At the time of writing, the Coronavirus pandemic has infected nearly 3.94 million people worldwide and has claimed over 2,75,000 lives. The biggest sufferers in terms of human lives, so far, have been in the ageing Anglo-American world, with the disease most harmfully inflicting the United States, Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, and France. On April 14, in light of the disruption of global supply chains, the IMF updated its growth projections. Its report claimed that stringent lockdown measures in the world’s most advanced economies could contract global GDP by 1% —potentially bringing about the worst recession since the Great Depression. The International Labor Organization estimates that over “2.7 billion workers, representing around 81% of the world’s workforce” are going to be adversely affected. Unemployment rates in the United States have already reached record highs, as a staggering 30 million plus people have filed jobless claims. In the long run, due to their relatively poor public health infrastructure, large informal sectors and migrant workforces, and dependence on access to foreign capital, economic costs for developing economies are likely to be far worse. Per UNCTAD, just between February 21 and March 24, net debt and equity flows (capital flight) from emerging economies amounted to $59 billion.
The sense of resentment towards China therefore, is understandable. The primary accusation against it has been the deliberate covering up of the Coronavirus outbreak. Qiushi, the official magazine of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, reported that Xi Jinping held a high-level meeting on the virus on January 7, roughly 13 days before warning the public about the severity of the outbreak. Whistleblowers such as Dr Li Wenliang, who first began posting information about the novel virus online, were also censored and detained. In particular, the high risk of human-to-human transmission was concealed. Governments across the globe have since remained mistrustful of Chinese epidemic data and policy guidance on clinical experience in handling Covid-19 cases. The WHO’s lack of early warning has also made it complicit. The first reported case was on December 31, 2019, but the WHO-China fact-finding joint mission did not start until February 16, 2020. Also, despite reports of Coronavirus cases emerging since early January, the WHO advised countries against travel or trade restrictions on China. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, it helped China suppress the true scale of the pandemic, and failed to declare the Coronavirus a global health emergency until March 11. It is important to note that this was not China’s first infringement of this nature. Earlier, news of the SARS outbreak in November 2002 was also suppressed by Beijing. SARS had affected 8,000 people worldwide and left 774 dead.
The Politburo Standing Committee has accepted China’s “shortcomings and deficiencies,” but its general response has been unrepentant. In fact, Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye threatened economic sanctions on Australia in response to the latter’s push for an inquiry into the origins of the Coronavirus. Consequently, there has been widespread international condemnation of China’s negligence, and a rising global consensus that the country should be tried at the International Court of Justice. British think-tank Henry Jackson Society for instance, has claimed that “China should be sued under international law for trillions of dollars for its initial cover-up of the coronavirus pandemic.” Similarly, German tabloid Bild has demanded compensation of 149 billion euros (130 billion pounds). However, how helpful would a legal case be against a Great Power like China? As the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling on the South China Sea dispute proved, legal indictments undergirded by the threat of stigma are unlikely to reform a country that has largely built its reputation on “deviance,” and prioritizes nationalist pride over international commitments.
Hard balancing approaches also do not offer any solutions to the problem of regulating state behavior in a globalized world. Challenges such as climate change, terrorism or epidemics require collective action, and can (thankfully) not be dealt with through military alliances or arms races. For this very reason, they are also unlikely to disappear through countercurrents of de-globalization. Alternatively, while the flight of foreign manufacturing companies is likely to hurt, it will be difficult (read: impossible) to entirely isolate a country as large as China from the global financial markets. In light of the US-China trade war, supply chain managers had already begun diversifying their risks, and looking at other Asian countries such as India, Vietnam, Thailand, and Bangladesh as alternatives for manufacturing. But China—which is commonly referred to as “the world’s factory”—accounted for 28.4% of global industrial output in 2018; more than 10 percentage points ahead of the United States. The comparative advantages offered by its manufacturing sector are “too lucrative and too efficient to simply disappear.” Also, one should not discount China’s economic leverage while making this calculation. Access to its consumers and domestic markets, which account for 18.47% of the total world population, is a significant bargaining chip. Thus, left to themselves, in a sluggish global economy reeling from the impact of the Coronavirus, profit-hungry global corporations and financial markets are unlikely to impose costs on China that are significant enough to favorably shape the latter’s future behavior. The state needs to step in and look for solutions beyond protectionism.
