Politics have exacerbated the already severe pains that the raging COVID Pandemic have been inflicting on the global population. The spread of Coronavirus coincided with three major developments in the global arena. First was the end of what Charles Krauthammer, the American neo-conservative guru had called, as the title of his book on that subject suggested, America’s “Unipolar Moment”. This was the period, since the implosion of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, when the United states was the only pre-dominant superpower that ruled the roost in the global arena. Though China was rising in the meantime, politically, economically and militarily, it was still coy about it, conforming to the Deng Xia0ping counsel to “hide its capabilities and bide its time”.
The second, major development was the assessment of China’s current leader Xi Jinping was that that demure posture was no longer necessary, China was strong and confident enough to assert itself, and seek the position of a peer to the US. So, the US’ “Unipolar Moment” was pretty much over, and a new era of bipolarity was ushered into the international arena.
The third was technically a domestic development, the up-coming US elections, which, however, always have wide enough implications of a global nature. Donald Trump needed an issue to mobilize his support-base, and a conflict with China could be a useful rallying point. A war was too dangerous, with uncertain consequences. At the same time the coronavirus was wreaking havoc in the US, and the Administration’s delayed response was subject to considerable criticism. So a distraction, rendered all the more convenient because many Americans believed it, was created by blaming China for initially concealing the origin and lethality of the disease, and also the world Health Organization (WHO)for kowtowing to China’s directions, endeavouring to exonerate Beijing from the responsibilities. The last point appeared to have a modicum of credibility as the Director General of that international body, an Ethiopian, Tedros Gereyesus, had some reasons to be beholden to Beijing as a source of support to him. But he himself was quick to deny it, claiming that no action of the WHO, in reaction to COVID, was taken at the behest of any member, meaning China.
That was the backdrop against which the key decision making organ of the WHO, the World Health Assembly, which has 194 State-members, met, virtually ,due to the global Corona-induced lock-down, centred in the WHO headquarters in Geneva ,for two days in the third week of May. Weeks prior to the session, the US and China, along with their supporters, locked horns, first through the preparatory process, and thereafter during the session itself. The differences surfaced mainly with regard to two issues: first was the participation of Taiwan, and the second was a resolution pertaining to the reforms of the WHO.
The question of the participation of Taiwan in United Nations and other international conferences where membership constitutes States, has been a perennial bone of contention. An overwhelming membership of the UN, including the US. Conform to the one-china policy, which, by definition, excluded Taiwan’s presence. However, in the WTO, after the SARS pandemic at the turn of the century, Taiwan was invited to sit in as observer at WHA sessions, though under the status deprecating banner of “Chinese Taipeh”. But that was with the approval of China as Taiwan had a pro-unification (with China) government. But currently the government in Taiwan is seen as pro-independence, which has raised Chinese ire, an, consequently China was disinclined to extend invitation to Taipeh. So, despite US insistence that the success of Taipeh’s COVID containment (0nly 440 infections and seven deaths), which would enable it to contribute positively to discussions, the door was closed to Taiwan. An angry Trump, who had already cancelled the current years assessed contribution to WTO budget, criticizing the WHO, calling it to “demonstrate independence from China’ and urging reforms, threatening that if these were not initiated , further US action would follow.
The other major western bloc, the European Union, disassociated itself from the US position, and put out a statement supporting the WHO. Its foreign policy spokesman said: ‘This is the time for solidarity, not the time for finger-pointing or for undermining multilateral cooperation”. Even within the US there were apprehensions that Trump’s posture could lessen the US clout in the global fight against the pandemic, and in fact, cede the leadership in combatting it to China. The head of the prestigious American think-tank the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the US needed to consult others on reforming the WHO if it wanted to do more than just posturing. He observed that “there is no unilateral US answer to global health challenges”.
As to the issue of reforms, it was akin to motherhood, in the sense that everyone was supportive of reform, and no one opposing it; the question was what were the necessary reforms and when were they to be implemented. Australia, a key US ally initially led the charge, beginning with a call for an inquiry into the origin of the virus. But the spirit was somewhat dampened as once again politics came to the fore with China swiftly proposing massive tariffs on Australian barley and blocking meat imports from it (China is Australia’s largest market , lifting nearly 38 percent of its total exports , greater than those of the US, Japan and South Korea combined.) China also wanted reforms, but only those , as Xi Jinping said, “based on science and professionalism, led by the WHO, and conducted in an objective and impartial manner”.
Finally, it was the resolution initiated by the European Union, which eventually attracted a large number of other cosponsors, that was adopted. It had three main components. It called for: First, an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation of the international response to the pandemic; second, a probe on the actions of the WTO and their timelines pertaining to COVID-19; and three, requiring the WHO to examine the ‘zoonotic’ (spread from animal to human, thus dismissing some western accusation of a man-made virus) and the route of introduction to human population.
The resolution was adopted by consensus (‘Consensus’ agreement is distinct from ‘unanimous’ agreement -the which though subtle is also significant- in that in the former case no one disagrees, and in the latter case, everyone agrees), which was face-saving for all, since members did not have to publicly state or demonstrate their actual positions. So, the S did not disassociate itself from the consensus as some had feared, but remained content, for the time being, with Trump describing WHO as “puppet of China”. But the US President struck hard on 30 May by ending his country’s relationship with the WHO, accusing it of being “Under the total control of China”.
Despite the fact that by now such announcement was expected, there was world- wide expression of regret. Immediately Germany’s Health Minister, Jens Spah, called it “a disappointing backlash for international health”. A leading British oncologist said there was no “logic” to the decision. However, the WHO is likely to survive the American withdrawal. The contributions will be made up from other sources. China has already committed $ 2 billion over two years to help other countries respond to the virus,
This would help fill the gap. Even US and other western billionaires might step in with their support. But the point is, the development does not augur well for multilateralism broadly, and global cooperation in the health sector specifically. The point to note is that given the fact that we are poised to enter a new era where the world is no longer unipolar, that after three decades the US now has a rival peer, could once again dichotomize the world. In particular, the entire developing world, including Bangladesh, must need take heed and shape behaviour patterns appropriately.
Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh.