Brig Vivek Verma Writes :
Uncovering the Origin of COVID-19
Officially on 31 December 2019 China reported its cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in its Wuhan City, Hubei Province. On 07 January 2020 the virus was identified as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and on 30 January 2020 the WHO declared the outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). The origin of the virus and delay in sharing information has been the bone of contention between the US and China. Over past three months the pandemic COVID-19 has proliferated across the globe affecting more than two million people and killing more than 128,000 people. While the US and China have stepped back from the war of words on the origin of COVID-19 being labelled as ‘China Virus’ or ‘Wuhan Virus’ but there is growing concern within UN led by its secretary-general, Antonio Guterres to trace its origin. However, he has been critical of the US halting the funding of WHO as he feels that this is not the appropriate time. The halting of fund to WHO has been in the offing as Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State had accused WHO in concert with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of delaying the sharing the data on the contagion. During the same press conference question of suing China over the pandemic arose which Pompeo skirted and left it open-ended for the US congress to pursue. The growing hardening of stance within the US establishment is evident while dealing with organisations which have been seen siding with China.
While the geo-political game is out in the open, the world is facing tragic human consequences and economic uncertainty. It is staring at major discontinuities, shocks, and surprises triggering strategic destabilisation. China knows that while it has been able to contain the COVID-19 threat but it faces even larger threat of being stigmatised with outbreak of pandemic. Any evidences tracing back the source of COVID-19 will have geo-political consequences. Nonetheless new battle lines with China and the US on opposing sides have emerged.
Possible Geo-Political Scenarios
According to Global Trends 2025, “If a pandemic disease emerges by 2025, internal and cross-border tension and conflict will become more likely as nations struggle—with degraded capabilities—to control the movement of populations seeking to avoid infection or maintain access to resources.” In coming months, the countries across the world will try to douse the chaos inflicted by the pandemic. However, the severe losses to human life and putting large number of populations to hunger and distress will be debated in democracies with a need to fix accountability. A look at the possible scenarios can help us in gauging the Chinese response strategy.
Scenario 1: Global Cooperation. Wealth destruction across the world creates international pressure for all nations to come forward and work for the reconstruction. Large scale humanitarian assistance will be required in terms of medical and food aid and economic assistance to revive the battered business environment world-wide.
Scenario 2: Global Disengagement. The problems of supplies of essential goods and services during the time of calamity will force the governments to review the trade, tariff and production facilities. ‘Native first’ approach will be taken by the governments and will drive the realignment of industrial basing. Disengagement will trigger the recoupling and resetting up the new supply lines.
Scenario 3: Global Isolation. The investigation on the COVID-19 is able to pin-point the origin of virus. The global community is enraged at China for obfuscating and delaying the reporting of the contagion and holding it responsible for the world-wide sorrow. For its irresponsible act the global community decides to isolate China.
Scenario 4: Global Anarchy. Like Spanish Flu, the containment of pandemic is delayed due to inability or absence of an effective vaccine and near universal lack of immunity. In this worst case, tens of millions of people around the world become ill and deaths may mount into millions. This will lead to degradation of the critical infrastructure and response mechanism world-wide. This may trigger large scale social unrest, border migration and may compound tensions along the borders. Chinese interests across the globe is sabotaged.
Implications for China
Except for the Scenario 1, China will face head-winds as all three scenarios lead to scaling down of its economy, influence and image. While it has been able to contain effectively the spread of COVID-19 till now, the severe economic reverses may spiral out of control and test its social instability. The flight of foreign wealth and resetting of production and supply chains may lead to massive job losses which may trigger labour and social unrest. Prolonged unrest is likely to adversely affect the senior leadership in the CCP. Direct confrontation may not be immediately on the horizon; however, the contest will be predominantly played in non-contact warfare arena between the US and China. For the US it is matter of retaining its dominance while for China it is time to prosecute its “Active Defence” strategic guidelines.
