How in the world are we even supposed to deal with China? And I don’t mean it as a rhetorical question. On the contrary, it is an honest description of an emotion that several countries around the world are feeling towards China. We all know that China’s global trade and economic allies were tolerating the country’s banter for several years, but their patience wore thin after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When and how it will end? It’s hard to say. A complete break-up with China seems unlikely, after all, it’d be quite an endeavour to reverse decades of globalisation and investments in the world’s second-largest economy. However, Covid-19 has brought political differences and economic dependencies with China under the spotlight, and a redrawing of future rules of engagement seem to be on the table – not just for India, but for almost every other country on this planet.
China, Covid-19 and the world
Covid-19, a virus outbreak that was initially kept under wraps in China has raised political eyebrows to a level not seen since the infamous Tiananmen Square incident of 1989. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center of the US found that nearly two-thirds of respondents globally had an unfavourable view toward China. In other words, they don’t like China any more. In India, Covid-19, followed by the Galwan incident, was more than enough to spark a nationwide outrage and boycott of Chinese companies. Indo-China relations are at the lowest in decades and there seems to be no light at the end of this tunnel, at least for the foreseeable future.
‘…countries with significant trade ties with China have all ordered for an independent inquiry into how and where the virus originated…’
Even in the US, where presidential elections are fast approaching, Covid-19 and China are important election issues. Donald Trump, who was under fire over his inept handling of the spread of the virus turned his attention to China for failing to control it in the first place. There are also signs of growing discomfort with China in other parts of the world. This is not only because of Beijing’s lack of transparency over the virus but also due to the fact that China has been aggressively pushing its political agenda at a time when other countries were busy fighting the coronavirus. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that countries with significant trade ties with China (viz. Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, etc.) have all ordered for an independent inquiry into how and where the virus originated, how it was initially handled and how it spread.
Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) has been visibly upset with China’s lukewarm response when it came to the assistance it had promised to several EU member states during the pandemic. The EU also brought the world’s attention to China’s economic strategy where they tried an aggressive takeover of vulnerable European companies. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, immediately tightened safeguards to prevent China from taking controlling stakes in German automotive industries during the economic slowdown. Something that countries, including India, took notice and implemented.
In the UK, several parliament members of the ruling party are pushing for a rethink of the government’s decision to allow the Chinese telecom giant Huawei to take part in its 5G network trials. A decision that was soon emulated by other EU countries, including the US and India. In Africa, a continent that’s home to massive investments and infrastructure projects undertaken by China has taken a hit due to the bad press surrounding Covid-19. In a rare show of public anger, people of various African countries took to the streets to demonstrate their unhappiness over the reports of discrimination against African citizens in the Chinese city of Guangzhou after the Covid-19 outbreak.
Where does that leave China?
I think it is a reasonable assumption that China’s coronavirus mismanagement will induce long-term damage to its economic and geopolitical aspirations. China’s own manufacturing sector relies on raw materials and commodities from abroad; most importantly, oil and gas, of which China is the world’s largest importer. And now all that has been thrown off track while supreme leader Xi’s posse of loyalists are busy making empty threats.
By empty threats, we mean the recent episode where China’s ambassador to Australia warned of possible economic retaliation against countries that support an international investigation of the Covid-19 outbreak. This might be a hollow show of strength, considering that China is not in a position to issue threats, especially when most companies are cutting their dependencies or moving out of the country. As if that were not enough, the arrest of pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong, the withdrawing of financial support to poorer countries, skirmishes with American and Japanese forces in the South China Sea, etc. have significantly dented China’s image on the global stage.
The shift in the global order is often accompanied by the rise of a new dominant force. But sadly for China, the shift in the global order is for all the wrong reasons. If Covid-19 was a world domination strategy gone wrong, then China has a lot to lose than it previously thought. The coronavirus pandemic has ensured that the next global dialogue won’t be about the economic prowess of China and the ‘alleged’ world order that China is trying to bring in. Instead, it’d be about the pain and countless deaths this pandemic has inflicted on mankind and the seemingly deliberate delay on the part of Beijing in alerting the world about the virus.
True that China will play a dominant role on the global stage for years to come, but after considering everything that I’ve explained in this article, one could easily infer that a China-led international order is not on the cards.