Of late, Covid-19 has been getting a geopolitical boost from the tailwinds of political and scientific narratives originating primarily from the US. In May, US President Joe Biden ordered an intelligence probe into the origins of the novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2. The fact that it originated in China is undisputed. Scientific suspicions that the virus is an artificial creation and probably leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology have now received a booster dose. Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Adviser to the US President, stated that he never played down the possibility of the lab leak in China for political reasons. In the last few weeks, a slew of scientific papers have reinforced the lab leak theory, with the G7 and the European Union adding political traction to the call for concerted action to uncover the truth. International politics has now inserted itself into the investigative process and is gaining momentum within the spaces of scientific doubts regarding the origin of the virus. In the long run, the scientific quest for facts draped in political free play could eventually be the information missile that could do a lot of damage to China.
In the case of Covid-19, science, geography and politics could create a potent brew in the information age. In global geopolitics, this could become deadly for China. For China’s detractors, it might provide informational fuel and create the psychological effect that can, at the global level, drive popular anger directed against the country. It is an anger that has the potential to sustain because of the colossal damage caused by Covid to lives and livelihood.
The potency of the brew will depend on the narratives that are internalised at the popular level and the ability of political leadership to direct their application. Both scientific and political acumen can play a major role. Even without irrefutable proof, scientific doubts could ignite suspicions. In this information age, politicians could leverage emotions on a massive scale to channel the surge to foster cooperation among nations against China. Simultaneously, domestic socio-economic troubles can be blamed on the Chinese. This can make for a deadly cocktail as long as the United States leads the way. For now, it seems that Joe Biden is doing just that. China is concerned and will definitely retaliate. In fact, China’s pushback is already underway.
Burying the lab leak theory
China has thus far, managed to keep at bay the World Health Organization (WHO) investigators through delay and restrictions to access, interference in selection of the investigators and subversion of the WHO itself. Unfortunately, the US under Donald Trump, had given notice for the US withdrawal from WHO, giving China a free run of the institution. One of the Biden administration’s early moves was to reverse that decision.
China now has to confront the intellectual horsepower of the Western scientific community. That will not be an easy task and, therefore, it will resort to what it is good at – conceal, obfuscate, deceive and distract. China’s preferred posture will be to strengthen the narrative that Covid-19 had a natural origin. With stakes being high, it will pull out all the stops including attempts to subvert investigation by planting and corrupting evidence and deploying a vast array of instruments from its informational tool kit. This can be effective because it forms the political framework through which the Communist Party of China rules – control of information.
As long as China’s power is on the rise, it will surely garner the support of its current set of friends like Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. For those who are now economically dependent on China — more than a hundred countries — big and small, it will attempt to enforce silence. These numbers matter in the United Nations, and therefore to expect WHO to shift from China’s grip may seem impractical. China will make all attempts to strengthen its grip on WHO, which it will use as a shield against the scientific strength of the West.
China’s troubles with its debtors are already brewing as their economies are shattered by Covid-19. The narrative on the lab leak will percolate to the mostly backward people that China has economically but indirectly subjugated, mostly by buying out the leadership and intellectuals. At the end of 2019, countries with the most outstanding debt owed to China were: Pakistan ($20 billion), Angola ($15 billion), Kenya ($7.5 billion), Ethiopia ($6.5 billion), and Lao PDR ($5 billion). Some are particularly exposed to China: Tonga, Vanuatu, Djibouti, Congo Republic, Cambodia, Samoa, Lao PDR, Maldives, Angola, and Comoros will have to pay 25 per cent to 75 per cent of their total debt service to China between 2021 to 2024. There is now a possibility of some debtor countries grouping together to relieve themselves from the burden of their debtor status. Such attempts will find both covert and overt support from the developed counties. It would also suit the leadership of the debtor countries to harvest the sentiment against China to gain political power. Biden’s call to G7 opens up the gates of possibility.
Overall, China could play for time and expect that with normality returning, people will forget and the scientific community and politicians in the West will lose interest. How such an expectation will pan out will be an outcome of scientific and political boxing matches whose bouts have just begun. Also, there is a possibility that the rapid mutations of the coronavirus and the pace of vaccination at the global level may also stretch the life of the pandemic. For China, burying the lab leak theory may then get tougher.
China might even manage to keep science from revealing the truth but what will matter eventually will be in the realm of the political where psychological ascendancy is the currency of power. In the Covid-19 war, that power is now derived from sustaining the narrative that echoes in the belief systems of the masses and political leadership. The narrative nests in creating suspicions about China’s culpability in covering up the lab leak, which delayed international response and caused avoidable death and suffering and therefore Beijing must be made to pay. Such a narrative, aided by information connectivity, is now spreading faster than the virus itself. The narrative’s easy absorption into belief systems searching for someone to blame for the suffering gives it potency and transmissibility to infect minds. Demands calling for reparations from China is not unimaginable in the long run.
China will certainly not pay, but it might stand to lose geopolitically. China’s greatest fear is that a large part of the world will gang up against it and impede its rise. Burying the narrative of the lab leak, and the cover-up is a strategic imperative. On the other hand, for the West, the narrative can be one among other instruments to deal with China. The battle has been joined and time will tell how it finally plays out.
India’s scientific stand
What should India’s initiatives in the matter be?
India has supported global calls for investigation into the origins of the virus and must continue to do so, even though it will be a long-winded process. Our rationale should be based on the imperative of utilising the scientific knowledge gained to prevent and deal with future pandemics. India should warn against politicisation of what should be a purely scientific investigation and call for China and all actors to cooperate. It should certainly refrain from joining the chorus of voices that are baying for China’s blood without reasonable scientific proof.
India’s economic dependency on China should not influence our principled posture on the issue. The fact that during and despite the ongoing China-India border crisis, trade has remained resilient indicates that both countries have preferred the mutual benefits it bestows.
India’s vast scientific and academic pool of expertise and capability in the domain of virology should join hands with the investigative process of the global scientific community. In some manner, such cooperation is ongoing but must now find greater government patronage. Domestically, the pain of the masses must be allowed democratic expression even if it annoys China. It is high time that India’s foreign policy jettisons the ‘annoying China’ notion even when it should take a principled stance. India, even with a battered economy, must steadfastly hold on to its national motto ‘Satyameva Jayate’.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, and former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.