It is very gracious of Chinese President Xi Jinping to back an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic by the World Health Organisation. It is also generous of the communist autocrat to offer £2 billion in development aid to assist the developing world in coping with the outbreak. Having played a central role in creating the crisis, it is the least China can do to make amends and help the rest of the world to understand what caused the outbreak, and to provide some form of financial compensation.
The only flaw in Mr Xi’s proposition is that, by insisting the investigation is carried out by the WHO, he appears to still be trying to make sure the real story behind the outbreak never sees the light of day. From the first intimations that Covid-19 had been identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Mr Xi and his fellow apparatchiks have been doing their level best to cover up the pandemic’s origins, harassing anyone in China prepared to highlight Chinese culpability, and misleading the outside world as to the scale of the threat.
The Chinese regime, moreover, has been ably assisted in this endeavour by the WHO, whose supine association with Beijing has seen Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the institution’s pro-Marxist director-general, eulogise the Chinese leadership, instead of holding Beijing to account for its lack of transparency. To the consternation of countries that have seen their economies devastated by the pandemic, Dr Tedros praised Beijing for “setting a new standard for outbreak response”. The extent of Chinese influence over the WHO is reflected in the fact that the organisation continues to deny access to Taiwan.
Developing nations would also be well-advised to steer clear of Beijing’s generous offer of development aid. One of the more unedifying aspects of Beijing’s efforts to extend its influence in the developing world during the past decade or so has been to offer impoverished nations aid packages in the certain knowledge that they will never be repaid.
This is all part of Mr Xi’s $1 trillion spending spree on the Belt and Road initiative through which, by funding expensive infrastructure projects across the globe, Beijing aims to win new friends and allies, with around $350 billion having so far been lent to countries regarded as high-risk debtors. And when the day comes that countries cannot pay, Beijing requires them to hand over valuable assets, a tactic dubbed “debtbook diplomacy”. This is how Beijing became the proud beneficiary of a 99-year lease on Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port after the country’s government was unable to repay its debts.
Persuading impoverished nations to avoid Beijing’s debt trap is difficult when there are few viable alternatives available. A more realistic objective is to ensure that global bodies like the WHO fulfil their responsibilities by holding China’s communist rulers to account, which is why Donald Trump should be applauded for his uncompromising stand on the organisation’s handling of the pandemic to date.
Mr Trump, who has accused the UN-sponsored body of being “China-centric”, has threatened to end American participation in the WHO unless it mends its ways and undertakes wholesale reform, which is vital if the world is not to succumb to another Covid-19-like scenario.
In a four-page letter Mr Trump sent to Dr Tedros on the eve of the WHO’s virtual assembly this week, the American president charged the organisation with showing an “alarming lack of independence” in its dealings with China, and accused Dr Tedros of presiding over “repeated missteps… that have been extremely costly for the world.” Washington is threatening to withdraw completely from the organisation unless it makes “major substantive improvements.”
Given the WHO’s undistinguished performance over the pandemic, it is clear the organisation is in desperate need of reform, and must undertake structural changes if it is to have any global credibility in future. In the meantime there needs to be, as Mr Trump is proposing, a truly independent inquiry into the causes of the pandemic, not one, as Beijing desires, that is overseen by the WHO, which nobody trusts.
Nor should the burden of making the WHO fit for purpose, or establishing a new body to take its place, fall on American shoulders alone. Many other countries, including most of Western Europe, have been just as badly affected by the pandemic as America, and they should show solidarity with Washington.
To date, our own Government’s attitude towards the WHO has been equivocal, as has been its stance towards Beijing. This is not a view, though, that is shared by a growing cohort of backbench Tories, supporters of the newly-formed China Research Group, who seek a more realistic approach to Beijing. The Government should take their views seriously as, after China’s appalling behaviour over coronavirus, relations with Beijing can never be the same again.