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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems
Two paths diverge in pandemic

3rd April 2020

Starting the conversation…

Kun-Chin Lin, Deputy Director, Centre for Geopolitics

We are told that we are standing before a fork in the road – one path draws nations into protectionist, xenophobic cocoons, and the other commits us to a liberal vision of inclusive cooperation across the North-South divide to address public health and climate change challenges. But can we envision a better exit option?

Realist proposals seeking to “regionalize” global order or “nationalize” responses to an inherently transnational, geopolitical problem cannot address the cause of the tragedy before us. They miss the point of a pandemic which is the direct result of the morally hazardous behavior of a powerful authoritarian state exploiting an open liberal international society (link to the earlier China blog).


To what standards will we hold ourselves in the bilateral and multilateral engagement with the PRC? What are liberal democracies willing to invest in for our long-term security and global prosperity?


Left to its own devices, each country or region might seek a “return to normalcy”, by resuming  “business as usual” with China. If so, multiple competing interests would undermine effective coordinated responses to hold Beijing accountable for managing cross-border risks. This will happen on several levels. Firms, banks, and even universities will be desperate for short-term profit, without the serious ability to mitigate political risks. Crisis-impoverished people will demand cheap goods, accepting compromised health, labor and environmental standards. Governments at all levels will court Chinese investment, whilst struggling to contain risks for foreign influence and debt and environmental sustainability.

Liberal-internationalist proposals which build on preexisting interstate cooperation cannot overcome the inherent limitations of international organizations which abetted this crisis. What Peter Katzenstein called the “Sinocization process” of international organizations has fractured the normative and political bases for multilateral bargaining to achieve mutual accommodation of PRC and the international society. In recent epidemics including Ebola, Zika, and MERS, critics have found WHO to respond inadequately due to political considerations. In the current pandemic, WHO’s allegiance is clear in its effusive praise for Chinese actions and a stubborn disregard for Taiwan.

Industry practice sometimes sets insurance premium at a higher level than non-market distorting levels to safeguard against moral hazards. We should reconstruct our post/inter-pandemic world order under the same principle. In the post-WWII decades, US provided market access and security umbrella to fortify allies against Communism. To what standards will we hold ourselves in the bilateral and multilateral engagement with the PRC? What are liberal democracies willing to invest in for our long-term security and global prosperity?



Rana Mitter, Director of the University China Centre, University of Oxford

Kun-chin Lin’s blog entry makes a powerful point: can we return to “business as usual” with China after the corona crisis is over?  The answer is surely no: but any solution that will last will have to find creative ways not only to create new alliances and make new commitments, but also to decide where we, as liberal societies, fall short, and how we can take the effort to live up to our own standards as we challenge China.

First, it is important to stress that China must make its system of politics more transparent and accountable and stop spreading rumours with no substance about the origins of COVID-19. We know that fear of political consequences was one major reason that Chinese officials did not tell the truth when the outbreak occurred in December last year.  But we have not learned the lessons: the US in particular has set a poor example since the start of the crisis, seeking to minimize the seriousness of the crisis and using rightwing media to suggest that attempts to tackle the virus are political tricks of the left. In contrast, Japan sent sympathy and medical equipment to China earlier this year, and showed little enthusiasm to turn the virus into an opportunity to create a new frontier for confrontation with China.

Second, we should push for stronger animal welfare and food hygiene standards in China.  In doing so, Britain will have to avoid any rush to match lower standards than it has now in signing new trade deals.   Nor should we allow the degrading of our public health services, selling off sectors to the highest bidders, as was threatened in discussions over trade last year.  The importance of a well-funded public health service is now eminently clear.  If we are asking China to raise its standards – and we must – we cannot seek the lowest denominator while asking higher standards of others.

Of course, the political circumstances in China are several orders of magnitude more repressive than in liberal societies; the two are not directly comparable.  But we need to make sure that our own house is in order to be convincing to a state that we want to challenge for its role in creating the current crisis.