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Foreign Policy

The World after COVID-19

Apr 30, 2020

The traditional Chinese festival of Qingming, or tomb-sweeping, on April 4th, is a day to remember loved ones who have passed. This year Chinese across the country mourned lives lost to the covid-19 pandemic. Immersed in sadness, we cherish the memories of those who will not see this or any other spring—and we reflect on what can be learned from the tragedies.

This pandemic is the third major unconventional security crisis in the 21st century that has refocused the world’s agenda. During the previous two crises—the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 and particularly the financial crisis of 2008—America joined hands in solidarity and co-operated with other major countries through multilateral processes, which saw the world through the havoc.

This time, a pandemic literally threatens the safety of humankind. It has claimed more than 200,000 lives worldwide and shows no sign of subsiding. Yet this time America, which insists on being treated as the world’s global leader, has demonstrated neither a commitment to solidarity and co-operation, nor a willingness or capacity for global leadership.

What has particularly dismayed the Chinese is a smear campaign against China by some American politicians and high-ranking officials, who try to shift the blame for their own underestimation of the threat, their slow response and the consequences. For me, the blame-game lays bare American ambitions to scapegoat China for its problems. And this, sadly, makes understanding and co-operation very difficult among major countries, if not impossible, at a time when the world needs it most.

On February 13th when the crisis in Wuhan was at its peak, I attended the Munich Security Conference with a team of Chinese scholars. I brought along a public-health expert to brief attendees on China’s struggles to contain the outbreak. Experts from the World Health Organisation were there too, to alert the world to the dangers of the epidemic. American officials and lawmakers at the conference paid little attention to this issue or the information that China had to offer. They were preoccupied with stigmatising China on such topics as Huawei and 5G.

Now these same people, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and some congressmen, have turned around and with no respect for the truth started accusing China of concealing data about the virus. They should be asked: did China not inform the world, including America, as early as January 3rd about the disease as its danger was gradually revealed? Do they not know that the virus’s genetic sequence was made public by China on January 11th so that countries including America could start work on testing, a treatment and vaccine?

We in China, more than anyone, wish the dangerous nature of the virus had been revealed earlier and the response faster. Given the virus’s novelty, medical professionals raced to gather evidence. As soon as its human-to-human transmission was confirmed, the information was immediately announced to the public on January 20th. Wuhan was completely locked down three days later. The Chinese people paid a high price in terms of lives and in pain to the economy and society, as normal activities were suspended. Many countries later on learned from our experiences of social distancing, wearing face masks and hospitalising confirmed cases, while preventing medical resources from being overwhelmed.

However, such professional and scientific information seems unimportant to some American politicians. What matters to them is their strategic rivalry with China, rather than co-operation, for fear that American dominance might be lost to China. If China and America can’t co-operate even in the face of this global disaster, if they cannot eventually resolve their differences within the existing international structure, we have to consider what this means for the current global system.

Will American hawks see their wish fulfilled: confrontation and a complete decoupling of China and America? Is the world prepared for the consequences, from disruptions to global industry and supply chains, and a reversal of globalisation, to countries having to take sides as the world splinters into opposing blocks? What would that mean for humanity’s post-cold war ambitions to promote peaceful development?

Though others express distrust towards China’s global co-operation, our priority is actually protecting the lives and safety of our own people and restoring normality to the economy and society as soon as possible. But this doesn’t mean China is going it alone. We have already sent medical assistance to more than 100 countries and medical professionals to some of them. Chinese factories are running day and night to meet the world’s demand for medical supplies, including America’s.

Countries have different national conditions and each finds its best way of dealing with the crisis. China cannot and will not impose its ways upon others, nor seek geopolitical gain. Yet it must lend a hand to those in trouble and in need. We are all in this together.

The outbreak has accelerated profound shifts in the world. Faced with an invisible, unconventional yet ferocious enemy, America’s model of hegemonic dominance—which prioritises geostrategic competition at the expense of solving real problems—fails to protect people. It is even less useful for shouldering the new types of international responsibilities that are required in our globalised world.

As we move towards a multi-polar era, humanity may no longer accept a new hegemon. It is hard to see how the world can be dominated again by a certain country or group of countries. Countries will see that their fortunes and fate are closely linked, and they should work together as equal partners. We need to transcend traditional thinking and find a new path, one that hopefully can be defined by mutual respect, equality and justice, and mutually beneficial co-operation.

The world is entering an era of unprecedented interdependence. China has grown through peaceful development. It is neither the former Soviet Union, nor intent on becoming the next America. The Chinese aspire to a peaceful and co-operative international environment and are willing to work for it. The pandemic will be beaten only when every country is free of its threat.

The international community needs China and America to co-ordinate. President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump spoke by phone on March 27th. Both leaders agree that the pandemic is humanity’s common enemy and the international community can overcome it only through a collective response. Their message gives hope to those who want to see China and America working together.

The co-operation of all countries in the world, and between China and America in particular, is vital for success. First, the world should share information about containing the virus. Second, the world, and especially China and America, must work together on finding, manufacturing and distributing vaccines and virus treatments, sharing information in an open-source manner globally. Third, nations with weaker public-health systems must be helped to stem the pandemic’s spread. Fourth, the stability and security of manufacturing and supply chains must be preserved to prevent secondary disasters in the world economy.

A lack of global co-operation, and a failure for China and America to work together, will have terrible consequences. The post-pandemic era will be shaped by our actions of today. Many risks still lie ahead. Yet the crisis helps us appreciate that our world is entering an era when countries and peoples need each other more than ever before.

(From The Economist)

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