The global politics of the coronavirus

The global politics of the coronavirus

It is not surprising that the deadly coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in China's Hubei province has become a contentious issue in international politics. While the number of fatalities has reached 565 and more than 28,000 have been infected in China to date, the issue has become politicised and polarised because it emerged in an Asian superpower that is aggressive in its pursuit of global supremacy.

Had the virus with its pneumonia-like characteristics started in a small country with no global ambitions, international reactions might have been less frenzied and controversial.

But China is big and powerful and it is so enmeshed in the world economy that few countries will be left unaffected when it is hit by such an uncontrollable pandemic. By comparison, when the H1N1 flu started in the United States in 2009, it infected more than 1.6 million and took some 284,500 lives across 214 countries, with a morbidity rate of 17.4%. Global reactions to the H1N1 flu were less hysterical and critical, compared to the coronavirus, which is said to have a 2.1% mortality rate among those infected.

Nevertheless, as the coronavirus spreads and claims more casualties in the weeks ahead, it is likely to become a new geopolitical battleground between those aligned with China and others that are not. The adverse knock-on effects on geopolitics and the world economy are also likely to compound global tensions and domestic challenges in many countries. Global demand is likely to be dampened, and a global recession may be in the offing as space for fiscal stimuli is limited. China has already injected a stimulus package of 1.2 trillion yuan (5.3 trillion baht), which seems to be only a fraction of what will be needed to shore up growth ahead of 2021 when the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary.

So far, the tally of attitudes and responses to the coronavirus has been remarkably divisive. Thailand is a good example of how not to respond to a pandemic of this scope and scale.

External shocks tend to test the mettle of governments. In Thailand's case, the government dithered during the critical period in the initial stages when the outbreak had just reached other countries beyond China by refusing to ban flights to and from Wuhan. It also declined to suspend visa-on-arrival services for Chinese tourists. The government's dithering over much of January caused confusion, anger, and insecurity among the public. Fortunately, Thailand's medical personnel and facilities, ranked among some of the top in the world, acted as a cushion to calm public anxiety and fear.

Since it failed to respond effectively and quickly, the Thai government is now playing catch-up in trying to bring Thais home from Wuhan and trying to deal with the wider fallout from air travel, tourism, and other industries related to the coronavirus. To be on top of such a crisis, the government's response needed to be firm, clear, fast, and with a plan of action. Since this did not happen, the government fell behind the evolving narrative of fear and panic, fuelled by social media and fabricated and exaggerated news.

At the same time, the Thai government's inept response acts as a reflection of China's soft power. Tourism now accounts for more than 12% of Thailand's GDP and nearly a third of it derives from Chinese visitors. While restrictions and bans on Chinese tourists could stifle growth, the lack of response led to a health risk to the Thai public. Calibrating the right mix of restrictions and relaxation vis-à-vis China is understandably difficult but the Thai government should have been proactive and clear from the outset.

The Thai government's response to the coronavirus can be interpreted as politically favourable towards China. In fact, Chinese internet users have reportedly applauded the official Thai response. The Thai public, however, is divided, with many sceptical and insistent on looking after the well-being of Thais instead of Chinese tourist money. The same goes for Cambodia's government, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has hardly lifted a finger to stem the proliferation of the coronavirus, although the Cambodian people may have been even more sceptical.

Japan, which has warmed to China over the past two years, also has surprisingly been measured and supportive of China's efforts to contain the virus. Tokyo imposed an entry ban on foreigners from Hubei province and holders of Chinese passports issued in Hubei but has otherwise been more lenient compared to other major powers. Since October 2018, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping have realigned their bilateral interests despite historical enmity in view of the US-China trade and tech conflict and US President Donald Trump's apparent inattentiveness to Japan's security considerations. Mr Xi is due to visit Japan this April to solidify the China-Japan realignment, reciprocating Mr Abe's visit to Beijing in 2018.

The US and Australia, on the other hand, banned travellers from mainland China at a much earlier stage of the outbreak. More recently, Taiwan has followed suit. Vietnam and the Philippines, two Southeast Asian countries with prickly issues concerning China over the South China Sea, also joined global scepticism early on against China over the virus outbreak.

As the novel coronavirus is still on the loose and global jitters are still on the rise, it is plausible that many countries will have no choice but to impose more and more restrictions on most things Chinese in and out of their territories. However, to China, the latter stages will not be as important as the early stages. The Chinese government may well remember in the long-run those countries and peoples which became tough on China earlier rather than later and which did so only when they had no choice left.

The Chinese people, on the other hand, may view the adverse global reactions as a way of keeping China down, fanning nationalist sentiment at home and worsening geopolitical rivalry and tensions abroad.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.

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