COVID-19 as Expression of Global Power Rivalry: The Case of US-China Cold War

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Geoffrey Onyeama

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The United Nations Charter was done in 1945 with the ultimate objective of preventing a new scourge of World War through the fostering of international cooperation at regional and multilateral levels. In this regard, the global community has been lucky not to have had any critical inter-state war since then. What the world has witnessed was not only the emergence of the United States and the former Soviet Union as superpowers, but also intra-state crises and conflicts capable of provoking a fresh world war.

However, the intra-state crises and conflicts, as at today, have been deepening and are now dangerously attracting foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of countries affected, contrary to article 2(7) of the UN Charter, which prohibits such interventions. The political crisis in Venezuela is a case in point. In the same vein, with the superpower rivalry that characterised the Cold War era, which came to an end in 1989, the Chinese appear to have been preparing for the leadership of the world without jot of noise-making. This means that an inter-state war, not hot but cold, may be in the making.

In terms of possible scenarios, while the United States, particularly under President Donald Trump, cannot boast of the unflinching support of the EU countries, China has the critical opponents of the United States as its sympathisers. Russo-Chinese relations, for instance, are warmer than Russo-American ties. North Korea sees the United States as its number one enemy and has, therefore, insisted on acquiring nuclear weapons in the spirit of anticipated, legitimate self-defence against eventual US attacks. The EU countries see themselves as a new centre of power, and therefore, a new counterweight to that of the United States.

As a result, international politics has become a new major source of threats to the maintenance of international peace and security. More important, deepening nationalism in the current era of climate change and globalisation has compelled many countries to begin to seek, more than ever before, self-preservation by all means available, legally and otherwise. The case of the United States is noteworthy. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is largely predicated on ‘America First’ and ‘Making America Great Again.’ This simply requires a re-strategy which, to begin with, not only means sustaining the US leadership of the world, but also preventing any other country from surpassing the Americans.

In this regard, the global leadership tussle between the United States and China raises the theory of Professor Jean-Baptiste Duroselle of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, according to which ‘tout empire périra,’ meaning ‘every empire shall perish.’ But what should we mean by an empire in this case? Is it in the context of colonialism, that is, colonial empire? Should it refer to military regimes or political administrations? Whatever is the case, the theory necessarily implies that whatever has a beginning must also have an end.

In the context of Sino-American understanding, the United States was a great power before it emerged as a superpower after World War II. On the basis of Duroselle’s theory, there must be a time for the status of great or super power to come to an end. The Chinese appear to have subscribed to this type of logic, and by so doing, have been preparing to enter into the shoes of the Americans without consideration of shooting or manu militari force.

It is from this perspective that the question of COVID-19 is seen and addressed in this column. In other words, it is suggested here that COVID-19 is a resultant of research and development, and therefore, COVID-19 is man-made and is not simply a product of wildlife as argued by some scientists. Without doubt, it may also be a manifestation of biblical predictions, as biblical prophecies are without information on who will or should implement the prophecy and where the manifestations will begin. The material time of occurrence is left to speculation. Probably it is the power rivalry between the incumbent superpower, the United States, and the contending or would-be superpower, the People’s Republic of China, that will determine, the Holy Bible has not told us. Again, there is the issue of modality, we also are not told whether COVID-19 is to be the instrument of implementation.COVID-19 is no longer a dream or speculation

COVID-19 as Power Rivalry
Explicating COVID-19 in the context of international politics requires the articulation of the main issues involved, before analysing it in the context of Sino-American bilateral ties. There are three secondary issues: genesis of COVID-19 and impact, Western allegations of racism, and Chinese contestation of Western superiority. The main issue underlying the attitudinal disposition of both Chinese and the Americans is the question of global leadership.

On the first secondary issue, genesis of COVID-19, the virus was reported to have originated in Wuhan City on January 23rd, 2020 in China, but many observers in the West, and particularly in the United States, do not see the virus as a resultant of wildlife, but as man-made. Reference is often made to the 312-paginated book by Dean Goontz (alias Leigh Nicholas), entitled The Eye of Darkness, and published by Pocket Books in 1981. COVID-19 was initially given the name, ‘Wuhan 400’ and its earlier discussions were traced back to September 1979 (vide Vie internationale of last week Sunday, April 12, 2020).

With this background source, COVID-19 cannot but generate fresh controversies: for what purpose is COVID-19? Why the delay in responding to the outbreak of the virus in the West? Why the great caution in quickly accepting China’s offer of help? These are some of the questions around which international politics has been largely driven.

For instance, Americans believe that when the virus actually emerged, for good six weeks, the Beijing government kept silent over it. Paddy Cosgrave, founder and CEO of Web Summit, complained in his “Why the World Needs to Consider China an Ally in COVID-19 Fight” (https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-04002), about how Chinese are condemned in the United States. As he put it, ‘it took time for many in the West to recognise the importance of general lockdowns in containing COVID-19. As recently as January 24, Human Rights Watch Executive Director, Kenneth Roth, said “in typical Chinese Communist Party fashion, Beijing confines 35 million people rather than pursuing the transparent and targeted approach to Wuhan coronavirus that public health and human rights require.’

In the eyes of the New York Times, China used ‘sledgehammer’ to respond to the pandemic, which forced the people to pay ‘a price in human trauma and economic loss that was severe.’ The Financial Times says China was quite slow, sluggish and hesitant in dealing with the COVID-19. In fact, the China-Friendly Scholars urged the Donald Trump administration ‘to ignore China’s initial cover-up, lack of transparency and failure to cooperate in order to launch joint research on a vaccine, and get personal protective gear, medicines and clinical experience from China to save lives in the US and beyond.’

In sum, the Chinese are accused of insincerity, politics of generosity, mask diplomacy and propaganda. It is particularly posited that ‘there is a geo-political component, including a struggle for influence through spinning and politics of generosity.’

The Chinese do not share the viewpoints of the American school. They are contented that they came up with the idea of a regional emergency liaison mechanisms to enable a quick response to health emergencies. They set up an online COVID-19 knowledge centre. In this regard, they simply refer to what the Director General of WHO had said about the matter: ‘China’s speed, China’s scale and China’s efficiency… is the advantage of China’s system. Paddy Cosgrave expressed happiness that his country (Ireland) ‘rejected the reactionary blaming of China for the pandemic and sees China as an ally in the fight.’

In fact, as Professor Pan Deng, the Executive Director of the Latin America Law Centre of China University of Political Science and Law, has it, ‘when the virus initially appeared in Asia, some Western countries played indifferent onlookers, and even bought into the illusion that the virus only infected Asians. Therefore, most Western countries believed that as long as the strictest border control is in place, the virus could be kept away from their countries. However, to everyone’s surprise, when the outbreak in Asia was basically under control, COVID-19 began to take over Europe and America, and the number of confirmed cases sometimes doubled in three days in some countries. Now, the situation in the United States looks particularly grim.’

Without doubt, intrinsic in this statement is the issue of superiority: the outbreak took place in China and the outbreak has been quickly nipped in the bud. The Westerners who claim to know better are still in the quagmire. Professor Deng put it better thus: ‘the Western world is used to boasting the most advanced civilisation of mankind… This has also led Westerners to take the vantage point of conquerors and leaders and look down upon other regions, including in the areas of emergency response and health care…The previous Ebola and SARS outbreaks were successfully contained. But today’s situation proves that self-confidence alone is not enough to beat COVID-19. Instead, it becomes the underlying cause of their persistent panic.’

And perhaps most importantly, Professor Deng noted and asked: ‘in order to secure the much-needed international assistance, countries must let go of their arrogance. But will the West really ditch its sense of superiority over Asia, Africa and Latin America simply for the assistance? The Chinese are directly and indirectly contesting Western claim to superiority. This is the environment of the current anti-COVID-19 fight in the context of which its international politics should also be understood.

