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Depoliticize the Pandemic, Please!

Aug 23, 2021
  • Peng Nian

    Assistant Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies
  • Chow-Bing Ngeow

    Director of the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Malaysia
  • Putri Rakhmadhani Nur Rimbawati

    Former Researcher of the ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia

The ongoing U.S.-China competition has been intensified by the efforts of the United States in recent months to trace the origins of the coronavirus, with a push to blame China. The U.S. is pressuring the World Health Organization to continue its investigation of Chinese science research institutions that some in the U.S. think might have spread the virus to the world.

China has allowed WHO experts to visit Wuhan, where the virus was first detected in December 2019. But it has rejected the second stage of a WHO plan to investigate the origins of the virus in China and has criticized the U.S. for politicizing the pandemic.

What are the considerations behind China’s tough stance on the U.S. request for a second wave of investigation in China? How do Southeast Asian states see the U.S. push to trace the origins of the virus? Scholars from China and around Southeast Asia respond. 

What are the real intentions of U.S. second phase of virus origins tracing? 

Nian Peng: From the Chinese perspective, the U.S. is attempting to smear China by initiating another WHO investigation. The U.S. has from the beginning tried to politicize the pandemic, stigmatize the virus and use origin-tracing as a tool. Moreover, the U.S. investigation of China has been perceived as a key element of a grand strategy for containing China in the context of the intense geopolitical and geo-economic competition between the world’s two great powers. In addition, China feels that it is unfair to investigate Chinese labs, as more evidence shows that the virus may have first escaped from the U.S. Fort Detrick laboratory, which has a history of storing many deadly viruses, including Ebola and anthrax. So the government’s authority would be seriously challenged if China allows the U.S. to conduct further investigations in China. 

Chow-Bing Ngeow: The current deteriorating state of the U.S.-China relationship has reduced mutual trust significantly. The U.S. does not trust China, or even the WHO, to identify the origins of the virus. Likewise, China does not trust any investigation presumably reflecting or serving U.S. viewpoints. Science has been politicized. This matter will never be satisfactorily resolved as long as the geopolitics behind it is not resolved. 

Putri Rakhmadhani Nur Rimbawati: I think that it is political. The U.S. is trying to undercut China’s image in the international community. The U.S. feels insecure about China’s rising contribution to the global community through its increasing trade volume, investment projects and aid to developing countries. China has been able to share its prosperity with many, and by that U.S. primacy is being challenged. By continuing to scrutinize China as the “source” of the virus, the U.S. is trying to degrade China’s established image so that it's seen as the one responsible for the massive economic downturn and many lives lost during the global pandemic. 

How would tracing the virus to China affect Southeast Asia’s relations with the country? 

Nian Peng: It depends on whether the U.S. puts pressure on the Southeast Asian states to support its investigation. Currently, the U.S. has successfully got support from the European Union, Australia and Japan. It is unlikely the U.S. can force Southeast Asian states to take sides. Nonetheless, the U.S. wants to interrupt the close anti-Covid cooperation between China and Southeast Asian states and promote anti-Chinese feelings in Southeast Asia by vigorously agitating and pursing an investigation that targets China. 

Chow-Bing Ngeow: So far, I think the impacts on Southeast Asian governments are minimal. Southeast Asian governments have been much less interested or eager to blame China, or any other country (if let’s say it started from somewhere else). There is a recognition that it’s not easy to get a clear picture of what’s going on at the initial stage of an outbreak. Countries in Southeast Asia, of course, have other issues with China here and there (the South China Sea dispute, for example), but the origin of the virus is not one of them, and there is no interest in adding this one to further complicate relations between China and Southeast Asia.  

Putri Rakhmadhani Nur Rimbawati: If Southeast Asian nations believed a U.S. narrative that China caused the pandemic, indeed it would impact the current cooperation between China and Southeast Asians. Southeast Asian nations will demand more from China in compensating for the economic decline of the region. However, Southeast Asians, as well as ASEAN as an organization, are strategically independent and will not simply fall into a certain narrative that could risk their neutrality. In fact, Southeast Asia and China have strongly cooperated in battling the pandemic, such as in vaccine development and distribution.   

How should Southeast Asian states respond to the U.S. push to continue virus tracing in China? 

Nian Peng: To be frank, the best and most pragmatic choice for Southeast Asia is to avoid getting involved in the U.S. investigation. It is a major infected area in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the top priorities of Southeast Asian governments are fighting COVID, social stability and economic recovery. So, what the Southeast Asian states really need is cooperation and assistance, not competition and confrontation.   

Chow-Bing Ngeow: So far there is no response to U.S. call for further investigation, and I do not think there will be. Southeast Asia will be satisfied with a broadly supported, science-based investigation led by the WHO. It will want its scientists and experts to be included and involved, as any knowledge gained will also be useful for their own preparations in any possible future outbreak. I think generally on the virus origin issue that Southeast Asia’s governments are clearly not interested in the politics but science. 

Putri Rakhmadhani Nur Rimbawati: Southeast Asia should stick to its current position of being neutral and impartial and focused on how to flatten the curves in their own countries. Even though international politics are still in play, the main concern and priority is now to closely cooperate with anyone possible to bring a quick end to this pandemic. Whether or not it can be scientifically proved that the virus was first identified in China, Southeast Asians should not focus on blame but on solutions. In Southeast Asians’ best interest, being neutral and impartial in this pandemic could strengthen their bond with China, as well as the U.S. and its strategic partners around the region and the world during and after this pandemic.

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