CHINA’S international standing in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis is like Russia’s reputation after its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, but that doesn’t mean that we will adjust correctly.
Up to 2014, Russia was still exploiting liberal-progressive sympathies. It claimed to be the victim of Western prejudices. It wanted international institutions to abandon their Western legacies. It claimed to be just as good as Western states but not treated as such. Yet its aggression stimulated the West to balance against it. And Vladimir Putin’s avoidance of Russia’s constitution and his repression of domestic dissent disproved his liberal-democratic posture.
We can infer from this analogy that the West will wake up to China eventually. The negative lesson is belatedness: we may wake up too late.
By the time the West balanced against Russia, it had already snatched territories in Georgia and Ukraine, sabotaged air traffic control systems in Estonia, intimidated naval traffic in the Baltic and Black Seas, saved the Syrian autocracy, established military bases in the Arctic, violated national territorial waters and airspaces as far away as Britain, murdered exiles (and a Briton) with radiological and nerve agents, and entangled the EU in energy dependency.
Yes, the economic sanctions are costing Russia, but Putin had already made gains against the long-term decline of Russian power. And he leveraged those gains: he used Crimea as a base for intimidation of neighbouring states; he used energy supplies to influence EU policies; and he ordered his cyber warriors to manipulate Western elections.
Just as the West woke up to Russia from 2014 to 2016, the West needs to wake up to China in 2020. China selfishly adds to global risks. It doesn’t just threaten Taiwan or export unsafe products to inattentive customers online. It is the source of risks that impact everyone, everywhere.
Covid-19 is the case in point. The virus originated in China, just as SARS spread from China in 2003. Covid-19 is a descendant of the SARS virus, and was developed in the same conditions: wet markets, with live animals in close proximity under stress, some of which are reservoirs for coronaviruses. There is no doubt about the origins, because the virus retains genetic material from its hosts.
‘Wet markets’ are so-called because they are routinely wet from cleaning. They do not need to be unsafe. But in under-regulated or corrupt countries, you’re more likely to see the riskiest animals for sale, inhumane treatment of animals, an absence of disinfectants, and unsafe handling of food. After SARS, China had an international responsibility to clean up. It did not.
Lord Hague, the former foreign secretary, is calling for China to reform its wet markets. He goes further, noting that Covid-19 is evidence that China ‘isn’t going to play by our rules’. He points to China’s carelessness towards pollution and climate change, counterfeiting, price dumping, expansionism in neighbouring seas, military basing in Africa, and corruption of foreign regimes. Hague wants Britain to adjust its relationship. He doesn’t want to isolate from China; he just wants to reduce our ‘strategic dependence’. He has made this point before: he is one of the leading rebels against the government’s favour for Huawei’s dominance of 5G mobile telecommunications.
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, accuses China of a ‘cover-up’ of Covid-19 and demands an international investigation. Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Committee, seconds him.
China wasn’t alone in under-estimating the risks from coronaviruses, but it hid the Covid-19 epidemic for at least two months until notifying the World Health Organisation on December 31. Meanwhile, it persecuted whistle-blowers, suppressed reporting, peddled myths about origins elsewhere, and warned against pinning the blame on China while the rest of the world is dependent on Chinese medical supplies (and most of its cheap goods).
China can be admired for its later control of its epidemic; other countries are to blame for their own unpreparedness, but China’s actions exacerbated the risks to the rest of us. It is likely that 20,000 Britons will die from the virus. A larger number have lost jobs and business already. The economy will shrink by about 35 per cent in this quarter. When it settles, the economy will remain around 15 per cent smaller than in 2019.
The growing parts of the economy are responses to the new risks, such as healthcare, which will weigh on public spending and retard other sectors. China will recover best, given its export dominance. In other words, Britain is suffering proportionally more than the country most responsible.
Complicit in China’s misinformation was the World Health Organisation itself, which epitomises the pro-China bias in the international elite. The WHO is run by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former member of Ethiopian’s authoritarian regime, which is highly dependent on Chinese supplies. His predecessor as director of the WHO is Chinese. China nominated Ghebreyesus, and most states support China’s choices rather than be accused of Western-centrism.
The WHO excludes Taiwan, because China does not recognise Taiwan as independent, and ignored Taiwan’s tips in late December that China was experiencing an epidemic. The WHO conspired with China through most of January to repress evidence that Covid-19 was spread between humans. By then it had spread to four continents. The WHO did not declare a global emergency until January 30, and refused to label it a pandemic lest the label would reflect negatively on China. The WHO did not visit Wuhan until late February; it did not declare a global pandemic until March 11.
The WHO’s pro-China bias is obvious in Britain’s elite too, which keeps sacrificing our interests and values in the name of international ‘openness’ – towards China in particular. Of course, we want to improve trade with China, but Britain’s civil servants kowtow to China’s bundling of other demands at the expense of Britain’s other relationships. Thus, China bundles Huawei’s access to our cyber infrastructure, its off-shoring of British tech companies and its dominance of British nuclear energy. The US warns Britain that Huawei will enable Chinese cyber interception of the traffic on its infrastructure, and that the US would then exclude Britain from the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement. But the civil servants put China before America.
The civil servants fought to keep Britain in the EU against the democratic will of the people, understated the economic opportunities of leaving the EU, then claimed that we need to replace EU trade with China’s trade or face economic collapse. The prior US offer of a free trade agreement went neglected, then the civil servants say: ‘You see? We need to take our opportunities in China.’
What can we do? We should not accept the decline of the West as inevitable. We should invest in our Western allies. We need to build domestic capacity for supplying critical goods, such as medical supplies, and we need to sponsor Western supplies of nuclear energy and telecommunications. We need to keep international institutions aligned with Western values. We need to hold China accountable when it breaks the rules or pushes international risks.
An immediate initiative is to reform the WHO. President Trump has suspended US funding for the WHO: the US is the largest donor, contributing more than ten times as much as China.
Britain should follow suit. Yes, Trump is diverting attention from his own mistakes about Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the WHO.
Will Britain join him? Britain’s elite says no. Britain’s patriots, such as Hague, Tugendhat and Ellwood, say yes. Let your political representatives know that you support the patriotic call for reform of Britain’s strategic dependence on China.