COVID-19: The Silk Road Pandemic

By Julian Lindley-French

“Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us”.

J.G. Ballard, “High Rise”

Headline: COVID-19 is a human tragedy, not the prelude to war. The enemy is a pathogen, not a state and policy and strategy should be shaped accordingly. Expert assessments suggests that as many as one in fifty under the age of seventy of those infected could die, and up to one in six of those over 70 with underlying health conditions. Protection of vulnerable groups is the marked of a civilised society. However, historians of the future will wonder how a relatively mild virus could bring the global economy to its knees so quickly. They will possibly conclude that the twenty-first century world, far from being a globalised economy was, in fact, a hybrid interdependent anarchy to which shock was endemic and routinely magnified. Consequently, some have predicted the end of globalisation.  China is the epicentre of the pandemic and will need to change. It is particularly inappropriate that Beijing has, instead, begun hectoring others, most notably the US. An effective strategy will require collective action across the epidemiology, politics and communications. Whilst there are doubtless lessons to be learnt about how to build more resiliency and redundancy into the globalised system, it is only through a global effort that the threat will be contained and then reduced. The blame game should stop and the action game begin.  

The Silk Road Pandemic

It is a bolt from the blue! The early spread of COVID 19 seems eerily to follow the old Silk Road that from China to Europe via Iran.  COVID 19 has some similarities to the Black Death of the fourteenth century in that is a trade route pandemic, albeit a very twenty-first century variant and as such a disease of globalisation. Like trade, the pandemic is now spreading far beyond that corridor and rapidly, replacing much of the trade that sustains the globalised economic system. In such circumstances, humanity, or rather those that govern it, have a choice to make: act irresponsibly by blaming others or find a way to work together to confront and deal with a threat common to all. 

Contemporary Globalism is part of the problem.  Far from being the community its more ideological adherents claim it is more a form of interdependent anarchy. Consequently, a relatively small event or group can create enormous shock. Such shock is not confined to the spreading of disease. 911 and Al Qaeda spawned the Global War on Terror, a small group of bankers triggered the 2008 financial crash and the precipitant decline of Europe and the accelerated rise of China as power shifted from West to East. All the serious evidence suggests COVID 19 began in Wuhan in November as a pathogen leapt from one species to another and within four months much of the world economy is shutting down. 

At the time of the 2003 SARS outbreak China represented 3% of the world economy, whereas today it represents 17%.  In the past, most such contagions tended to be localised. Travel was far more restricted, lockdowns at times of plague were far more common, and people died far more quickly limiting the ability of any contagion to spread. There were, of course, exceptions. The Black Death which swept through Asia, Africa and Europe in the fourteenth century also spread along the old Silk Road and sea-borne trade routes. 

Why China and why now? 

The demand for fresh meat slaughtered in the traditional Chinese manner now poses a clear and present danger to the well-being of humanity. Why? For all the growth in China’s power and wealth since 1989, the Middle Kingdom is a huge populous country full of very poor people.  There is a profound friction between the twenty-first century state Beijing likes to project to the world, and the reality of rural poverty and the rapid growth of an urban poor still wedded to traditional practices such as ‘wet [blood] markets’.  The average GDP per capita in China is still only around $10,000 per annum (with millions living on incomes far below that) compared with US GDP per capita at $65,000 per annum.  Living conditions are often appalling with huge numbers of Chinese families crammed together in high-rise poverty.  Chinese cities have become natural breeding ground for pathogens able to leap from one species to another.  

Beijing has tried to limit such practices. However, state action has simply pushed the business into the unregulated back alleys of Chinese cities. Given the reputational and actual damage to China that will be caused by COVID-19 Beijing is now taking stringent action to deal with the threat.  Equally, containment of COVID-19 is also likely to see a lurch towards an even more control-obsessed, autocratic Chinese state.  

Strategic consequences and implications

The COVID-19 pandemic will also have profound strategic consequences, of which the health crisis is simply the first. Over time the crisis will spread to all other areas of statecraft from the economic to the military. The world’s two power autocracies, China and Russia, are particularly vulnerable. The signs are already ominous with Russia already suffering. The price of benchmark Brent crude oil has collapsed from $55 per barrel in December to $29 today. Russia needs to export its oil at around $70 per barrel for the Russian economy to be sustained. In the first quarter of 2020 Chinese manufacturing production dropped by 13%, the fastest and largest fall for fifty years. 

Autocracies tend to share certain characteristics when under pressure.  First, the primacy of the state over the individual is reinforced, with elites seeing themselves as the very embodiment of the nation and indispensable to it.  Both Beijing and Moscow are already moving to exert even more control.  President Xi is already the president-for-life of China. If, as seems likely, President Putin succeeds in his efforts to remain president at least until 2036, Russia too will become more autocratic. Second, such elites also fear their own people. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre the Chinese Communist Party offered a new ‘deal’ to its burgeoning middle classes: sustained growth in their prosperity in return for their continued unquestioning of power of the Party. That deal could fail.

History also plays an important role. Both Xi and Putin were shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and fear the consequences of a sustained period of economic decline on their ability to hold onto power. President Putin is already suffering from falling popularity.  In such circumstances, Russia could retreat even more into a reflexive nationalistic and militaristic posture with the West, the source of most of Russia’s foreign-generated income, routinely cited as a threat.  In such circumstances, China too would likely become far more aggressive, with Taiwan particularly vulnerable.  Therefore, the possibility of both power autocracies embarking on more military adventurism must not be discounted as a downstream consequence of COVID-19. 

As China cracks down on internal dissent the legal frameworks that enable Western multinational corporations to operate therein will also likely become even more onerous. Many Western companies could well seek to ‘re-shore’ their operations back to the US and Europe, exacerbating the economic crisis in China. At the very least, many such corporations will (and should) move to end their over-reliance on Chinese supply chains vulnerable to catastrophic failure or political disruption.  

Europeans and the EU are once again major victims of crises made elsewhere, with Europe now the epicentre of the pandemic according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).  There is also a profound danger is that over the coming months the COVID-19 crisis will merge with a renewed refugee/migration crisis. Such a complex crisis will not only test European solidarity but also place all systems of government in Europe under the utmost strain, with economic consequences for at least a decade.  Indeed, the whole idea of ‘Europe’, with its focus on free movement of goods, services and people will likely need to be reconsidered. Europe, and indeed the wider West, could well suffer from another profound political shock. The scale and complexity of the crisis will doubtless reinforce the attractiveness of extremist political parties.  

Strategic choices

Faced with the strategic and political choices inherent in the COVID-19 crisis there are essentially two options for all the states involved: cohesion or fragmentation.  It is the latter option that should be adopted.  Any other approach would simply guarantee a lose-lose outcome for all.  However, any such strategy will require all the responsible powers to craft a complex new strategic agenda that pre-supposes a level of mutual trust that is in short supply.  Any such agenda would require (at the very least) the following elements over the short and medium terms, across a range of sustained actions from the epidemiological strategy to the grand strategic with effective strategic communications vital. It will also require a marked change in both the tone and nature of state behaviour. 

China is already seeking to shift the blame for COVID-19. Moreover, not for the first time Beijing’s obsession with secrecy has helped turn an outbreak into global contagion. The re-emergence of Zhao Lijian, a particularly feisty Chinese nationalist as Foreign Ministry Spokesman is also not a good sign that China is willing to act collectively. His claim this past week that the virus had been brought to Wuhan by the US military is simply preposterous and US Secretary-of-State Mike Pompeo has rightly complained. If Beijing adopts such a posture and refuses to acknowledge that two months of Chinese mismanagement during the early stages exacerbated the crisis, then it will be hard to treat China as a responsible strategic actor. 

Equally, states must avoid appearing to condone conspiracy theories. There is an apochryphal story that in 2003 the SARS epidemic began when it escaped from the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory.  Given the proximity of the laboratory to the contemporary outbreak concerns continue to be expressed about the safety of the facility. However, the US, in particular, must be careful not to begin a tit-for-tat blame game that would draw it into an equivalency trap. At present, there is no evidence the Chinese designed the pathogen and then lost control of it.  In any case, COVID-19 would be a strange offensive weapon as it only really affects people beyond the productive/warfighter age and only, normally, very mildly. One might argue that because the virus places Western healthcare systems under intense strain it could be a form of attack. However, China has so many other means to attack Western critical infrastructure if it so chose. The pandemic will have a serious impact on China’s foreign income, with profound implications for its future economic performance and Beijing’s emergence as a military superpower. 

The COVID-19 strategic agenda

Shorter-term epidemiological strategy can draw lessons from the response to the 2003 SARS contagion. Brian Doberstyn, who in 2003 was director of the WHO Western Pacific Region’s Division for Combatting Communicable Disease, identified three main lessons: transparency and a willingness of states to admit the scale and pace of early infection; the utility of proven past practices in harness with twenty-first century science; and the rapid and effective global scientific collaboration to enable the early mapping of the genome of the virus. He also identified a critical causal faction, “animal husbandry and marketing practices seriously affect human health. 

Rebuild strategic public private partnerships: One consequence of globalisation has been the progressive decoupling of Western states from Western corporations.  The very idea of the multinational corporation is the antithesis of the nation-state.  A strong partnership between the public and private sectors IN states will now be crucial, and not just to limit the economic damage.  In the immediate future, vaccines must be developed and ventilators made to treat the severely ill.  

Begin a forensic audit: WHO is a flawed institution, primarily because it reflects the tensions between the states that pay for it.  However, as part of confidence-building the WHO should be charged with conducting a proper strategic audit into the crisis with the enquiry ring-fenced against any external political interference.  This will not be easy. Many years ago I was seconded to the UN in both Geneva and New York and saw the gap between reality and UN reality. If such an audit is not possible, then the US and its European allies should conduct such an audit independently to ensure lessons are identified, best practice disseminated, and new structures identified.

Treat pandemics as a threat to the state order: Better intelligence and early warning indicators will need to be established, first response needs to be faster, more assured and better co-ordinated, healthcare systems (both public and private) need to be better prepared, critical infrastructures need to be made more resilient, with redundancy built into information networks and redundancy built into state structures. Critically, better early understanding about the scope of any threat will need to be established. Over-reaction is as dangerous and under-reaction. Ultimately, it is the robust state that must be at the centre of any crisis response.   

The death of globalisation?

COVID-19 happened because of a failure of policy in China and an absence of structure elsewhere, particularly in Europe.  It was made worse by ideological globalism and the abandonment of common sense by leaders.  Critically, Western democracies have become over-reliant on one autocratic source for many of the supply chains which sustain their respective societies. However, those who believe time can be rolled back and globalisation abandoned have to ask themselves with what?  Contending, hermetically-sealed and confrontational blocs?  Yes, Western states need to better protect themselves from crises made elsewhere, but what has been missing for far too long is the considered practice of statecraft in globalisation.  Indeed, globalism has been seen by the naively ideological as an antidote to statecraft.  The dark side of globalisation, of which COVID 19 is a consequence, must therefore be gripped and structure built to mitigate its dangers. However, it is not a time to abandon globalisation for to do so would be to cut the very connectedness that mitigates the nationalism and militarism that would doubtless come to dominate both Beijing and Moscow if they were completely denied access to Western markets. 

At home, Western democracies must again reconsider the balance to be struck between liberty and security, between secrecy and trust. In short, the state will need to better know where people are and shape how they behave. Critically, European democracies must stop treating their citizens like children and recognise (as some now seem to be doing) that true security can only come from a genuine partnership between responsible citizens and an effective state. Above all, governments must act. Too often in the past promises of necessary corrective action have been eroded by special interests groups with access to power once a crisis no longer grips the news cycle.

COVID-19: the echo of history

The test of any system is how it copes with shock. COVID-19 has shown that globalisation, as a structure of power is profoundly fragile. The globalised international system is, at best, a virtual interdependent anarchy in which state sovereignty has very little influence, particularly European state sovereignty. Contemporary globalisation is also dependent on two competing poles of power for stability – the US and China. As such, the globalised world looks ever more like the contentious dependencies in Europe prior to World War One, as the in-between states were forced to choose one side or another. 

In that light COVID-19 is as much a warning as a crisis. Indeed, unless collective action is taken a truly mass extinction humanity-culling pandemic could one day come down the same old Silk Road as COVID-19.  Conversely, collective action against a common enemy might just help promote a more stable world order.  If not, then the 2020 COVID-19 crisis will do much to shape international relations in the twenty-first century, and not for the better.

Julian Lindley-French