Chinese authorities were congratulated by President Trump in a tweet that expressed the manner in which the US greatly appreciates their transparency.[1] A prominent Chinese Committee seemed to abide by such principles, correspondingly declaring that:

Whoever deliberately delays or conceals reporting for the sake of their own interests will be forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Dr Michael Ryan further endorsed the massive response of Jinping, whilst the German Health Minister commented on a new China that’s both more efficient and transparent than it’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) predecessor.[2] These collectively indicate a promising moral transition from the government system responsible for concealing the truly epidemic nature of SARS from the international community for over four months, in an act a prominent Chinese journalist – Xu Zhiyuan of the Financial Times – described as China’s ‘9/11’ just seventeen years earlier. Such a development in the Chinese approach to providing global institutions an unaltered clarity regarding incidents of universal apprehension could alter the west’s enduring perception of the People’s Republic as a devious obscurant. However, this optimism appeared short lived as the committee’s aforementioned WeChat comment was deleted amongst leaked social media reports of state censorship merely hours later. Mr Zhiyuan subsequently described himself as being ‘too naïve’ for believing that SARS would have forced China to rethink its governance model, as he reflected on the way in which the current system destroyed ‘the people with integrity, the institutions with credibility, and a society capable of narrating its own stories’.[3]

 

For the many cynical observers that share Mr Zhiyuan’s frustration, a Government expert’s declaration to the state broadcaster that the new disease was both ‘preventable’ and ‘controllable’ falls far too close to China’s prior proclamation that everything regarding the SARS outbreak was ‘under control’ on the 11th of February 2003.[4] This pessimism is conceivably well-founded. As China affirmed that there had been no cases of the virus spreading between humans; a Japanese bus driver – never to have visited China – was confirmed as having contracted the virus after having driven two groups of tourists on vacation from Wuhan.[5] Whilst Xi’s Government provided a figure of 60 confirmed cases, academics at Imperial College London’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis provided an estimation of a figure closer to 1700.[6] When Kyle Hui witnessed his stepmother unforeseeably die of viral pneumonia earlier in January, he proceeded to tell her story on Weibo, accentuating a growing suspicion of the Wuhan administration underreporting the severity of the situation. His post was deleted and a multitude of analogous articles containing the ‘WuhanSARS’ hashtag were similarly buried, stimulating a substantial belief that the Chinese executive was attempting to suppress the reality of the situation once more.[7]

 

The suppression of the implications of the new nCoV-19 strain of coronavirus caused extremely serious short-term ramifications on organisations such as the World Health Organisation, who struggled to determine whether the outbreak was to be classified as a global health emergency and were forced to postpone the decision on the 22nd of January due to a lack of reliable data. Thus, preventing the issuing of a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ (PHEIC) warning that would have generated a legal obligation for states to respond promptly. The failure to determine the virus as such has both inhibited the capacity of the WHO director-general to distribute recommendations to individual states and prevented the galvanization of various nations required for combatting a universal outbreak. This is increasingly paramount in a timeframe that has aggregated a globalised economy and the highly anticipated lunar new year celebrations, that the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) estimate will witness over three billion excursions. Global actors are perceiving an epidemic that doesn’t adhere to the constraints of national borders, in what Orville Schell describes as ‘an apt metaphor for oneworldism’.[8] The arguments of activists like Xu promote an urgency for leaders to act unanimously in prioritising non-traditional security concerns regarding citizens welfare above the unwavering preservation of the state’s international prestige, before the prospect of containment is rendered obsolete. However, the consequences of recent Chinese bureaucracy are in excess of those solely concerning short-term biological containment.

 

The failure of Beijing to accurately cooperate with her global counterparts – in an issue as anodyne as confronting a significant medical emergency – sets a hazardous precedent for future altercations and advances the existence of realpolitik statesmanship. While shifts in strategic concentration towards the South China Sea amidst an escalating trade war precipitate an accumulation of Thucydides-style hegemonic tensions, the complimentary approach President Trump commenced with may soon sour. As every fresh dawn bears further reports of state suppression – in a calamity forecast to linger until late April – the illusion of Chinese transparency with Washington will undoubtedly shatter. Whilst the long-term implications of the disintegration in trust over the virus specifically may not be extremely significant, it will undoubtedly contribute to the amplifying pressure over the forthcoming years.

