Home / News / India /  China did not tell the world how serious covid-19 was, says Gautam Bambawale

The novel coronavirus pandemic has dealt a major blow to China’s image, with the world's most populous country's credibility damaged grievously, said former Indian ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale. The pandemic has also brought to the fore vulnerabilities and shortcomings in global institutions such as the United Nations (UN). The new world order that emerges post the pandemic could create space for a group of middle powers to provide global leadership, which could include Japan, India, France and South Africa, he said. Edited excerpts from an interview.

There seems to be two different patterns to the way China is operating right now – one is belligerent/threatening towards the West and the second is a seemingly softer approach towards countries like India, Sri Lanka and the African states. Do you discern this trend too?

When you have observed Chinese diplomacy for a longish time, you realise that Chinese diplomatic tactics comprise of two different faces. One can be described as a ‘smiling face’ while the other, I would describe as the ‘snarling face’. In other words, you can also say that China uses both the carrot and the stick in its diplomacy. So, any one country may see China’s ‘smiling face’ at one point in time, but you can also be shown its ‘snarling face’ at another point in time. We in India have not merely experienced both these avatars over the years but we have also dealt with them very adroitly and calmly. So what you are currently witnessing is that the West is being shown and treated to China’s ‘snarling face’ while we are perhaps being shown their ‘smiling face’. After all, you cannot fight with everyone all the time. So to cut directly to your question, most nations around the globe are well aware of Chinese tactics and they will bear diminishing returns.

We are also seeing another trend – that of Chinese ambassadors/diplomatic missions in different countries becoming more and more vocal, while Beijing – the leadership that is – seems to be quiet. I am referring to what is happening in Australia and Czech Republic where we see the power of the Chinese economy being used as a weapon to threaten consequences. Is this something new?

This is not something new. It is a trend which has accelerated in the post pandemic world. China has used its economic leverages in the past too. You will recollect a few years ago when there was a political tiff between China and South Korea, Beijing had stopped Chinese tourists visiting Korea and this had made a huge impact on the Koreans. Other countries too have experienced this. Now, China seems to be threatening Australia in similar fashion. However, this time I for one, don’t think it is going to work. Remember, economics works both ways. Trade increases welfare in both trading nations. Reducing trade will hurt both trading nations as well. Also, most calculations have changed in this post-covid-19 world and perhaps the Chinese have not fully taken this into account. I repeat, I do not believe such threats are going to work now. Your point of Chinese ambassadors and embassies being shrill and vocal is a good one. This is a display of combative diplomacy, where the Chinese diplomats are wanting to change the narrative through such diplomatic maneuvering. Again, I do not think such tactics will work anymore.

There is palpable anger in the world not only among governments but among people also against China over how they allowed covid-19 to become a pandemic of such proportions. What about the Chinese people themselves? Do you sense any anger within China due to the way the Chinese authorities acted?

You are right, there is anger around the world, especially among civil society, that for a crucial three-week period in January 2020, the Chinese authorities did not tell the world how serious this current epidemic was and what its consequences could be. During those three weeks, people travelled from Wuhan all around the world, which may have contributed to the spread of the covid-19 pandemic. The Chinese authorities need to answer such queries rather than retorting angrily to them. Sometimes, honest mistakes are made and it is better to be open and apologetic about them, rather than being defensive about them. Instead, they are clamping down on information and in a sense ‘circling the wagons’. This is how authoritative, opaque systems react. Within China itself, the authorities have control over all levers of power.

There has been damage to China’s image abroad. What do you see as the consequences of that in the context of a new world order?

Yes, China’s image across most of the world has been dealt a serious blow as a result of the emotions amongst civil society that I have described earlier. China’s hard power may be intact but her soft power has gone into negative territory. Her credibility has been damaged grievously. The fissures between the United States on the one hand and China on the other have grown immeasurably as a result of this pandemic. Their battle for supremacy will continue. However, the issues and problems domestically within the United States have also become more apparent during this public health crisis. So while she will continue to treat China as a peer competitor, she will also increasingly turn inward to resolve some of her own internal issues. This is a trend which existed before the Wuhan virus but will accelerate now. On the other hand, with China’s credibility being hurt badly, she too has lost the moral authority to lead the world. So, I see space for a group of middle powers to provide global leadership particularly on subjects which impact the whole of humanity. Perhaps, Japan, India, France, South Africa could form some type of coalition to lead the world towards measured outcomes. Needless to add, we would need to take both the United States and China along.

Why is China so sensitive about this virus being called the Wuhan virus? There are examples of diseases being named after regions or countries – German measles is one example...

The whole world knows where this particular virus originated from. So, I would not balk at calling it the Wuhan virus. I believe that whether we like it or not, this particular virus will be called by this name in popular parlance.

What do you think about the way the UN and the World Health Organization (WHO) have dealt with this pandemic?

One of the consequences of the recent developments is that the UN and its specialised agencies have been shown to be lacking in direction, intent and effectiveness. This is a result of the UN reflecting the world of 1945 and not that of 2020. Either there will have to be a complete restructuring of the United Nations and its agencies or else decision making power will flow elsewhere. It could flow to coalitions of countries who think alike on an individual global issue. For example, on the question of climate change, there could be a group of 7-8 countries which could provide the lead for some serious steps and measures which will have to be accepted by one and all. India definitely has the potential to play a leadership role, along with other nations, in this respect.

Q. Europe is the second most affected region in the world due to this pandemic. What do you see as the consequences of this for the European Union as an entity?

Ans. This pandemic has done great harm to the concept of a united Europe in general and to the European Union in particular. You would have noticed that the EU did not come to the help of individual member states to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. Each member of the EU was on its own. Does this sound the death knell of the European Union? I think it does. Perhaps, a leaner, more united and effective Union of fewer countries may arise from this pandemic. We shall have to wait and see.

Q. What impact has the pandemic had on India-China relations? How do you see ties moving forward?

Ans. On India – China relations, the relationship has always been very complex. Post pandemic, it will become more so. We have been managing this relationship not merely over the last 70 years but over millennia. We will continue to do so. Both sides must remain calm but should be sensitive to each sides areas of concern. Right now, each country will focus more on their own internal issues particularly on how to tackle the economic problems arising from the lockdowns necessitated by the pandemic. Globally, India will find some new diplomatic space to make its leadership felt on issues impacting humanity as a whole. I would recommend that Indian and Chinese scientists work together on developing a new vaccine against the novel corona virus. This could become a new sphere in which we could cooperate.

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