The Trump administration has been playing the blamegame since the pandemic began to take its toll in the US.

Wrong to Use China as Scapegoat for Covid-19

BY :SURESH SOMU

JULY 17, 2020

For God’s sake, let’s stop the blame game as the world scratches its heads to find a serious way to end the Covid-19 pandemic. Pray, tell me: Was this an avoidable global germ? That's a question many are pondering as the virus is taking thousands of lives daily from Asia to Europe, America to Africa. 

Such a reflection is necessary, as it enables us to be better prepared for the next public emergency. But sadly, it is in turn being used by anti-China forces in the US to deflect blame. Whenever there is a disaster, we tend to look for someone to be held accountable. But this time, it seems that the US has got the wrong one.

The reason America is one of the hardest-hit countries by Covid-19 is not because of what has been alleged by some in the US of China's "cover-up." More likely, analysts say, it is because of the White House's delayed response when there were warning signs from the outside. 
 
Trace back to the cradle-starts of Covid-19: In late December, cases of pneumonia of unknown cause were first detected in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province.  Three weeks before the lockdown on January 2, China started the virus identification work. From the next day, China began to inform the WHO and exchange information with the US regularly about the new virus.  On the same day, the potential threat of the new virus began to be included in Trump's daily brief. 

From January onward, as China was busy tracking the spread of the virus and developing test kits, the volume of warnings also increased from American intelligence agencies. It was about the same time when Senator Richard Burr sold up to $1.72 million worth of stocks. 

I will put it bluntly by saying that this coronavirus has become a global assassin, forcing countries from shutting borders to locking people at their homes in a bid to reduce the spread. Despite the absence of an effective vaccine today, several nations had to resume domestic activities, purely for economic survival. 

So here’s the inevitable no-one-wins blame game. Analysts blamed China for the global issue, other observers found it quite difficult to fathom a nation that aced the scorecard in all fronts would make such a blunder; a genuine sign of battered image. 

But imagine this. Given the pandemic, nations have racked up billions of dollars to keep afloat. In unprecedented times, like now, some countries tap into the reserves. But not all are blessed with a massive chest. So what would China do when nations begin knocking its door for assistance? 

China the Heavyweight

In the past decades China has become a heavyweight by becoming the developing world’s biggest banker. It had unleashed a global spending spree, enticing nations with hundreds of billions of dollars. This was done with a strategic intent of becoming the political and economic powerhouse.

The Kiel Institute, a German research group, pegs China’s lending to the developing world at $520 billion or more. And the USA would be unable to match the scale of China’s investment. In fact, it makes China, a bigger lender than the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. 

Some years ago, I wrote a piece: "Can USA stop China from taking over a key African port in Djibouti?" The takeaway was Chinese continuous expansion in Djibouti is only one part of China’s overall Africa strategy, which mixes military, economic and diplomatic incentives to lure African countries away from the West and bolster China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. General Thomas Waldhauser, then Commander of US Africa Command, said the US would be unable to match the scale of China’s investment throughout the continent, noting Beijing’s construction of shopping malls, government buildings and even football stadiums. And it is only the beginning. Today, Djibouti’s debt has soared to more than 80 percent of its annual economic output while Ethiopia’s debt to China totals 20 percent of its annual output. 

The China’s One Belt, One Road initiative of President Xi Jinping’s $1 trillion initiative to finance infrastructure projects across the world paves way to garner allies who are in a debt-ridden state now. And if China demands repayment, its quest for global clout will be risky. So rather than foreclosing on loans and taking over strategic assets of countries that can’t afford to repay, China has taken a much different stance. 

The Trump administration has accused China of “debt-trap diplomacy” -- lending more money than poor countries could afford to seize strategic assets and to expand its military and economic footprint, conquer and control, unlike the orthodox war battle. 

In retrospect, developing nations had a sign of huge relief when the Group of 20 nations, including China, announced it would freeze all debt payments for the world’s poorest countries until the end of the year. This was in response to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s appeal to announce a debt relief initiative for developing countries.  Pakistan, which is over $100 billion in debt to foreign lenders spends the largest chunk of its budget on debt servicing, began a $900 million cash disbursement program to 12 million poor families rendered unemployed due to lockdowns.

Pressure on China

The pressure on China will only increase as the global economic crisis deepens. And it is cognizant of the challenges that countries are in especially when a bloc of the “least developed” African countries has called for debt cancellation. With nose-diving economics, it is widely expected that China would continue to bail out poor countries, carry on with projects in the developing world as its global reputation is on the line. By doing so, it also assists to bring projects funded by loans back to life and realize sustainable profits rather than write-offs. This way, it probably eases the strain on its financial system. 

A solidified position as an economic superpower with backing from its allies seems to be in China’s smart pack of cards. However, if China strikes hard bargains, debtor nations could band together and present a united front. And this is something that China would want to avoid. So whatever route taken must be carefully deliberated especially when numerous nations are angered in China’s handling of the pandemic. So the ball is at China’s court as it is now faced with tough choices as the world economies reel. 

Looking back at the timeline, you and I could say: "If China did this at this time, things could have been better." But don't forget that China entered uncharted territory and started the battle on its own. Other countries had a choice. The group of people who accused China of being responsible for the pandemic are the very same ones who played it down in the first place. 

In my opinion, the past is history. But the US can still seize the present to treat more people, instead of sparing no effort to find a convenient scapegoat. 

Suresh Somu is a journalist based in Singapore.

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