Historically, major wars have fostered profound changes in societies and economies. Today’s China-originating pandemic has created an acute international crisis akin to wartime. The world will not be the same after the pandemic.
The incalculable human and economic toll exacted by the rapid spread of the killer coronavirus promises to shake up global geopolitics, including China’s position in the world. The pandemic’s enduring impacts will likely extend from altering previously dependable supply chains to reshaping bilateral relationships.
President Donald Trump is right that “the world is paying a big price” for China’s initial, weeks-long cover-up of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan city and other parts of Hubei province. According to a South China Morning Post report based on Chinese government data, Wuhan doctors began recording one to five cases daily from November 17, before infection rates spiraled and a raging epidemic unfolded. However, China waited until January 21 to issue its first public warning. By then, the spread of the virus had gone beyond its control.
A study based on sophisticated modeling has indicated that if Chinese authorities had acted three weeks earlier than they did, the number of COVID-19 cases in China could have been reduced by 95% and the global spread of the disease limited. The virus spread farther and wider because the Communist Party of China (CPC) cared more about its reputation than the people’s suffering.
There is no evidence that the new coronavirus was engineered as a bioweapon. But some virus experts believe it may have accidentally escaped from one of the two Wuhan laboratories studying bat coronaviruses.
According to one study conducted at the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou and supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.” The study appeared in ResearchGate, a professional network for scientists and researchers, before being removed.
One Wuhan lab studying coronaviruses is located at the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the other is at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which the state-run China Daily, in a 2018 tweet, called “the largest virus bank in Asia” holding 1,500 different viruses. Significantly, soon after this writer on March 23 provided a link to that tweet while posting a comment on Twitter, China Daily deleted its old tweet.
Just months before the COVID-19 outbreak, a biomedical study conducted by four Chinese presciently warned that a new coronavirus would emanate from bats, with “an increased probability that this will occur in China.” Earlier, Hong Kong-based infectious disease specialists said in a 2007 study that the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-like “viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals,” constituted a Chinese “time bomb” that pointed to “reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories.”
Regardless of how the novel coronavirus originated in China, the fact is that the CPC treated the viral outbreak as a political embarrassment rather than a public health emergency. For the world’s strongest and richest dictatorship, power and control take precedence over everything else, including human lives.
The result has been a manmade calamity and an unparalleled global crisis fueling economic turmoil and social disruptions. This, in turn, has given rise to a popular tagline on social media, “China lied and people died.”
Make no mistake: China faces lasting damage to its image. And the damage could extend to its economic interests.
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% of all its antibiotics.
By accelerating the decoupling of the U.S. economy — and by extension of 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.
Once countries ride out the current crisis, there will be a reckoning. After all, China’s disastrous missteps caused the coronavirus outbreak to spiral out of control, gifting the world a horrendous pandemic.
To be sure, the Chinese leadership is also facing a credibility problem at home over its secretive initial response to the outbreak. Many Chinese are still seething over their leaders’ initial concealment and mismanagement of the crisis. The public anger at home, coupled with the damage to China’s global image, has prompted Beijing to launch a public-relations blitzkrieg, including churning out unfounded conspiracy theories.
More fundamentally, China is seeking to aggressively 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 WHO, a claim to have fully contained the coronavirus in its worst-affected areas, and disseminating disinformation to obscure its costly initial cover-up.
With the help of the CPC’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 after its own gross negligence sparked the pandemic.
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. To justify its handling of the outbreak, it has even released a book, “A Battle Against Epidemic,” in multiple languages, including English, Arabic, Spanish, French and Russian.
To many other countries, one key lesson from the pandemic 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. China cannot have its cake and eat it too. It must fundamentally reform and embrace transparency and international norms.
The pandemic is truly a defining moment that could help reshape the international order. If it upends the world order as we know it, history will record China’s role as the principal trigger.
• Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).