On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus sweeping the globe (SARS-CoV-2, more commonly known as COVID-19) as a pandemic. The WHO stated that they had ‘been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both the by alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action.’ At the beginning of April, most countries the world over have taken extraordinary measures: closing borders, going into lockdown, and have declared national emergencies as health care systems crash or reach their threshold. For the first time since World War II, more soldiers than citizens roam the streets of major European cities. Meanwhile, billions of people have gone into self- or otherwise government imposed quarantine – all geared toward “flattening the curve”.
On April 8, more than 187 countries and territories have reported cases: the coronavirus has infected at least 3 million people and killed over 140,000. Because of problems with testing and reporting, these numbers are likely much higher. Prognoses indicate that tens of millions – but more likely hundreds of millions – of people worldwide will become infected in the months to come. With a ~13% death rate, preceded by severe respiratory symptoms, health care systems and families have been hit like no other.
Similar to the terrible World War I era-pandemic of 1918-1919, this pandemic will have wildly divergent effects. Resource-poor parts of the world may be hit hardest and may keep the virus alive and well in the future, due to a combination of a lack of public health infrastructure, inadequate access to preventive medicine, compromised immune systems, and rampant co-infections. More affluent parts of the world, and people, might be relatively better off – though with major differences resulting from the variety of governments responses across the spectrum.
Hong Kong’s current empty streets stand in stark contrast to the millions of people that took to the streets in 2019 to protest Carrie Lam’s extradition bill. Since this bill would allow suspected criminals to be extradited to China and its shady legal system, many feared for their rights as stipulated in Hong Kong’s Basic Law that aims to grant Hong Kong citizens autonomy until 2047. Refusing to give in, the city saw increasingly violent standoffs on the streets and even in the universities of this former British colony. Although the bill was eventually withdrawn, the protestors had developed their five demands (not one less) over which strife continues.
The Hong Kong Government has suffered major PR-damage as police forces clashed with protestors for months. It therefore earmared HK$226.6 million for managing its foreign public relations. Protest Leader Joshua Wong, who has been interviewed by media outlets from over 30 countries, questioned the effectiveness of the spending in early 2020: “I have 514,429 followers on Twitter, while Brand Hong Kong only has 4,500. I don’t really know where they have spent their money,” he said. Having to move away from the streets, social media seem to be an increasingly important platform to bring their message across – but who will pay attention to their plight?
Overall, there is widespread fear that China’s ‘one country, two systems-policy’ will not mean much in the near future. Protest leaders like Joshua Wong have been jailed and released, and have assisted in the creation of the US Human Rights Bill. Some believe that only continued reporting on the protests will prevent China’s military incursion into Hong Kong.
The city has become a place of geopolitical irony. After months of draconian measures such as banning the use of face masks, Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently held a press conference wearing one herself. As mass protests have decreased to prevent the virus from being spread, the government’s approach to tackle the crisis has added to the seeds of discontent. Carrie Lam has long refused to completely close the borders with mainland China, drawing criticism from protestors and pro-Beijing parties alike. Other measures, such as plans of setting up quarantine centres in residential areas, have sparked further (violent) protests. Meanwhile, The Hong Kong Public Medical Doctors Association has joined a global campaign urging citizens to stay at home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. As of March 25, Chief Executive Carrie Lam banned all non-residents from entering or passing through Hong Kong.
For 2020, the Hong Kong police budget increased 25% compared to last year, and at least 2,500 police officers will be added to its current total of 35,000. Also, Chinese security forces have been building up around the border, and have even supported Hong Kong police at intervals.
Meanwhile, anti-mainland sentiment has all but died down. Chinese blogging website Weibo reported on April 5 that multiple attacks occurred on Mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong. The Chinese government have called these events unacceptable, calling the attacks foreign interference in ‘internal matters.’
The pandemic has hit at a time when China and the US were already at loggerheads. In 2019, Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, succeeding the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act. This new act requires a threshold of autonomy for Hong Kong to retain its special trading status with the US. The bill offers the possibility to sanction human rights violators, prohibits the export of crowd-controls items to the Hong Kong police, and offers non-violent arrested protestors the option of acquiring visa’s. China reacted with ‘firm countermeasures’ such as banning US military visits to Hong Kong per December 2019.
On March 12, 2020, the annual American report on human rights described police brutality against protestors in Hong Kong, which was subsequently denied by the Hong Kong Government. Elsewhere, the U.S. Government’s strategic framework the US-ASEAN Connect (“Connect”) for economic engagement with ASEAN and the member states will have to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as they are being rolled out in the same areas. Countries in the region will have to play their cards smart.
Hopes for a coordinated international response to the pandemic are further hampered by diplomatic bickering and propaganda. President Donald Trump has repeatedly chosen to call the coronavirus the “Chinese virus”, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling it the “Wuhan virus”, something that causes huge offence in Beijing. On their side, the Chinese are trying to muddy the waters by proposing that the coronavirus originated in the US, actually.
Meanwhile, there’s only a partial trade deal, and China and the US are re-arming as they openly prepare for a potential (near-)future conflict in the Asia-Pacific. Nevertheless, China now is eager for the wider status that it believes its international position requires. The Trump Administration may well give the Chinese Communist Party with nigh-Emperor Xi Jinping this chance. As two Asia experts note in a recent article for Foreign Affairs: “So far, Washington is failing the test. As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by US mistakes, filling the vacuum to present itself as the global leader in pandemic response.”