Regardless of Chinese claims to defeating COVID-19, the American school of thought tries to hold the Chinese directly responsible for the emergence of COVID-19. They see the Chinese in negative perspectives and have even suggested that COVID-19 is for Asians, and particularly the Chinese, and not for Euro-Americans.
As explained by Zhong Sheng (a pen name used by the People’s Daily to express its views on foreign policy), many people allow their deep-rooted racism to repeatedly inject negative energy to the global anti-pandemic efforts. Zhong Sheng says ‘the ridiculous theories in Western countries since the outbreak of the COVID-19 revealed the conventional thinking powered by racism. attempting to label the virus and the pandemic in a racist manner, they called the coronavirus a thing, “a thing only for the yellow race”, and also claimed that the novel coronavirus only attacks the immune system of Asians.

Probably in reaction and recognition of the implication of this, the Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus, had to note at the 56th Munich Security Conference, on February 15, 2020 that the greatest enemy is not the virus itself but the stigma ‘that turns us against each other.’
But true, with the virus now spreading worldwide, COVID-19 has gone beyond the issue of stigma to becoming the problem of every country and compelling virtually everyone to play politics of self-survival and talking about the need for international cooperation in the development of acceptable vaccine against the very deadly and contagious disease.

In this regard, to what extent can there be a meaningful and constructive cooperation between the Chinese and Americans, bearing in mind that the Americans believe the Chinese are responsible for the coronavirus saga? Can international politics, the way it is being played now enhance the maintenance of international peace and security? Is COVID-19 not a manifestation of an emerging Cold War between the two countries? Will the purpose of global peace and security be helped with an eventual Sino-American Cold War?

Power Rivalry
Let us first look at the case of China, which is believed to be the first vector of COVID-19. Following the outbreak of the virus, China adopted the policy of ‘an all-of-government and all-of-society approach,’ which the WHO described as having ‘changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic.’

This policy of all government and all society is predicated on reaching out, both at the domestic and at the international levels, taking a number of measures, which can be classified into three categories: policy inquiries into the nature of COVID-19; counter-COVID-19 measures; and foreign policy engagements. At the level of policy inquiries into the nature of COVID-19, President Xi Jinping put in place a research agenda for the prevention and control of the COVID-19 epidemic in Beijing and also called for the pooling of talents and resources in different fields. The instrument for coordination is the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council. His focus is to have a strong scientific and technological support for winning the anti-epidemic battle.

We are not much concerned about the laboratory research efforts on the nature of the virus, hence our attention will be more on COVID-19 counter measures and foreign policy strategy of securing international support for the Chinese COVID-19 counter measures.

Regarding the counter-COVID-19 measures, Xi Jinping wants COVID-19 research to be seriously taken as a major and pressing task. Consequently, the Chinese National Health Commission (NHC) expressed concerns about COVID-19 outbreak in letters sent to the health authorities of Japan, Iran, Republic of Korea, Italy, Singapore and Pakistan. The NHC also called for information sharing and technical cooperation.

In fact, on March 4, 2020, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the NHC jointly held a multilateral video conference on COVID-19 with experts from six countries (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Turkmenistan, as well as with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) to share Chinese experience on anti-COVID-19 in the area of prevention and control measures, diagnoses and screening, and laboratory testing.

In the same vein, on March 5, technical exchanges were held with many other countries and international organisations: WHO, ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), Japan, Russia, Germany, and United States. With the reported case of two imported novel coronavirus infection to Chinese mainland on March 4, bringing the total confirmed cases to 20, the Chinese adopted the policy of reporting on daily basis the newly imported cases of COVID-19 with effect from March 5, 2020. For instance, the NHC released to the public the sixth version of guidelines on the prevention and control of COVID-19 on March 7 and, on the following day, a manual on Prevention and Control of COVID-19 for rural residents was also released.

Apart from video conferencing on the readiness of the Chinese to share their anti- COVID-19 experiences, President Xi Jinping has been much personally and actively involved in the struggle against the very infectious disease. He has adopted what we can call here television and telephone diplomacy in introducing the Chinese approach to the pandemic to other world leaders.

