COVID-19 global politics: US and China in the Eye of the Storm, By Isaac N. Obasi




Chinese leader, Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump

Since the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Wuhan, Hubei Province China on December 31, 2019 and its declaration as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on March 11, 2020, the world has never been the same again. Politically, COVID-19 has brought world leaders to their knees, scampering for solutions here and there on how to contain the spread of the virus in their different national jurisdictions. 

Economically, the means of livelihood of vast numbers of people across the world have been disrupted, even as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has declared a global recession, signaling doom and gloom for many countries. For example, many countries had already requested for emergency financial assistance from IMF since March 2020. 

In the area of global health itself, global fatality stood at 255,095 with 3,640,835 number of people infected globally in over 200 countries and territories (see Johns Hopkins University compiled data as of May 6, 2020).  The entire world is indeed in this crisis together and none is exempted and can afford to remain aloof. 

The United States of America, which has recorded the highest number of deaths (70,272 as of May 6, 2020), bears the heaviest burden. It is even worse because this is an election year and the feared negative impact of this on President Donald Trump’s re-election bid, is raising the COVID-19 controversy and its politics, to fever pitch. President Trump is now using all manner of Machiavellian strategies to fight for his political survival. 

In spite of his praising China at the early period of the outbreak of the virus for measures taken to contain the spread of virus, Trump turned round to blame China repeatedly for lack of transparency with information on the origins of the virus. He consequently insisted that the virus originated from a as against China’s claim that it originated from Wuhan seafood market. Later on, Trump turned his anger also on the World Health Organisation (WHO) blaming it for negligent of duties and ‘for being too “China-centric” in its tackling of the coronavirus pandemic’ (see https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52213439). And in his characteristic trade mark of cutting funding to some multilateral organisations (UNESCO among others for example), Trump directed his administration to halt funding of WHO, while reviewing its role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.

Just three days ago, a CNN Report of May 5, 2020 by the trio of Vivian SalamaJeremy Diamond and Kevin Liptak, revealed that Trump officials are now trying ‘to enlist foreign allies in pressure campaign against China over coronavirus response’. This revelation to us has taken what started originally as a controversy in international politics to another level we can rightly call global politics of COVID-19. Trump’s further move towards forming an anti-Chinese alliance might be arising from his accusation that China is working against his reelection because of what China considers a hurtful trade deal with the US under Trump. 

Truly, the controversy over the origins of the COVID-19 has been raging for many months and President Trump has consistently made sure that it remained on the agenda of global politics. He has been cleverly using it to cover up for his temporizing shortcomings in handling the COVID-19 since its entry into the US. 

Although Trump is not alone in accusing China for lack of transparency regarding the source of the virus, he has, however, particularly made it a big issue in global political discourse. He now wants to influence many more US allies to join in criticising China. As Xu Sicong of CGTN (March 18, 2020) noted, western critics have accused China of “silencing dissent”, being “extremely secretive”, of “manipulation of information”, and of “muzzling criticisms” (see https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-03-18/…). 

Reeling under very heavy criticisms at home on his administration’s poor policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump has been using any available alibi as a cover for his failure. He is hoping to employ his latest Machiavellian maneuvers as a weapon to manipulate and influence the psychology of voters in his favour. 

China which has since January this year remained in the eye of the storm has been largely defensive and also aggressive in attacking critics particularly President Trump’s administration. China has repeatedly defended her actions in containing the spread of the virus and blamed President Trump for not effectively attacking the spread of the virus in the United States given the ample time available for doing so. Notably, President Trump is not alone in attacking China for bring this ravaging virus to the entire world.

In Nigeria for example, Dr. Oby Ezekwezili blamed China also and went further to ask her to pay to Africa for the incalculable damages Wuhan-originated virus has done to African economies. But in a reaction, China went for an over-kill. In a response by her Embassy in Nigeria, China absolved itself of all blames, saying that ‘the virus was the enemy here and not China’, declaring further that ‘the demand for hundreds of billions of dollars in compensation, made no sense (see The Interview via https://theinterview.ng/2020/05/04). 

The Chinese Embassy through its press secretary Mr. Sun Saixiong stated further that ‘since the outbreak of COVID-19, in an open, transparent and responsible spirit, China has taken the most comprehensive, rigorous and thorough measures to contain its spread and conduct international cooperation’. According to Saixiong also China had made tremendous sacrifices, accumulated valuable experience, and made significant contributions to the global response’ (The Interview, Ibid). 

It is our view here that China’s non-conciliatory approach in responding to Dr. Ezekwesili is not helpful at all. How far can China go with such aggressive defensive approach? The US State of Missouri has actually sued China claiming damages for her failure to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Some other bodies have threatened to sue China also.

But more importantly, across the globe, there is one form discontent or the other against China as a result of COVID-19. For instance, in an opinion article in the New York Times (May 3, 2020) titled ‘Global backlash builds against China over coronavirus’, Steven Erianger writes that ‘as calls for inquiries and reparations spread, Beijing has responded aggressively, mixing threats with aid and adding to a growing mistrust of China’. This he said ‘has only added momentum to the blowback and the growing mistrust of China in Europe and Africa, undermining China’s desired image as a generous global actor’. As Erianger rightly observed also ‘in the past several weeks, at least seven Chinese ambassadors — to France, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and the African Union — have been summoned by their hosts to answer accusations ranging from spreading misinformation to the “racist mistreatment” of Africans in Guangzhou (see https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/03/…).

On the basis of all these, it is my well-considered view that considering the incalculable human and economic damages that the COVID-19 has caused and continues to cause to humanity, China should be remorseful and conciliatory rather than aggressively defensive. China cannot run away completely from paying some ‘damages’, call it , compensation, debt forgiveness, debt cancellation or debt rescheduling to poor African victims of COVID-19. Such a demand is legitimately advisable if China wants to retain her friendship with African leaders especially of the future who may be more nationalistically aggressive in asserting and protecting their interests. China can play its power politics on COVID-19 with the US, but for Africa, her tone should sound conciliatory.     

Prof. Isaac N. Obasi, a public policy expert (& former columnist in the Daily Trust, Abuja, March 2003 to October 2006, & Daily Champion, Lagos, April 2005 to December 2008), is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: nnamdizik@gmail.com      

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