June 6, 2021The IntersectiongeopoliticsCovid-19

The banal geopolitical fallout of the laboratory leak hypothesis

Perhaps Xi Jinping is right, and like it or not, China will be even more indispensable to the post-covid world.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

On 11 September 2001, the US suffered four coordinated terrorist attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives, injured over 25,000 people and caused at least $10 billion in property damage. Within hours, the US National Security Agency had intercepted phone calls that led them to suspect Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda of having planned and carried out the attacks. On that same evening, the CIA director confirmed this assessment to the US president. In two weeks, the FBI identified the specific attackers, and by the end of the month had published photographs and nationalities of all 19 terrorists who carried out the attacks. Of them were 15 Saudis, two Emiratis, a Lebanese and an Egyptian. Bin Laden himself was a Saudi national and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, a key conspirator, was Pakistani. The US authorities knew Bin Laden and his outfit quite well, for they had together fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, along with the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence agencies. So it is fair to say that one would have to have one’s head firmly buried in the sand to miss the glaring Saudi and Pakistani links to—and possible complicity in—the attacks.

Yet, when the US declared a global war on terror a few months later, its forces first invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq, and later Yemen. Amazingly, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan became Washington’s allies in this war, and the latter received tens of billions of dollars in aid. To a casual observer, it might look as if the world maps circulating in Washington had some kind of zero error, hitting nearby countries instead of the real culprits.

Well, there was nothing wrong with its maps. What the story of the worst terror attack in history reminds is that international relations are more about relative power than facts, evidence and truth. Despite being the sole superpower of the time, the US could not even officially lay the blame on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, leave alone militarily retaliating against them. Washington vented its anger by whipping those it safely could, even if their involvement was secondary, as in the case of Afghanistan, or almost non-existent, as in the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

It is instructive to recall those events as the world begins to take seriously the possibility that the covid pandemic might not have arisen from natural causes, but from a mishap at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. In the past few months, enough circumstantial evidence has been adduced—peculiarities in the viral genome, absence of an intermediate animal host, intelligence reports, conflicts-of-interest of Western scientists involved, stonewalling, denial and possible destruction of crucial evidence by China—to make the lab leak hypothesis look at least as plausible as the natural causes one. The Joe Biden administration has set a 90-day target for US intelligence to arrive at a definitive assessment on the matter. For this to turn up anything more than a range of probabilities and confidence scores, a genuine forensic investigation is required. This is unlikely to happen, for it is the last thing Beijing wants.

Mercifully, President Biden and his administration do not seem the type who will order airstrikes on, say, Mongolia and Laos, to make up for this. But, seriously, it is unlikely that anything short of a smoking gun—make that with fingerprints, DNA and CCTV footage—will change how things stand on the geopolitical front. There will be greater pressure on China to raise safety standards of its laboratories, ban its wildlife trade and be more transparent on public health issues. This Beijing will resist, while quietly doing some things that are in its own interest. Meanwhile, its economic preponderance will silence many of the world’s governments, which will place bilateral relations above establishing culpability.

The US and China are already at loggerheads and their relationship will be affected if guilt is established. Unless China’s culpability goes beyond just covering up an accident and into the extremely unlikely event of deliberate malice, the case for punishing the country is weak. Collaborative scientific research will almost certainly be curtailed in life sciences and many others areas, not least because some of the research conducted at the Wuhan lab was funded by the US government.

What is more, the US government might find itself legally liable in its own jurisdiction if it is established that the virus did escape from the Chinese lab. Here again is a parallel with Al-Qaeda. But China cannot be persuaded to cough up reparations. The US, Europe and India are bound to calculate that the benefits of pursuing damages are not worth the costs. The use of force is anyway ruled out.

If the charge of a lab accident gains credence, the international reputation of China and its leaders will be severely damaged. However, if Beijing’s ongoing wolf-warrior diplomacy is any indication, President Xi Jinping does not really care. Perhaps he is right, and like it or not, China will be even more indispensable to the post-covid world.

There are many more The Intersection columns here

In 416 BCE, Athens attacked Melos and demanded an unconditional surrender. When the Melians tried to reason with the invaders, this, according to the historian Thucydides, was the Athenian response: The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.



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