On March 10, 2020, he went to Wuhan city to personally inspect the anti-COVID-19 efforts there. He called on the people to continue to take the epidemic prevention and control as the current top priority and the most important work to do. Again, he went on inspection tour of COVID-19 control and work resumption in East China’s Zhejiang Province from March 29 to April 1, 2020. Also, on March 10, 2020, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the NHC held a television and telephone conference with ten South Pacific Island countries. A press conference followed in Beijing on March 11.

As further explained in a News Digest on China, published by the Embassy of China in Abuja, Nigeria (Volume 10), President Xi Jinping ‘is willing to share China’s prevention and control experience with relevant countries, carry out joint research and development of drugs and vaccines, and is providing assistance to some countries where the epidemic has spread.’ More important, the newsletter has it that ‘China supports the UN and the WHO in mobilising the international community to strengthen policy coordination and increase resource investment, especially to help developing countries with weak public health systems to prepare for prevention and response.’

What is noteworthy at this juncture is that Chinese assistance has not been limited to developing countries only. The newsletter said that, on March 12, 2020, ‘the first batch of Chinese medical experts carrying China-assisted medical supplies arrived in Italy to help with its epidemic prevention and control efforts.’ China also began, on March 17, 2020 the supply of fourteen types of domestic test kits to eleven countries, with the first batch of test kits donated to Cambodia. Thus, the Chinese counter-measures are essentially about self-reorganisation at the home level to find curable vaccine and also about self-projecting measures of sharing Chinese experiences in the war on COVID-19, as well as donating medical supplies to countries desperately in need, at the external level.

On foreign policy strategic measures, China adopted a combination of the counter-measures and the specific use of modern electronic-driven diplomacy – use of telephone and video conferencing, direct personal diplomacy at the highest level of authority, etc – to send messages to world leaders and to forge close communications and cooperation. For instance, there is the establishment of a Special Joint Expert group, comprising China’s NHC and CDC (Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention) and the European Commissions’ Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety and the ECDC. Additionally, China and the Republic of Korea also established a similar cooperation mechanism on March 13, 2020.

Besides, Xi Jinping, on March 14, sent messages to Italian president, Sergio Mattarella and also talked over phone to the Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte. On other days, messages were sent to the Iranian leader, President Hassan Rouhani; President Moon Jae-in of Republic of Korea; Spanish King, Felipe VI; Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, in addition to Chinese medical team and supplies; German Chancellor, Angela Merkel; French President, Emmanuel Macron on March 23rd in addition to telephone conversation.
Additionally, he spoke directly with the Pakistani leader, President Arif Alvi in Beijing on March 17; and on the phone with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson; Polish president, Andrzej Duda; and the Kazakhstan president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayer.

Above all, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech entitled ‘Working Together to Defeat the COVID-19,’ at the Extraordinary G-20 Leaders’ Summit on March 26, while the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health plans to sign with American pharmaceutical company, Gilead Sciences on China-led evaluation research of Medicine Remdesivir.

In essence, Chinese policy reaction to COVID-19 pandemic is to ignore every insinuation, particularly coming from the United States, holding China responsible for the emergence of the virus; to develop anti-COVID-19 drugs; and offer assistance to the world through electronic-driven diplomacy and personal summitry.
In sum, COVID-19 may be a resultant of biblical prophecy, a product of wildlife as posited by some scientists, or a reflection of the man-made school of argument. ‘Wuhan-400’, name given to COVID-19 in 1981, as revealed in Dean Goontz book, The Eye of Darkness, points to COVID-19 as man-made, biological weapon for legitimate self-defence in the event of unwarranted foreign aggression. When this book is espied in the context of Sino-US bilateral ties, especially in light of US frequent allegation that China is stealing its technology, US campaigns against Huawei’s 5G technology and belief that US-China trade dispute is largely because of the Chinese, Covid-19 might have been designed to be a defence weapon in anticipation of a possible US attack in the near or distant future. COVID-19 may be message of Cold War rivalry. After all, have the Nuclear Weapons States stopped new weapons production? In fact, what is the effect of their strategic arms limitation talks or that of denuclearisation? In a world of globalising self-deceit, African leaders cannot but pay dearly for their myopia and complicity, by remissness or otherwise.