International Relations in the wake of COVID-19 crisis

Dr. Afsah Qazi is serving as the Assistant Professor at the Department of IR, National Defense University, Islamabad.

The coronavirus has disturbed our daily lifestyle to a great extent. It has also immensely burdened health care systems. Countries are striving hard to find a balance between health-driven lockdown and economies. The sole superpower of the world is alleging that China deliberately released and spread the virus while the third world is endeavoring hard to get some financial benefit out of it in the form of debt reliefs. These macro questions encompass the working of actors in the international system. To understand the development in the world Dr. Afsa Qazi answered these questions upon our request.

Dr. Afsah Qazi is serving as the Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, National Defense University, Islamabad. Dr. Qazi is a Ph. D in IR from the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Jilin University, Changchun, China.

Below are some excerpts of her recent conversation with Scientia’s team member Faryal Qazi.

Dr. Afsah Qazi is serving as the Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, National Defense University, Islamabad

Faryal: The U.S alleged China for deliberately spreading this virus. What political and economic benefits would China get on the political chessboard of the world if the virus stays in Europe and the U.S for an extended period?

Dr.Qazi: First, as far as the US allegations vis-à-vis China regarding the deliberate spread of Covid-19 are concerned, these continue to appear grossly ill-founded despite President Trump’s consistent effort to label it as Chinese or Wuhan virus; no logically coherent and scientifically correct trail of Chinese involvement has so far been identified. Second, the very understanding needed to fight this pandemic globally is to internalize the fact that it does not benefit anyone, either in short or long run. 

When considering that a particular state might have knowingly spread the virus to the rest, it must also be realized that in an intensively interconnected and interdependent world that we have today, what goes around comes around even faster. That said, looking at what in common parlance is known as the Chinese miracle, had been achieved by getting China integrated into the world markets, especially with the developed ones in the U.S and Europe.

Therefore, even if China wishes to get back to normal (as businesses and industries in China reopen) after having controlled the spread of the virus, it would be hard given the double-edged demand shock that market is bound to face due to a decrease in global demand (lowering Chinese exports that might continue if western economies do not get back to normal) and a contraction in domestic spending (due to record high levels (6.2%) of unemployment and psychological stressors inside China). The only political advantage for China might be a better global image for dealing efficiently along with helping others fight the pandemic – again which the war of narrative being led by the US continuously tries to hinder. 

Faryal: Fighting this global pandemic measures taken by autocratic countries like China, North Korea, and Russia were better and Speedy. In fact, China is a role model during this crisis, but it wreaked havoc in Europe and the U.S. Does this mean that autocratic regimes are better to deal with such crises, can it be called a failure of democracy?

Dr.Qazi: The observation that non-democracies have dealt more efficiently with the pandemic in comparison to democracies might be correct to some extent, but the generalization is still hard since countries like South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, etc are on the list too. Rather than having an either-or approach regarding the preferred political system, what needs a mention is the state capacity to have the best possible utilization of the resources at its disposal in the times of crises, which in turn depends largely on how states behave/act in times of relative peace when no imminent threats/pressures exist. For example, China’s efforts to transform its huge population or cheap labor into an asset/skilled labor have lasted over decades – this huge skilled workforce, in addition to governmental control and the will to implement policies aimed at delivering public goods (for the sake of sustaining the ruling party’s legitimacy) is what has allowed China to avoid the worst possible outcomes.

Contrarily, the U.S and many of its developed democratic allies in Europe have failed to curb both the spread and mortality rates not because democracies are theoretically or conceptually faulty, but due to the irrational spending preferences of the regimes in-charge, despite the general public desire for better health-care and social security policies across the world. 

Faryal: Do you think the U.S is fulfilling its role as a hegemon considering it did not provide any sort of help to affected countries instead it withdrew its pre coronavirus funding from WHO? Whereas, China appears to be fulfilling the vacuum that is left by the U.S.  Does the U.S appear as a viable hegemon in the future?

Dr.Qazi: US’ ability to achieve its desired outcomes from emerging situations is for sure on the decline and China is indeed enhancing its image and influence by targeting the areas where the U.S lags. In this context, Chinese proactive engagement and material aid come amidst a lessened American potential for global engagement due to a worsening domestic situation. China’s image and its influence as an alternate public goods provider might improve due to this, however, this is just one of the multitude of public goods that the U.S has appeared to be providing globally for decades.

To what extent China is willing to go for seizing the moment if it really intends to replace the incumbent hegemon (the idea which ‘peaceful development’ narrative tries to negate) will determine who keeps the place at the apex of the system. A hegemonic state is both capable and willing to lead the system; Chinese capability and willingness are both not definitive so far, and how strong or weak the U.S comes out of the ongoing crisis would help find clearer answers to the question. 

Faryal:  Do international monetary organizations provide debt reliefs based on humanitarian considerations as liberals propagate. Or is it again interplay of power politics that drives the condition of these relief packages? What is your IR expert opinion based on the debt reliefs provided by IMF?

Dr.Qazi: Two aspects need to be clarified to gauge the work of international monetary organizations. One, they are not philanthropic entities guided by benevolence; instead, they do business with the broader agenda of containing any major upheaval that might turn the interconnected world financial or economic systems upside down. Even if a bail-out is given to rescue the fate of a country’s population, the state bears responsibility and has to pay the price for such favor – so bail-outs always have a give and take involved. Second, IMF has a reserve currency pool that consists of funds deposited by states; the larger a state’s reserve in the IMF, the greater its quota and greater the voting share, thereby making that state’s stance important to deciding for or against a requested bail-out.

This is where power-politics might have an influence, but again, decisions are not taken unilaterally. As far as the issue of conditions on relief packages are concerned, the IMF being a formal organization follows a rule-based approach in this regard rather than following any particular state’s preferences. This is to say that several categories of relief packages have been defined and mandated under IMF – the general rule follows that more substantial the amount being requested and weaker the economic credentials of the requesting state, stricter the conditions. So, conditionalities have something to do with the track record and economic performance of the states asking for bail-outs. However, since the member contributions make up the IMF’s reserves, when the USA, having the largest reserve withdraws them, there are cuts on the organization’s overall reserve, thus constraining its capacity to bail-out. 

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