China may gain a surprising advantage from this pandemicAlready known as the ‘factory of the world’, the powerhouse may yet be aided by the Covid-19 pandemic to adopt a larger role in the global arena.
In an apparently triumphant mood, the Chinese government opened up Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus-induced pandemic, for business from March 28, after 61 days of complete lockdown. The Chinese state-owned media reported that China-Europe Railway Express that originates in Wuhan also resumed its service, while most local businesses also restarted operations in the city. A 50-container rail that departed from Wuhan on Saturday will reach its destination, the German city of Duisburg, in two weeks. Its main cargo is China-manufactured medical supplies aimed at helping control the Covid-19 havoc in Europe; it is also carrying auto parts, electronics and optical fibre products.
A lesson on control
The Chinese success in effectively containing the further spread of Covid-19, after the death of 3,300 out of 81,400 officially reported infection cases, is due to the combination of swift response, brutal enforcement of rules and codes, efficient management, and timely, appropriate and adequate medical response.
The entire world now experiences a significant battle with this virus. In the worst-case scenario, researchers have predicted that India alone may see as much as 5 million deaths followed by the United States with 1.7 million. Countries in Europe and Africa may add similar numbers in aggregate. In these hours of universal gloom, hopelessness and despair, China's experience of success, and the lessons it has learnt, in containing the virus is not only immensely useful for the world but is now desperately sought after, too. To this call, China has officially offered to help the world in its fight against Covid-19. It, in fact, has dispatched medical equipment and deployed medical teams to one of the worst-hit countries in Europe, Italy. China seems to have strategised to make these help packages a mixture of humanitarian aid (such as sending medical personnel) and commercial deals (for the expensive and large tranche of medical supplies). Needless to say, the magnanimity, above all, has inherent strategic utility.
Every country in the world, engulfed by the extensive transmission of the novel coronavirus or potentially sitting on the mouth of an eruption of cases, is facing an acute shortage of medical protection gears known as PPE (personal protection equipment), testing kits and laboratory equipment, and medicines. The production facilities in these countries, primarily due to their compulsion of enforcing restrictions on the movement of people, are essentially closed. Besides, their production capacities are unlikely to match the scale of the demand for such supplies. Many countries like the US have for years now heavily depended on China for almost all kinds of industrial products.
The Chinese advantage
China continues to be one of the most reliable suppliers to the global economy, but it now may bounce back with much-enhanced scope and aggression. There are reasons for this. Chinese production facilities largely remain operational. Even during the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, except in Hubei province where Wuhan is located, China was able to operate its production and distribution facilities. And, although export shrunk by 17 percent, it is poised to immediately bounce back. Unlike many large economies of the world, the Chinese economy essentially remained intact.
Further, the opening up of Wuhan for business provides a much-needed morale boost to the rest of the economy. The hope of other world economies returning to normal anytime soon looks realistically bleak. Both economic and financial shocks in other economies, in all likelihood, are certain to take a relatively long time—leaving enough room for China to wield its strength.
The Chinese ability to manage large scale production and service facilities, and its swiftness in response to crises are unmatched, anywhere. During the time of crisis, an advantage of a 'disciplinarian' state also seems to serve better than a 'liberal' polity. The world has no option but to rely on a prospective supplier like China for their own survival. Also, China already has created transportation networks, trade infrastructure and logistics with an aim to be a global merchandise leader much before Covid-19 struck the world. Railway networks extended to Southeast Asian, Gulf and European nations and maritime infrastructure developed in the South China Sea are examples to this. All these phenomena provide China with a clear economic advantage and, more importantly, it seems determined to exploit strategic and geopolitical advantage bestowed by time.
Reshaping the Belt and Road Initiative
When Covid-19 first hit China, the future of its ambitious investment and connectivity strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was in question. But now, Beijing hopes that the global health crisis could serve as a natural extension of BRI partnerships as demand for Beijing’s cooperation in partner countries’ public health systems would increase, exponentially. The new Chinese narrative is 'creating a new heath silk road'.
Of course, there are narratives unsupportive of such Chinese dreams. US President Donald Trump heckled China by calling the novel coronavirus the 'Chinese Virus'. Indian media is rife with 'One Belt One Road One Virus' jibes. They also allege that rapid transmission of Covid-19 to European countries is due to their direct railway connectivity with Wuhan as part of the BRI. Some conspiracy theories are also suggesting that China may be underreporting both infection and fatality figures. Further, China did not take enough responsibility on time to prevent the spread of the virus to other countries. Some arguments have also extended to surmise that ‘there can be no denying that there may be some connection between the manufacture of the biological weapons by China and the accidental spread of this virus’.
For all practical purposes, these criticisms seem destined to be transient. At present, every country is looking up to China for help to contain the pandemic. In a matter of months, all these severely affected countries—where their production and supply chains have been badly disrupted—will have no option but to begin to import even basic consumer commodities, above and beyond medical supplies, to save their population from starvation. China will remain undeniably one of those suppliers.
China is known as 'the factory of the world', is already the second-largest economy of the world and is striving to take a suitable role in global diplomacy. The present onslaught of the Covid-19 has pushed all other major world economies towards uncertainty. Massive job and productivity losses, and the looming currency and banking crises, warrants them to spend heavily on immediate livelihood support, relief and economic stimulus packages. Already inundating sovereign debt barely provides them with much-needed elbow room to put the global economy back on the track.
The Covid-19 crisis, regardless of how bad it may cost the world, therefore, may still prove to be a true blessing in disguise for China to rise to increase its strategic influence globally. Whatsoever, it may again hinge on how democratically this communist country can learn to behave in the global arena.
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