Active Defence and China’s Strategic Objective
‘Active Defence’ has been China’s strategic guideline since its revolutionary war days and has been adjusted to evolving threats and technologies. According to the 2019 National Defence White Paper of China, the strategic concepts of ‘Active Defence’ work within the realm of “strategic defence and operational and tactical offense and adherence to the principles of defence, self-defence and post-emptive strike”. It aims at winning informationized local wars and deal with the hegemonistic design of US. China is overly concerned about the situational awareness gap created due to “the new landscape of strategic competition, the new demands of national security, and new developments in modern warfare”. China is trying to explore strategies to deal with US strategy of denial prompting Xi Jinping to relook at the domains which need to be managed and protected. Accordingly, the security domains have been broadened to include 11 fields: political, territorial, military, economic, cultural, social, scientific and technological, informational, ecological, financial, and nuclear domains. Security interests have also been expanded into the open ocean, outer space, and cyberspace. Thus, addressing various facets of defence across multiple domains. The current pandemic has blown out of proportion for China to contain and it finds itself in the eye of the storm.
The foremost strategic objective for the CCP therefore is to prevent snowballing of crisis, localise it and defend its interests as far forward as possible while ensuring social stability within its borders. Hence, even during the time of strategic friction it will play the game in such a way that affords it strategic opportunity to realise its millennium goal of prosperity.
China’s Likely Strategy
Correcting the Narrative. China recognises that COVID-19 stigmatisation will be another humiliation which it cannot afford when it is on path of realising the Chinese dream of ‘Great Rejuvenation’. Hence, it is likely to employ its ‘three warfare’ strategy of controlling the opinion, legal and psychological space to befuddle the origin theory. To that extent it has already tightened the research norms within its university, and expelled three US journalist from Wall Street journal and US media organisation like Time and Voice of America have be subjected to scrutiny. China justified its act as a response to the US move of classifying Chinese state media organisations as foreign missions. It’s evident, the shaping of narrative battle has begun and Beijing will do whatever is there within its capability to prevent stigmatisation.
Improved Situational Awareness. China’s ability to extract correct situational report on the crisis that might afflict on the 11 sectors mentioned earlier will help it in fighting the US strategy of dominance. It is aware that the strategy of denial and disruptions are going to impede its data flow. Hence, a stepping up of information confrontation in the cyber domain may be in the offing.
Localising the Crisis. The championing of humanitarian, medical and economic assistance is something that China wants to ramp up to be seen as working towards the humanity. So far, its mask and testing kit diplomacy in Italy and Spain has yielded negative press. Nonetheless, China is looking at its BRI supporters to retain its global interests. Thirty-six out of eighty-six BRI countries contain significant AI surveillance technology which may have been put to use to track the contagion. While the US may accuse China of exporting the “authoritarian technology” to like-minded governments and promote alternative governance model but if the technology helps in containment and monitoring of COVID-19 patients then it may come as bellwether to the beleaguered China. Localising the crisis will help Beijing to foster a favourable strategic posture.
Scouting for Strategic Opportunity. The economic meltdown provides China enough opportunity to acquire companies with stressed balance sheets and niche products and also drive in a wedge into the financial market thus leveraging the financial levers as a measure to gain effective control. It will use all cyber tools at its disposal to garner data specially at a time when the businesses are struggling to remain afloat and using maximum online traffic to deal with the chores.
Ramp up the Non-War Military Effort. Beijing has already demonstrated PLA capability in rescue and reconnaissance operations while dealing with the pandemic in Wuhan and the country side. While force preservation will remain its primary focus but it will look at expanding the non-war military effort within the country and along high seas – internally to assuage the frayed feathers of the masses and externally as measure of deterrence.
Pandemic has created chaos of unprecedented kind. The nations struggling to contain the pandemic with limited capabilities are finding themselves overwhelmed by the enormity of the crisis. However, amidst this chaos, China finds itself securely perched having braved the initial brunt of contagion attack and now it is focussed to advance its agenda of influence and image preservation. The likely Chinese strategy of handling this crisis may be akin to ‘influence-beachhead’ by China into other countries strategic interests. As the Chinese saying goes, “when the wind changes direction, there are those who build walls and those who build wind mills”. It is therefore important for us to keep our strategic interests firewalled while pursuing our goal of preserving the lives and livelihood of our population.
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Brig Vivek Verma is a Senior Research Scholar with the USI of India
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.