Opinion of Foreign Expert: Pandemics, Responsibility and Irresponsibility in the World Order-Case of COVID-19

The opinion of the author can differ from the CBAP’s perception

Despite being used quite often, the term responsibility is still a terminology not clearly explained or has got a fixed definition in international relations. It has been used according to convenience, requirement and self-satisfying logic of States, more so by the superpowers and great powers. Each nation would try their maximum to justify the rise in every possible form as long as the end result would fetch them progress be it economic, military or geopolitical but when things go wrong, rarest of the times the states have taken responsibility with grace. The closest case one can remember where a state took responsibility after it was convinced that it would be exposed in the international forum and would invite further wrath of even those few nations who have been sympathising with it in hard times was Iran.

For long, being uneasy witnessing once the colonised and third world states taking centre stage, many Western scholars and thinkers used different platforms to put down the so-called emerging powers as being less sensitive and even unprepared by targeting Brazil, India, China and Turkey. They asserted that emerging powers may be clamoring for greater global influence, but they often oppose the political and economic ground rules of the inherited Western liberal order, seek to transform existing multilateral arrangements, and shy away from assuming significant global responsibilities. These statements were directed at the behaviour of emerging powers in climate change negotiations, not doing enough for the green growth and not being conducive at the WTO negotiations as well. The scholars from the developing world who were comparatively sympathetic to the rising and emerging powers, they were able to appreciate the efforts made by the developing world. Their line of argument essentially emerged in establishing a post-Western international order. Emel Parlar Dal from Turkey argued that in the current post-Western international order, almost all major actors, including rising powers, have begun to redefine their international roles and responsibilities in successfully responding to global challenges. Both traditional and rising powers pursue either convergent or divergent policies depending on their mutual and differing interests. Their responses to ongoing shifts in the international order also vary according to their differing expectations and gains from the existing multilateral mechanisms and rules of today’s global governance. Nevertheless, with a survey of the major events and an unbiased approach towards present world order, there is no doubt it is still the Western World order with less absolutism. There are states like China who have exhibited the potential to challenge along with other few showing signs of emerging in international relations. Has the Western liberal order delivered what was once fantasised? Has it been able to display true leadership? Have they lived up to the occasion in times of crisis are some of the pressing questions demanding answers.

The recent COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has once again exposed the inherent weakness of the present world order led by the United States on one side and the other side by the competing to be superpower China. Coronavirus has infected 540,382 and caused 24,293 deaths as of 27 March 2020. Just following the timeline of the problem which originated in central China’s Hubei Province in December 2019 has now travelled all over the world and Europe has become the epicentre of the problem. Italy and Spain have been the worst hit followed by Germany in Europe, whereas the United States seems to be racing with the problem and may go past the European states in the coming weeks. Scholars, statesman and politicians across the world till recently were praising China for its magnificent growth and simultaneously acknowledging the interdependency it has created in the world order. The grace in which China was accepting the praises has not been the case with its acceptance of responsibility for concealing information leading to a worldwide disaster with COVID-19. Taking an unbiased approach to the present condition and magnitude of the problem, China’s behaviour has not been satisfactory. China has so far managed its distractors who have criticised it for its human rights track record, the system of governance and its behaviour with neighbours tangled in disputes. As long as the covert neoliberal approach outwards, authoritarian regime and ideology to control its populations and hold over the state and its people coupled with robust persuasion of globalisation were working, China was never troubled by any of the Western liberal states except the United States. Whereas in the case of COVID-19, China seems to be on a back foot and sooner or later, all affected nations would blame it for its irresponsible behaviour in dealing with a health hazard that could have been averted from spreading to more than 150 states all over the world. Has China learnt anything from the past? Did it fare better in similar scenarios? Or did it take the world for granted due to the fear of a break to its booming economic growth if it were to accept responsibility?

