COVID-19 aftermath: An agenda for QUAD
Amruta Karambelkar

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the entire world. Once the world has overcome the pandemic, a lot of rethinking is likely to occur in global politics. Countries had always emphasised cooperation in their foreign policies. The present crisis has shown the interdependency and the significance of international cooperation. Multilateralism will be an influential idea in the times to come, since the SARS-COVID-19 pandemic has shown the merits of increased international cooperation and the very transnational nature of the effect of the virus. In the light of the necessity of international cooperation, and the need for restoring the rules-based international order the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is a grouping with potential.

It is necessary to understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has caught the world off-guard. One, it did not possibly occur to the governments that the virus could spread across the world so extensively. Many western countries did not grasp the gravity of the situation. Second, the nature of the virus, that takes nearly over two weeks to show symptoms early identification much more difficult.

That said, some countries have responded better than others; amongst these are India, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. Others have been slower to respond. The United States, the global superpower has been less than impressive in its response to the crisis; however, it could also be a matter of leadership rather than state capacity. Australia has been able to manage its crisis such that the peak demand of beds (ICU) has been much lesser at only 8 per cent1 than the estimated upper end of 350002. Japan also declared the state of emergency as late as April 6. In many countries’ economy was the priority and there were genuine concerns on the impact lockdowns would have. Japanese economy for instance has had a rough 20193. Trump felt that the solution (lockdown) is more dangerous that the problem (the virus). The reluctance for a lockdown was out of concern for the devastation it would bring on the economy, and it is a genuine sentiment. The QUAD, with a few more states would like to think that in the event of repetition of such pandemic; as also relapse of the COVID viral infection, how life can be safeguarded with minimal damage to the economy- basically the need for innovative thinking.

This phenomenon has shown the dangers of putting all eggs in one basket. Overreliance on China for the manufacturing and the production of even basic medicines has affected the countries greatly. For instance, as per the latest report of the Congressional Research Service, ‘India supplied 40 per cent of generic pharmaceuticals that are used in the United States, but India imports nearly 70 per cent of its APIs from China. China thus is the primary supplier of active pharmaceuticals’4. Export reduction from China has led to global shortage of personal protective equipment and critical medical supplies. In February 2020, China nationalised the control on the production and distribution of the medical equipment5.

The strategic community in India and also elsewhere has always warned about this relationship of one-sided reliance. There were reports of how China tried to leverage the supply for a quid pro quo6, particularly adoption of on 5G infrastructure from Huawei7. There are also reports of a connection between the affected countries and their participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)8. Japan has taken cognisance and has offered incentives for Japanese companies to move back into Japan or even elsewhere in the world. 9 Similar sentiments are being seen in Australia. 10 US also has been vocal about this.11

Over and above, the most worrisome factor is this has been China’s concealment of the pandemic. Had China informed the world community just in time, the impact of disaster could have been scaled down. China could have banned outgoing flights and other countries would have suspended incoming flights from China. This simple step would have prevented the quantum of infections; perhaps it could have remained limited to China or spread in limited territories and therefore to a large extent manageable. But China did not act in a fashion that is expected of a benign power. Where and how the virus spread is a matter of investigation. Even if it was an accident (which in all likelihood it is); the fact remains that China acted irresponsibly for which the entire world, the poorest of the poor has to pay the price.

This incident has served as a curtain raiser for how a Sino-centric world would look. For all their flaws, democracies are transparent. China’s authoritarian model may suit it domestically, but it certainly is not meant for the globe. An authoritarian communist regime such as China has the tendency to be secretive and inclined towards suppression of truth especially when it is inconvenient to the state. The last time a disaster occurred in a similar political system was at Chernobyl. Then Soviet state kept the disaster hidden, and it was only when the radioactive particles reached Westward into Europe, that the world came to know about it. Secrecy amplifies disasters. It is also very important to hold China accountable. QUAD should galvanise global support for this, particularly when Chinese information campaign has been trying to influence citizens in democracies by peddling merits of authoritarianism, and arousing public sentiments against their governments12.

The present state of affairs however, requires swift solutions to the aftermath of the pandemic. The biggest hit has been the economy. The lockdowns have severely affected the economy- many sectors such as service, tourism, mobility, consumer goods, hospitality, food and beverage. Everyone’s priority is going towards resetting of economy. QUAD members will have to work together on this. They will have to take steps to address over-reliance on single destination for manufacturing. This is not an easy task and would require a lot of effort to entice shifting manufacturing elsewhere, since business sentiments and strategic sentiments often lack congruence.