Hawkish analysists believe that China will use the guise of the pandemic to achieve various long-term objectives in the region. Whilst the world is looking away, China might have the chance to settle some scores. After all, the Communist State has the capabilities to do so, and bold resolute action might bolster national public support for Xi Jinping.
After being considered a pariah only two months ago, Beijing is now positioning itself as a global benefactor, sending doctors and medical supplies to Iran, Iraq, the Philippines and Serbia. Chinese assistance is essential in combating the coronavirus. Medical data and experiences need to continue to be shared. China is also a huge manufacturer of medical equipment and disposable items like masks and protective suits, which are required in astronomical numbers. China, has ramped up factory output and is now signalling that it wants to help.
If anything, Americans will need help. American front-line medical personnel are running desperately short of masks and protective equipment as they battle the coronavirus outbreak. Californian Governor Gavin Newsom projected that “roughly 46 percent of our population – 25.5 million people – will be infected with the virus over a six-week period’ – in a letter sent to President Donald Trump on April 2. Doctors across the country are struggling to get by, and point out that the peak is yet to come – around the third week of April. Experts consider that the U.S. is likely following a similar trajectory as Italy —the worst-hit country outside China, where the health care system is being stretched to its limits. One expert stresses the difference with China: “We can’t divert one quarter of all doctors and nurses from other parts of the country to come to one epicentre like China did,” he said. “We’re in it for at least two months or more.”
Meanwhile, President Trump seems to benefit from his role as ‘Wartime President’, appearing to take decisive action by declaring all coastal states as ‘major disaster areas’ in recent weeks – thereby opening up aid usually reserved for natural disasters and activating the National Guard. With his main Democratic opponent Joe Biden having gone into quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 on April 5, the US November presidential elections are very much up in the air.
In 2016, in what would become known as the Trump-Tsai call, the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Tsai Ing-wen congratulated Donald Trump with his election as President of the United States in a 10-minute telephone call. Some commentators considered this as ‘humiliating’ to Beijing who considers Taiwan to be part of its sovereign territory, whereas others applauded the event as a strategic move countering China’s One China-Policy. A long-time beneficiary of US aid and assistance, including military, US-Taiwan relations are crucial to developments in the region and specifically in the South China Sea.
Nearly four years later, after a landslide re-election victory over the Kuomintang in January 2020 – helped by unusual levels of anti-China rhetoric and a large youthful constituency – Taiwanese President ‘Watercress’ Tsai Ing-wen faces a complicated situation. On the one hand, she and other top officials have expressed support for the Hong Kong protestors as the erosion of their civil rights are seen as signs of what is to come in Taiwan. Tsai has also pledged that as long as she is Taiwan’s president, she will never accept the Chinese ‘one country, two systems’ formula for Taiwan. Even traditionally pro-Beijing KMT-candidates have been prompted to speak out against this formula. On the other hand, Taiwan’s extensive trade relations with Hong Kong are crucial to Taiwanese influence in the region as they avoid military conflict with China. The continuity of Hong Kong’s economic systems as well as good relations with whoever is in office, are key focal points of any foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Tsai is working hard to become a success case in the global struggle against the coronavirus. In response to the political developments in Taiwan, China decided to curtail mainland tourism in an attempt to cripple the Taiwanese economy. Ironically, this helped Taiwan by reducing the influx of COVID-19, which greatly added to a wide range of early and seemingly very effective measures learned from the first SARS-pandemic. As a result, Taiwan – located next to the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan – by April 7 reported only 500 cases of coronavirus in total.
However, with Hong Kong’s public life and economy coming to a standstill, and with the United States pre-occupied on its own soil, the Taiwanese anxiously watch their shores. Since the beginning of April, Chinese speedboats have attacked Taiwanese naval guards. Recent reports also indicate a surge in the number of Chinese fishing boats off the coast of Vietnam.
After Brexit, the British people have entered into their lamentable second season of Black British Mirror. With Boris Johnson directing affairs from his own quarantine on Downing Street after testing positive for COVID-19 on April 2, the British lockdown enters its third week. A recently leaked secret briefing by Public Health England states that: “As many as 80% of the population are expected to be infected with Covid-19 in the next 12 months, and up to 15% (7.9 million people) may require hospitalisation.” Health chiefs tackling the virus have subsequently admitted that they expect the virus to circulate for 12 more months and lead to huge extra strain on an already overstretched NHS. On April 4, Queen Elizabeth II addressed the nation via Facetime for the second time since the lockdown. She urged the public to stay at home and otherwise practise social distancing, and keep in touch with loved ones via media such as Facetime and Skype, as she reportedly does so herself. She also brought good news regarding Prince Charles, who is doing “much better” after exhibiting mild symptoms of COVID-19 at the end of March.
Amidst this turmoil, the UK still “has a debt of honor to Hong Kong” as Lord Patten calls it. The Basic Law stipulates the clear division of ‘two systems’ until 2047, but recent events worry foreign policymakers. Some semblance of support for rights and freedoms have been given by British officials in the form of talking points, which have been quickly rebutted by China who accuses the British from interfering into China’s ‘internal affairs’. Being important trading partners with Hong Kong and China, the UK has to thread a difficult line between might and morals. The UK also has strong economic ties with Taiwan, is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and – together with the US – is part of NATO. With the Russian military assisting Italy’s health sector since late March, and with reports of increased Russian troop activity near the Baltics – the Johnson government will have its hands full. The same goes for the EU that it is no longer a part of: early April saw the first reports of COVID-19-infected Syrian refugees near the borders with Hungary and Greece.