In search of such “legitimate” state-led action, Amitav Acharya has argued that that the “world needs a [new] sanction-based accountability and transparency norm: responsibility to inform.” Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) already recognize the freedom “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Freedom of information also finds expression in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the American Convention on Human Rights (1969). On pandemics, Articles 6 and 7 of the WHO’s International Health Regulations 2005 obligate member states to notify and share information on international public health emergencies in a timely manner. However, as opposed to the hegemonic-interventionist practices that “responsibility to protect” brought about in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the promulgation of the “responsibility to inform” must be entirely consensus-driven. First, an international commission needs to be formed on “Information and State Sovereignty” to investigate the origins of the Coronavirus outbreak and highlight the deficiencies in first responses, and also to formulate the substantive rules and principles on “freedom of information” that could prevent similar irresponsible state behavior during a future crisis. Then, the recommendations of this commission or panel need to be deliberated at the UN General Assembly and adopted as a resolution. A separate institutional body and tribunal may also be set up to monitor the free flow of information, and to adjudicate on the reasonableness of states seeking exceptions to information sharing under national security or privacy. Building on pre-existing provisions, a comprehensive regime on the “responsibility to inform” needs to be developed. In China’s case, this would involve bringing down the “great firewall.”
Further, if signatory states are to ensure that countries who reap the benefits of economic globalization are not allowed to prevent the free flow of information, which could endanger the sustenance of this global network, effective sanctions would also need to be put into place. Since we have highlighted that excluding irresponsible great powers like China from global financial markets and international trade, or diplomatically isolating them is not a practicable solution, we suggest the introduction of a comprehensive trade tariff on goods and services that flow from countries that violate the “responsibility to inform”. This would force global corporations to negotiate freedom of information with state governments when making a foreign investment, or to look for alternative manufacturing destinations (as the tariffs would render their finished products non-competitive). Sanction tariffs provide a legitimate tool to regulate deviant behavior, and avoid the risk of disrupting customary international law or upending the global financial system. There are two reasons why the use of economic sanctions in this context is likely to enjoy greater success. First, because of the prohibitive loss of human life and widespread economic costs of the Coronavirus and China’s incontrovertible negligence, the potential for sanctions-busting or defection by other states is low, and consequently the economic costs on the target economy are high. As Elena V. McLean and Taehee Whang find, “sanctions success becomes more likely as the degree of international cooperation increases.” We have also suggested the formation of a transparency regime and institutional forum that can coordinate the selection and initiation of sanctions amongst signatory states, and offer legitimacy to collective action. Second, the “responsibility to inform” is certainly a response to China’s irresponsible behavior, but it condemns administrative negligence in a general sense rather than “ganging-up” on China. It offers a pathway for Beijing to willingly participate in rule-making and refrains from targeted recrimination. This should circumvent the prospect of a fiercely nationalistic country like China resisting external pressure due to concerns of appearing weak to foreign diktats before domestic audiences.
Based on our recommendations, the norm of state sovereignty is to undergo another significant revision in the post-Covid-19 era. Irresponsible states can no longer hide behind post-World War II ideas of non-interference and binary characterizations of the domestic and the international. As Jeffrey Sachs predicted in his thesis on “new globalization”, the “local” has now been subsumed into the “global”. Further, the pandemic has shown that the “local” can swiftly overwhelm the “global” in ways difficult to contain. Therefore, to repeal the advantages of economic globalization over an inability to regulate state behavior would not only be defeatist, but also self-defeating. Instead, global commitment must be channeled towards what John Ikenberry has recently called “a new type of pragmatic and protective internationalism.” Let us not forget that the Coronavirus crisis is more than a domestic public health emergency. It is a crisis of global governance.
(The author is a DPhil Candidate in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford, and the founder of Young Bhartiya, a Mumbai-based think tank committed to bridging the gap between academia and popular media consumption).