An even graver problem is that the pandemic and lockdowns have brought upon the world is the issue of unemployment. Only the large players or those who have been operating for decades have been able to survive the lockdowns. Many start-ups and budding businesses have died. These would require greater public investments and capital infusion. This may also be a time where existing international commitments may be difficult to comply with, such as free-trade agreements or debt-servicing. QUAD would need to cooperate in this regard as well.

The pandemic has brought attention to the state of public health. This is essentially a transnational matter where cooperation is a must. India and Australia have agreed to share experience of crisis management and also research on treatment and vaccine development.13 The QUAD can expand or get a few more willing members on board and think of collective investments in public health. Research and development- in science, technology, business models, product development is imperative and the QUAD or QUAD-plus would like to come on the same page on this. Biological and chemical warfare are a very real threat and countries need to devote more thought on defence against this. It requires joint effort and intelligence sharing.

The free world, represented by the QUAD needs to push for a normative international order which is based on freedom and transparency. This is an equal, if not bigger responsibility on QUAD. China’s conduct, its alleged connivance with the World Health Organisation (WHO)14 exacerbated the situation. There are so many questions on WHO, its bias and its incompetency. President Trump has already threatened that US would cut on its funding to the WHO15. The QUAD can think of an institutional alternative, or undertake reforms of the WHO. There is also a need to reiterate the adherence to international rules-based order. Any attempts at restoration of the rules-based order; or creation of a new order cannot be mere rhetoric but needs to be supported by concrete policies. There is also a critical need to create awareness about China’s debt-trap diplomacy and unviable infrastructure projects that are undertaken in the garb of BRI. The QUAD, or QUAD-plus offerings should be comprehensive, after due scrutiny and suitability, sustainable, viable, something that creates local employment. Even if the QUAD cannot match BRI (which in my opinion is perfectly alright since BRI is basically terrible economics) it should be able to diminish China’s influence. The current global sentiment is favourable for a new tide.

  1. Media Statement, Prime Minister of Australia, 7 April 2020
  2. Department of Health, Government of Australia 7 April 2020
  3. Is Japan on the verge of a recession? World Economic Forum
  4. Generic drug cost for US Consumers to rise due to overdependence on China: CRS, The Hindu, 11 April 2020.
  5. Ibid.
  6. China's 'mask diplomacy' in pandemic-hit Europe stirs unease, Nikkei Asia Review 25 March 2020
  7. Canada and France say donations of coronavirus masks won’t influence decisions on Huawei and 5G, CNBC 10 April 2020 . Rep. Mark Green - Fox News - 04-04-2020
  8. Corona-hit Italy suffering due to improved ties with China?Outlook India, 20 March 2020 , Some Say China’s Belt and Road Helped Create This Pandemic. Can It Prevent the Next One? The Diplomat 2 April 2020
  9. Gravitas: Wuhan Coronavirus: Japan will pay companies to move out of China; Japan to pay firms to leave China, relocate production elsewhere as part of coronavirus stimulus, South China Monitoring Post 9 April 2020
  10. Australia should ‘economically distance itself' from the Chinese Communist Party, Sky News Australia, also see Australia needs to stop its trade 'dependency' on China , Sky News Australia
  11. Momentum grows to change medical supply chain from China, The Hill, 5 April 2020
  12. US blames China, Russia and Iran for spreading 'disinformation' on coronavirus, India Today 21 March 2020, China Pushes Viral Messages to Shape Coronavirus Narrative, The Wall Street Journal 10 April 2020, As Virus Spreads, China and Russia See Openings for DisinformationThe New York Times 28 March 2020, China’s Dangerous Coronavirus Disinformation Campaign, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  13. Covid-19 crisis: India, Australia agree on collaborating on research, Mint, 6 April 2020
  14. Why is the WHO Director General toeing China's line? | Coronavirus, WION Also, How WHO Became China’s Coronavirus AccompliceForeign Policy 2 April 2020; WHO 'very much' sided with China on coronavirus: Donald Trump , The Economic Times, 26 March 2020
  15. Trump threatened to cut off funding to the WHO, saying 'they seem to always err on the side of China' even though 'we fund it'Business Insider India 8 April 2020

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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