 

Through an economic lens, the founder of deVere investment group described the outbreak as ‘the number one threat to financial markets’, attributing the impact to the jittery nature of investors caused by the uncertainty surrounding the virus.[9] This has become evident throughout neighbouring economies, as the markets of Tokyo dropped by 0.6 percent and Seoul by over 3, whilst the projections of the Economist’s Intelligence Unit foresaw a reduction in China’s already slowing annual growth by up to one percent. Moreover, the combination of the international travel bans, domestic driving restrictions and significant lack of public travelling – due to the risk of contagious transmission – will inevitably cause a depression in global oil demand. Such an inference was sustained by the head of monetary policy research at Moody’s Analytics, as he described it as a question of ‘by how much?’ rather than whether it would. As regional markets stutter and oil demand falters, consumers will likely adopt risk adverse strategies and – despite the cries of China’s securities regulator to ‘adhere to the concept of long-term investment’ – the subsequent decrease in household expenditure and national output may provoke a Keynesian paradox of thrift amongst East Asia’s economies that could disturb the world’s markets. Whilst Chinese censorship may simply constitute a catalyst to inevitable market volatility, clarity and consistency amongst its announcements would certainly have assisted in containing a financial reverberation.

 

With the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme director insisting that ‘the whole world needs to be on alert’, it is hard to be optimistic for a rapid recovery from the detrimental uncertainty currently paralysing the East Asia economy.[10] The turmoil induced by the permeating pathogen – combined with the consecutive commercial shockwave and potential security ramifications – has already triggered significant geopolitical repercussions, and maintains a significant probability of generating more before an antidote is found. Whilst Xi Jinping described the response of his nation as being ‘open, transparent, responsible’, conduct such as the: investigation of eight Wuhan citizens for spreading rumours; detainment of Honk Kong based journalists for filming the inside of Jinyintan hospital; and threats of incarceration to a Time reporter observing the genesis of the outbreak, suggest that a sceptical perspective of China’s transparency may long outlast the wake of the virus.[11]

 

Citations:

[1] Trump, Donald. Twitter Post. January 24th, 2020, 21:18. URL: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1220818115354923009?s=20

[2] Bloomberg video, ‘Germany Prepared to Deal with Coronavirus, Says Health Minister’, 8:40, January 24th, 2020. URL: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2020-01-24/germany-prepared-to-deal-with-coronavirus-says-health-minister-video

[3] The New York Times, ‘China Silences Critics Over Deadly Virus Outbreak’, January 22nd, 2020. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/22/health/virus-corona.html

[4] BBC, ‘New Coronavirus “preventable and controllable” China says’, January 19th, 2020. URL: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51168333

[5] The Independent. ‘coronavirus: Japan and Germany Confirm Patients Who Caught the Disease Did Not Visit China’, January 28th, 2020, 11:16. URL: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/coronavirus-china-japan-latest-outbreak-bus-driver-wuhan-death-toll-a9305406.html

[6] MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, J-IDEA, Imperial College London, UK, ‘Report 1: Estimating the potential total number of novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) cases in Wuhan City, China’, January 17th, 2020. URL: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/mrc-global-infectious-disease-analysis/news–wuhan-coronavirus/

[7] New York Times, ‘The Test a Deadly Coronavirus Outbreak Poses to China’s Leadership’. January 21st, 2020. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/21/world/asia/china-coronavirus-wuhan.html

[8] UCLA Department for Epidemiology, ‘A Lesson for China in SARS’, April 16th, 2003. URL:  https://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/bioter/lessonforchina.html

[9] The Express, ‘Coronavirus Panic: How Coronavirus is ‘number one threat’ to financial markets’, January 27th, 2020. URL: https://www.express.co.uk/finance/city/1234211/coronavirus-china-spread-financial-markets-threat-European-Stoxx-FTSE-open-stock-markets

[10] BBC, ‘Coronavirus: Whole World “Must Take Action”, Warns WHO’, January 29th, 2020. URL: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-51299195

[11] The Washington Post, ‘U.S. seeks to send expert team to China to combat coronavirus outbreak; Xi defends response’, January 29th, 2020. URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/coronavirus-china-live-updates/2020/01/28/da7664f2-414d-11ea-b503-2b077c436617_story.html

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