Dragon’s dreams

China aspires to become the leader of the post-pandemic world

ARGENTINA-CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS Grand ambitions: Medical supplies from China being unloaded in Buenos Aires, Argentina. China has stepped up its global leadership efforts following the Covid-19 pandemic | AFP

Blame it on Henry Kissinger. The American Machiavelli’s secret trip to Beijing in 1971 on President Richard Nixon’s orders was the first step to bring China back into the global mainstream. Nixon and Kissinger thought that the move would make China a follower of the rules. Decades later, it seems things are not going according to plan.

On April 14, President Donald Trump halted US funding—nearly $400 million annually—to the World Health Organisation, alleging that it worked with China to cover up the spread of Covid-19. Trump’s decision will hurt countries that need WHO’s assistance urgently. But beyond that, there is another fear: China will gain ground.

“This only plays into Chinese hands, allowing it to blame the US for being irresponsible and to act like the saviour,” says Jabin Jacob, China expert at Shiv Nadar University. A state-owned think tank in China recently floated the idea of a Beijing-led alternative to the WHO, giving an indication about the Chinese thinking.

In the past few decades, China has tried to create alternative multilateral organisations. While these institutions are yet to prove their merit, China has been spreading its influence within the United Nations systems. Last month, it was made a member of an influential consultative group of the UN Human Rights Council, which will oversee the appointment of experts for sensitive issues like freedom of speech and religion. China already heads four of the 15 specialised agencies of the UN.

“Chinese citizens heading international organisations is a bad idea,” says Jacob. “They are beholden to the Communist Party of China, and not to the organisation or international charter which they serve. The arrest of the Chinese head of Interpol by Chinese authorities a few years ago without consideration for his international role and profile and over protests of the organisation shows just how little Beijing cares about international bodies.”

Chinese funding has emerged as a powerful force. China is already a world leader in terms of peacekeeping operations. With the US scaling back its engagement, China could become the biggest contributor to the UN budget, boosting its goodwill and influence.

China, however, is also flexing its muscles as the world faces an unprecedented crisis. The South China Sea is emerging as a battleground as China has chosen to name 80 islands and geographical features recently. China has also ramped up its military production, and is working on supplying submarines and other weapons systems to Pakistan.

It might, however, be too soon for China to claim a global leadership position. “We do not know what the world will look post Covid-19,” says Ashok Kantha, former ambassador to China. “There is a resurgence of populism and protectionist policies and problems are solved within nationalist confines rather than in multilateral forums.”

This new order, then, coupled with the suspicion towards China, may impede its rise, especially as the pandemic leaves a trail of devastation. Trump is not the only one suspicious. Britain has said hard questions will be asked. Australia, too, has asked for a probe into the origins of the virus. Japan has chosen to offer 220 billion yen ($2 billion) to firms for shifting production back to Japan and 23.5 billion yen to companies seeking to move to another country.

“China is trying for a leadership role,” says Alka Acharya, associate professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. “On the one hand, they are trying to counter the American narrative, and on the other, they are talking about collaboration. After the crisis, the spotlight on them will become even more intense.”

According to a Brookings India study, the total current and planned investment by Chinese entities in India is over $26 billion. The People’s Bank of China raising its stake in HDFC Bank to over 1 per cent has sent jitters across the government. The government has modified its Foreign Direct Investment policy to ensure that investment from neighbouring countries will require the nod from the Union government. The Chinese are less than happy with this. But India played it safe without naming China.

Gujarat, a leading recipient of Chinese investment, is eyeing Japan. Manoj Das, principal secretary, industries, Gujarat, told THE WEEK that the state was working on a campaign to attract Japanese companies which are willing to shift their base from China.