A new domain of Cold War 2.0 unfolded at the WHO, with US President Donald Trump firing the latest salvo against the UN agency that plays an important role in cooperation on international issues. Trump has accused China of covering up its lapses in the worldwide spread of Covid-19 and the WHO of playing the role of a “puppet of China” in aiding the cover-up. American officials have joined Trump in accusing the WHO of negligence, allowing the Covid-19 pandemic to rage “out of control”, blaming it for its slow reaction and failure to obtain information in a timely fashion.
Trump’s scathing comments were conveyed in a letter he wrote to the WHO director general, a copy of which has been released in the public domain. The letter has outlined the chronology of developments and given a 30-day period in which the WHO must commit to substantive improvements or permanently lose US funding. The US is the largest contributor to WHO. The person under fire is the DG, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former foreign minister of Ethiopia and earlier its health minister. He is the first African to head the WHO. There is no doubt that Tedros is culpable, as the chronology outlined in Trump’s letter suggests. Whether the missteps were errors of judgements or deliberate kowtowing to China, further investigation will no doubt reveal.
In the US, Trump is under attack from political opponents and medical experts for his inept handling of the pandemic. Attacking China may well be a useful tactic to divert attention from his domestic woes, which includes the world’s highest Covid-19 cases and deaths, economic meltdown and huge unemployment. The pandemic has come at a time when Trump was riding high in his election campaign, cashing in on a healthy economy and the popularity of his “America First” policy. Covid-19 is not the only issue fuelling the new Cold War between China and the US.
The 194-member World Health Assembly (WHA) met in a virtual session for its annual meeting for reviewing the work of the WHO. It grappled with the recriminations between China and the US, the latter backed by several Western nations. Tedros has said that an independent evaluation will be undertaken to learn lessons from the pandemic and the WHO will put forward any recommendations at the earliest. Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the WHA virtually, signifying that China was feeling the heat. Xi said that his country had acted with “openness and transparency”. On the issue of an investigation, he took to prevarication and said any investigation should commence only after the pandemic has been controlled. Xi sweetened his statement with China’s preferred tool of cheque-book diplomacy, by promising $2 billion over two years to help nations and universally share any vaccine produced.
China’s initial response was muscular, with its ambassadors lashing out at any criticism in their “wolf warrior” avatars. China retaliated with economic measures to prevent Australia’s major agricultural exports to it. Australia was one of the first countries that demanded an international investigation into the pandemic and its origins. China signalled to India via its transgressions of the LAC not to get into the anti-China camp with the US, EU, Australia and like-minded countries, in view of New Delhi’s imminent assumption of the presidentship of the executive board of the WHO. India had also roundly criticised the China-Pakistan project to build a dam on the Indus in Gilgit-Baltistan in PoK, asserting its sovereignty over the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. China is ramping up its forces along the LAC in Ladakh, prompting India to rush in more troops as reinforcements. It has also encouraged Pakistan to intensify its terrorist attacks across the LoC, reinforcing the fact that India faces a strategic China-Pakistan axis as its primary national security threat.
The demand for accountability by China has acquired ballast globally. The US, EU, India and many other countries have pushed for an inquiry that will investigate how the pandemic has been handled and what lessons can be learnt. Meanwhile, China has blocked Taiwan’s attendance at the WHA as it has been doing since 2016. WHA members have deferred taking a decision on Taiwan’s participation and Taiwan has stepped aside, not pushing its demand to participate, despite strong support from major countries led by the US. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the exclusion of Taiwan as another damaging blow to the credibility of the WHO. Taiwan had participated in the WHO consultations from 2009 to 2016. China blocked Taiwan’s participation after the pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen won the election in 2016. China is smarting from the praise Taiwan has received in successfully tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.
The final resolution in the WHA, co-sponsored by 122 countries including India, was adopted by consensus without a vote. The resolution has asked for a “systematic review”, also calling for “a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid-19” at the earliest and appropriate time in consultation with member states. This is typical of the kind of language used in the UN to satisfy all lobbies.
When the global momentum for an international investigation gathered enough traction, China realised that it could not duck out. It has traded off the inevitable investigation with milder words like “systematic review” against its “core issue” of Taiwan. It has warded off pressure on inclusion of Taiwan in the WHA which would have undermined its “one China” policy. The pandemic may only be a temporary setback for China in its drive to dominate the world. The WHA and its resolution is not the end of the tug-of-war that has marked the new Cold War. It is only another milestone, with many more to come.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
Former Ambassador, Ex-Secretary in MEA and currently a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi