Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2020-03-31 09:26:48 Published on Mar 31, 2020
Covid is merely the latest in a narrative emerging from the US, which feels ‘cheated’
Training guns at China

Reports that the death toll in Wuhan may have been many, many times higher than the 2,535 revealed, will feed into the narrative demanding accountability from China on account of the Covid-19 spread.

As a Chinese diplomat in India has put it, ‘China neither created the virus nor intentionally transmitted it.’ Also, the Chinese instituted an unprecedented lockdown of an entire province and took what the diplomat said were ‘most comprehensive, rigorous and thorough measures’. True, but early action could have checked its spread dramatically. The authorities in the city were aware of the virus by around mid-December, but orders for a lockdown were only issued on January 23. Timely action was sacrificed to what the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) calls ‘social stability’, and the early whistle-blowers were punished for broadcasting information on it.

But from here to raise the demand for compensation or reparations is another thing. When it comes to reparations, maybe some others would also be on the list. In the 1960s, the US used Agent Orange, a chemical that destroyed nearly 5 million acres of forest and exposed millions of Vietnamese to its effects. And then, there is the Iraq War of 2003, based on fictitious premises, that devastated an entire nation and led to tens of thousands of deaths.

Yes, the Chinese must be held to account in a manner that will encourage them to change their systems and protocols and provide a learning experience to the rest of the world. We have yet to hear the final word on Covid-19.

Chinese culpability is bound to play out strongly in the US. As of Monday, the US led in the number of Covid-positive cases at nearly 1.5 lakh (about 2,500 deaths). The helplessness of the world’s leading military and economic power will become even more manifest in the coming weeks as the virus peaks and takes an even greater toll.

Even if the US was not in an election year, there would have been a great deal of finger-pointing going on. Given the upcoming presidential elections, it could take on a nastier edge. The Trump administration knew about the virus as of January this year, but failed to act with dispatch. Given the Trump style, he will focus the blame on everyone but himself, and China will be a big target indeed.

Whatever may have been the bitterness over the usage of the terms ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘Wuhan virus’ across the world, the most popular nomenclature has already taken root and it is ‘coronavirus’. People will not forget where it originated, but are unlikely to think beyond that.

Journalist and author Praveen Swami has brought out in a recent article in Firstpost that unknown viruses arising from the animal-human interaction lurk in half a dozen places in India. Any of them could be a candidate for reaching the stage of highly contagious human-to-human interaction. So, a little bit of humility would suggest that the world needs to focus on mitigating the physical and economic consequences of such viruses, rather than play the blame game.

But for the US and China, this is not merely about scoring debating points, but part of a more ruthless geopolitical competition. Covid-19 is merely the latest episode in a narrative that is emerging from the US, which feels it has been cheated by China. The Americans went into China as part of a legitimate and successful strategy of outflanking the erstwhile Soviet Union. Then, US scholars began to suggest that as it became more prosperous, it would, as per their modernisation theories, become more democratic. That has not happened, at least till now, instead, the CPC has been able to maintain its authoritarian hold over the people through co-option and coercion and the country has continued to grow economically and militarily in the past decades.

The competition now has two pressing aspects. One is in the realm of technology, where the US is determined to ensure its superiority. While China may take the lead in a few areas like 5G, there is nothing to indicate that the US can be bested in its overall superiority in the realm of science and technology in the next decade and more.

The other aspect is the military competition in East Asia. Since 1950, the US maintained a deployment close to China, buttressed by its alliances with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. Despite US complaints about being taken for a ride by its allies, nothing really has changed here, indeed, it now also has the advantage of having a friendly Vietnam as well.

The increasingly powerful Chinese military may be able to keep the US some distance from its shores, but beyond that the US remains, and will remain, the dominant power for the foreseeable future.

China is the only country today which is able to pose some kind of a challenge to the US, be it in technology or economy or diplomacy. The US seems to have reached a point of insecurity, where it views every challenge as life-threatening. It is unable or unwilling to concede any ground to a country which is a growing power and which has its own needs and aspirations.

Political change in China, which many await, is not something that can be imposed by others; it must come from within. In the meantime, the task for the US and the global community is to be able to shape the circumstances through which this change can come.

This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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