Each of the questions above requires elaborate analysis before arriving at any conclusion. China has been witnessing bubonic plague for a long time but has been successful in containing it. The cases that were reported in November 2019 in the country’s northern Inner Mongolia region were managed successfully. The recent history of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) at the beginning of this century is worth mentioning. SARS-CoV is thought to be an animal virus from an as-yet-uncertain animal reservoir, perhaps bats, that spread to other animals (civet cats) and first infected humans in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002. This area is considered as a potential zone of re-emergence of SARS-CoV. Other countries/areas in which chains of human-to-human transmission occurred after early importation of cases were Toronto in Canada, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China, Chinese Taipei, Singapore, and Hanoi in Viet Nam. The disease caused 774 deaths and affected more than 8000 people worldwide. Even this instance was initially managed like a top-secret by China, probably its outreach was not as high as what it has been after 2015. One of the scholarly work by Yanzhong Huang points out that a combined team of health experts from the Ministry and the province was dispatched to Zhongshan and completed an investigation report on the unknown disease. On January 27, the report was sent to the provincial health bureau and, presumably, to the Ministry of Health in Beijing. The report was marked “top-secret,” which meant that only top provincial health officials could open it. To be precise, China managed it and was able to muddle all its prowess to contain it. Whereas in the case of COVID-19, China’s approach, handling and behaviour have been less than satisfactory. This perhaps might be due to its ambitious ‘peaceful rise’, ‘Chinese Dream’ and the decisive BRI. China’s approach to the problem stems from the secretive nature it maintained throughout even when the problem went beyond control. Dr Li Wenliang, presently no more, was one of the earliest to warn friends on social media about the emerging threat in China by a virus. The Chinese authorities of Wuhan Public Security Bureau had issued a summons to Dr Li in January for spreading rumours. They even forced him to sign a statement at a police station promising not to commit such unlawful acts further. The National Health Commission of China ordered institutions not to publish any information regarding than a yet to be named disease. Why did China suppress information? What might have been the motives? These questions probably have an answer to China’s economic success and ambition. China’s Total Exports recorded 238.3 USD bn in Dec 2019, compared with 221.3 USD bn in the previous month. China’s Nominal GDP stood at $14.14 trillion, and this perhaps is the Chinese dream Xi Jinping has been expediting through his BRI. Any halt to the race at this juncture would mean a disaster to China and would also speak volumes on the capacity of Xi Jinping as an undisputed leader who has been vested with unlimited terms in presidency. The success and failure of BRI also would be a defining factor to claim whether Xi Jinping would go past Mao and Deng in glory. The power of Chinse diplomacy, whether one wants to view positively or negatively, has been one of the most remarkable ones in the 21stcentury. The success of a State’s diplomacy can be assessed when other states display solidarity in times of crisis. One such example can be viewed from a recent incident that happened in Italy. When Donald Trump and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced travel ban to China, Mayor of Florence Dario Nardella saidin initiated #AbbracciaUnCinese (#HugAChinese) as a response. This solidarity was highly welcomed by China, and it was promoted too. This yet again proves that China rather than encouraging the Mayor and his initiative should have warned of the problem and should have behaved as a responsible state.

The case of the developed and liberal world led by the United States has been no less in behaving irresponsibly in the COVID-19 crisis. The United States still leads the global ranking in R&D, spending 2.7% of its GDP, yet in this crisis, it has not been able to take the lead. New York City, the most affected one was running a shortage of many critical things to fight the virus. Hospital supplies, including ventilators, masks and surgical gloves would be exhausted within 10 days was a statement made by Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York City. The death toll in the US grew by more than 800 on Tuesday, 31 March 2020 surpassing 3,700 and the White House projected that the coronavirus pandemic could claim 100,000 to 240,000 lives. Donald Trump was hopeful of easing the restrictions and social distancing by Easter. This shows how little he has been able to grasp the severity of the problem. This also opens up a debate on how good is a superpower in a non-military crisis and what type of responsibility US can display. Continuing sanctions towards Iran and other states even during the crisis at the cost of humanity shows more irresponsibility in the present world order largely driven by the US and the Western world. The death toll in the US might surpass the fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. This once again proves the fact that military might may not protect the nations nor the wealth they possess. It is the willingness and statesmanship a state and its leadership displays can lead people out of a pandemic like COVID-19. The amount of interest the US shows in combating terrorism and sectarian conflicts in different parts of the world would only prove again that most of the time what the US does is in a narrow definition of its national interest, precisely the ‘America First’ idea rather than shared growth and prosperity of all in the world. This has been the case of many European states too. As a whole, the US many a time exhibits the behaviour of a Hobbesian state.

The present world order has also exposed the fragile relationships the states’ share with each other. How difficult for it to come under a single roof and discuss the issues related to the very survival of humanity. The enthusiasm exhibited by the UNSC and other institutions of the UN in many other matters has not been the case while dealing with the epidemic. This perhaps makes revelations regarding anarchy status quo for many more decades if not centuries. The idea of Responsibility to Protect-known as R2P – is an international norm that seeks to ensure that the international community never again fails to halt the mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Probably this is high time there should an inclusion of epidemics in the definition of R2P as all the four important issues mentioned in the definition are capable of clearing a section of the society, whereas an epidemic like that of COVID-19 can threaten the very existence of humanity and have greater ramifications on all walks of life across the world. There seems to be a persistent necessity to rethink about the present world order and the changes it needs to face the challenges ahead in the rest of the 21 century.

Written by Dr Nanda Kishor

Dr Nanda Kishor M S is Assistant Professor (Senior Scale), Department of Geopolitics and International Relations and Coordinator of Centre for Polish and Central European Studies, at Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Dr Kishor’s area of interest is India’s Foreign Policy, West Asia and South Asia. He can be reached on nanda.kishor@manipal.edu and @srijankishor on twitter.