Contrary to the expectations in many quarters, the major threat emanating from China is not military. It has come in the form of a pandemic, a highly contagious disease, that is rapidly spreading from country to country, which has also spiked global fear about a nation that took a modicum of pride at being seen as the contemporary world’s most successful development story. With the first cases detected in Wuhan, a city in China’s Hubei province, it has spread like wild -fire, first in mainland China itself and then around the world with a rapidity that caught humanity unawares , even before the scientists found a name for the contagion! For now, it has been designated as ‘2019-nCoV’, but is more popularly known as ‘coronavirus’, named after the Latin word for a crown, a shape the virus resembles under a microscope. It, therefore, has acquired the unhappy cognomen of being the ‘King of diseases’, which the Chinese leader President Xi Jinping has ordered the Peoples’ Liberation Army to battle against, and eliminate! This is not the kind of adversary that those forces are generally trained to combat.
The coronavirus family come in many types that affect humans. It can cause anything between minor discomfort to death. Indeed, every day the number of fatalities being reported from all the continents – and the proliferation is unusually fast-are rising. While there are tests to identify the virus, no vaccine yet exists against it. Scientists in laboratories are working overtime to invent one, but for now their only advice being offered are plenty of liquids to drink and a lot of rest during the period of illness. The disease is highly contagious and can spread from person-to-person through mere contacts. Originally though the virus has been traced to animals from which it spread to peoples. These include bats, rats and snakes that has unfortunately given Chinese cuisine and culinary practices a bad reputation world-wide.
As the pandemic spreads, South Asia is increasingly becoming vulnerable. There are several factors that exacerbate the dangers. First, five of these countries- Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan, share a combined 4000 miles of border with China. The exposure to the sources of the virus therefore is large. Second, these countries are among the most densely populated in the world. This is both in the urban and rural areas. Third, the literacy rate is poor, and therefore cannot be easily accessed by press or other forms of written out-reach. For the authorities to spread necessary awareness of the associated dangers of this ailment is largely constrained. Fourth the availability of health care and its quality are limited. Most rudimentary equipment to tackle the virus such as masks, gloves, and good cleansing agents are mostly absent. Fifth, governments do not have the wherewithal to place requisite quarantine mechanism in place in airports and other places. In short overall preparedness is severely wanting.
Into this deadly cauldron is mixed another potion that some in South Asia appear to have little immunity against. It is China’s political pressure. South Asian countries such as Pakistan, and to a certain extent Bangladesh, are beholden to China for billions of dollars as credit as a part of that country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Already some of these projects have been negatively impacted, partly because the Chinese workers that usually are brought along for the purpose are required to be screened and partly because locals are chary of close working contacts with them. Politically, therefore these countries, particularly Pakistan, are not in a position to give China umbrage in any form. China has been worried that large scale foreign evacuations from that country would dent its World Health Organization ratings and international image.
Unsurprisingly, the decisions with regard to the virus by Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan were actuated mainly by those considerations. The government decided not to airlift its citizens out of Wuhan, despite appeals from the families of those based in Wuhan. As a result, the Chinese Ambassador thanked Pakistan for extending its support to his country. Pakistan’s decision to resume flights to and from China also bears the signs of diplomacy at play.
Bangladesh, which also enjoys close bilateral ties with China, was also caught between the devil and deep blue sea. But it deftly managed to conduct itself without providing China any cause for ire. In an initial flush of concern, it brought back a plane-load of Bangladeshis from China. But then it faced a dilemma as to how to quarantine the returnees without attracting opprobrium of families. Also, the four direct daily flights to China may have to be shut down, if only for economic reasons for lack of passengers. Officials made it appear that the decision was only rational, which it was.
For India, there were no reasons for politics to constrain pragmatism. For starters the relations between Beijing and New Delhi are not warm enough for either party to be concerned about any dip. However, India could hardly afford another addition to its already mounting domestic crises, reeling as it is from a plethora of protests that seem to dot that country at this time. Cases detected led Kerala to declare a state of emergency. Evacuation of Indians from China were promptly undertaken in response to felt public demands. Still, there were economic issues to consider, as trade was essential to reduce huge deficits, and New Delhi would be hard pressed to allow commerce to suffer. This has left the government between a rock and a hard place, and added to its troubled travails!
In South East Asia, one neighbour who has gone somewhat out of his way to be supportive of China is the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Conscious and in gratitude of the fact that China accounts for roughly 70 per cent of Cambodia’s foreign direct investment and is a major driver of its sustained 7 per cent economic growth rate, Hun Sen turned up in Beijing to demonstrate his solidarity with his source of support.
China is scrambling to maintain an aura of good governance such as by building hospitals in record time, effective city lock-down, and other measures. Should it rebound, as it did after SARS, it would not be a surprise. At a meeting with Hun Sen, Xi announced that the ‘prevention and control work (of the pandemic) is showing positive results’. While this, too, shall pass, China, and the world have a problem on hand at this time, and it would be unwise to minimize its significance. Nor should one underestimate China’s capacity to overcome this peril within China itself, though affected nations would have to work their way out largely on their own!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh