Independent probe will give China credibility: Shivshankar Menon

An independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, conducted by internationally respected experts, would give China credibility as it grapples with a global “reputational loss”, former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said on Wednesday.

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“China’s case would be much stronger if they were saying, ‘We are willing to invite reputed people in from across the world, allow them to conduct an independent inquiry, [give them] complete access and let them ascertain facts of what happened so we can avoid this in the future. If they did that, that would give them much more credibility,” he said. “It would make sense if they did this... find people with international credibility who will not lie. If they were confident of their narrative, they would do that. It sounds to me that they do sound not confident about what they are saying.”

Mr. Menon, a former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China, said the pandemic was “a huge reputational loss” not just for China but for most major powers, including the U.S., the EU and others.

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“There is a huge diminution of reputation for all states involved. The bigger the state, the bigger the loss of reputation... It is very hard to find a single major political entity which has said, ‘We did well and we knew what we were doing.’”

India, he noted, had issued over 4,000 notifications, rules, instructions since the first lockdown. “That to my mind is not a coherent response. India is not an exception, the same is true of all major economies and how they reacted,” said Mr. Menon, who was speaking at a webinar organised by the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.

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On the question of accountability from China, the former NSA said the priority for the world should be focussed on outcomes and ensuring lessons are learned, rather than political point-scoring in a battle of narratives, as was currently being fought between Beijing and Washington.

‘Political bonfire’

“When we talk of a reckoning, what kind of reckoning are we talking about? Are we talking about victor’s justice, some sort of allocating blame or responsibility? That is going to be just another political bonfire.”

Holding an independent inquiry to learn lessons, Mr. Menon said, was not the same as an inquiry aimed merely at emphasising guilt. “If you think holding an inquiry and finding China guilty will be able to prevent a recurrence, I don’t think that will happen,” he said.

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“China won’t cooperate. This is a dilemma the World Health Organisation found itself in, they didn’t know if they should continue working with the Chinese even when many knew things were being hidden, or if they wanted to continue working with China in the future. I am not saying this is a happy choice. Most governments will probably choose [such] an inquiry but whether that will lead to outcomes in the long term is for me more important.”

Rising Nationalism

Mr. Menon said the pandemic was accelerating several trends, from the U.S.-China rift to growing Chinese assertiveness, which he noted “you can already see in the so-called ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’ we are witnessing and way Chinese diplomats are now dealing with any questioning.” Last week, China’s Ambassador in Australia made headlines after warning of an economic backlash if Australia pursued an inquiry into the pandemic's origins.

Mr. Menon said there were signs China’s ruling Communist Party would turn to nationalism as a source of legitimacy as it dealt with unprecedented economic challenges in the wake of the pandemic. “It seems to me that at a time when economic growth is down, when performance legitimacy for the government in China cannot be what it was one year ago facing a slowdown in the global economy and an actual diminishing in the GDP in the first quarter for the first time in decades, where does one turn for legitimacy?”

He noted Monday’s comments by Qiao Liang, a retired PLA air force general and a military strategist who authored a book in 2004 called “Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America”, saying the pandemic should not be seen as a chance by China to take Taiwan by force.

“I find it worrying if a man who wrote 'Unrestricted Warfare'  is saying that now is not the time to invade Taiwan, as he must be talking to somebody who is saying they should. That is a worrying thought. At some stage, nationalism demands actions that constrain your ability to bargain and be reasonable with the rest of the world. Could it come to that if this [crisis] went on? It’s a real risk.”

India’s Relations with China

Mr. Menon said rising assertiveness could manifest itself when it came to China’s core interests. “If there is any place to see a more assertive Chinese response, I’d expect it in what are usually defined as core interests, such as South China Sea and Taiwan. India in that sense has not been listed among China’s core interests. The India-China boundary primarily depends on the effective balance on the border itself, which I have no reason to believe has changed dramatically in the last few months or years.”

India faced an opportunity amid the current crisis and with worsening China-U.S. relations. For one, China’s contentious relations with the rest of the world had reduced the incentive for difficult behaviour in ties with India. This was also evident in recently warming China-Japan relations.

Asked if it was in India’s interests to ally with the U.S., Mr. Menon said: “Nobody shares our interests entirely. The U.S. will deal with China according to what is in her interests. When it coincides with us, she will [work with us] anyway, you don’t need to ally to do it. I am a very strong advocate that India should have better relations with both the U.S. and China than they have with each other. If China-US relations deteriorate, that is not a difficult thing for India to achieve.”

Asked about the impact of the current global situation on the Quad – the informal India, U.S., Japan and Australia grouping – he said, “When the Quad decides what it is and what it is doing, we will know what the impact is. I don’t know yet what it is about.”

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 12:59:26 PM |

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