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Last updated: 12 May, 2020  

china.9.THMB.jpg Dealing with China in post-Covid times

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FRANK F. ISLAM | 12 May, 2020
There is no doubt that China is where the coronavirus originated. There should be doubt and concerns, however, about China's actions at that time and since. Much can be learned by analyzing what China did at the onset of the virus; what it did as the coronavirus spread and became a pandemic; and how China has interacted with the US as this evolved. Finally, it is worth considering what this could mean for future relations between China and India.

The sequence of events at the onset of the virus reveals that China repressed communications on and investigation into it. The novel coronavirus began in Wuhan, China, spread to humans, according to different theories, either through contact with animals or an accidental spill from a research laboratory. Individual Wuhan doctors were aware of the coronavirus as early as December 12 and tried to speak out but hospitals were told not to speak publicly about it by the Wuhan Health Commission.

China advised the World Health Organization (WHO) about the outbreak of the virus on December 31, 2019. It did not confirm that until January 7 and did not provide genome sequencing on the virus until January 12.

China refused to allow the WHO to send scientific observers to the source of the outbreak. The WHO held a meeting in Beijing on January 28 and on January 30 declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). This one-month delay from the initial notification to the WHO to its PHEIC announcement gave the virus time to spread worldwide without action or response.

The Associated Press reports that China's National Health Commission had a teleconference on January 14 saying that the situation was "severe and complex" and had prepared a 63-page document on response procedures. The Chinese public was not informed, though, until January 20 and Wuhan was not locked down until January 23.

The lockdown was complete and was strictly enforced by the Chinese government. It was in effect for a total of 76 days and, if the numbers from China can be believed, resulted in the country having a relatively low number of cases and deaths compared to many other countries. This has allowed China to claim a victory in combating COVID-19 which it has.

China has used that alleged victory to engage in what has been labeled "donation diplomacy" and an aggressive disinformation campaign. The diplomacy entails sending medical aid and equipment and sometimes health experts to countries to help them combat and try to control the coronavirus.

China has reached out to provide assistance around the globe with a particular emphasis on hard-hit countries in Europe such as Italy and Spain. The goal of this is to position China as the global leader in responding to the coronavirus and to change the narrative from China being the source of the pandemic to China being the ally and partner that has stepped up to enable nations to fight COVID-19.

China has used its state and social media and various Chinese officials have employed twitter to tout their accomplishments and contributions. Part of this public relations effort includes celebrating the success of China's communistic approach to governance over that of the democracy approach employed by the US and India.

And, it is in the head to head conflict with the United States that the disinformation campaign kicks into high gear. Part of that campaign is focused at other countries where China has circulated a conspiracy theory that the virus actually originated in a US bioweapons lab and was carried abroad by the US Army. This preposterous theory was published on a website in Montreal and several Chinese embassies tweeted that story out.

It was recently disclosed by those in the US intelligence agencies that the Chinese also brought their disinformation campaign to American shores. They did this in mid-March as the US citizens were just beginning to become concerned about the virus by sending out tweet messages attributed to the Department of Homeland Security that President Donald Trump was going to lock down the US to prevent looting and rioting.

This disinformation campaign has done an unusual thing. It has caused those Republicans within the Beltway to speak out openly against China's behaviour and to question US' diplomatic and trade relations with it. More importantly, it has caused Republicans and Democrats across the country to agree that Chinese President Xi Jinping is not a trustworthy source of information, that the Chinese government is responsible for spreading the virus, and that the US should be tougher in future negotiations with China.

The bottom line is this. China has been less than truthful, manipulated messages, behaved autocratically, turned the pandemic into a geopolitical football game of blame and shame; and, not been forthcoming about how the novel coronavirus started nor accepted any responsibility for its consequences. Those are some of the major lessons to be learned.

What do they suggest in terms for India's future relations with China? In my humble opinion, they suggest be cautious, be very cautious.

The Modi administration already knows that. But, China's self-centered response to the coronavirus has magnified the type of autocratic nation it is and its desire through its Belt and Road Initiative to become the dominant superpower in the world.

It is a bit ironic that the 70th anniversary of the bilateral ties between India and China took place on April 1 while India was in its own COVID-19 lockdown. India and China exchanged obligatory congratulatory messages and said nice things to each other on that day.

President Xi said India and China had reached a "new starting point" and Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he is looking forward to taking the Closer Developmental Partnership to "even greater heights in the years to come". I believe both of those comments to be accurate.

The new starting point for India will be a deeper understanding of China and its intent as a communist country. The "even greater heights" can be reached by using that understanding to keep India a fully functioning democracy and to leverage the China relationship to help solve the tremendous damage that was caused by having to lock down the Indian economy because of COVID-19.
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