As India takes a leadership position at the World Health Organisation this week, international attention is riveted on the question of an inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus and the WHO’s response to it. The call for an international investigation was first voiced formally by the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison. Beijing’s reaction was visceral. Despite the open threats of trade sanctions from China, Canberra has pressed ahead. It is working with the European Union to promote a resolution at this week’s World Health Assembly (WHA), which brings ministers from all the member states of the WHO.
The first multilateral discussion of the issues raised by the corona crisis at the United Nations Security Council and the G-20 forum in the last few weeks were preliminary and polite. Now the entire international community — the WHA has 194 members — has a voice in addressing the key issues raised by the corona crisis by debating the resolution.
Besides a scientific investigation into the origins of the virus, the resolution also calls for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive” evaluation into the international response to the corona pandemic. According to media reports on Monday, the resolution was close to gaining support from two-thirds of the WHA’s 194 members.
Australia and the EU hope to have the resolution approved unanimously. Since the resolution does not mention China by name, Canberra and Brussels hope Beijing will not oppose the resolution. They also hope to persuade Washington, which wanted tougher language including references to China, to endorse the resolution.
Whatever the fate of the resolution, the wide-ranging support it has got amidst the vocal Chinese opposition is impressive. To be sure, the resolution was watered down to get the maximum possible backing at the WHO. But it is said to have enough teeth to dig deep into the issues raised by the corona crisis.
A few weeks ago, it seemed China and the Director General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had full control over the corona narrative on the issues involved. The Trump administration’s aggressive questioning of China’s role in spreading the virus and its accusation that the WHO DG was complicit in keeping the world in the dark had not gone down well. Nor did the US threat to cut off funding for the WHO.
Within the US itself, opposition Democrats and the foreign policy establishment has attacked Trump for trying to “divert attention” away from his failures by scapegoating China and the WHO. China’s success in quickly getting things under control at home and its expansive mask diplomacy seemed to give Beijing an upper hand at the WHO. China’s growing clout in the developing world and bilateral economic levers against major developed countries, including in Europe, appeared to insure against any serious international questioning of its handling of the virus.
If the public pressure from the US concentrated minds at the WHO, some quiet diplomacy by middle powers, including India, appears to have created the political basis for learning the right lessons from the pandemic and preventing similar eruptions in the future.
Some observers see a unanimous approval of the resolution as a diplomatic setback for Beijing, since limiting the demands for an external inquiry has been a major political priority for Beijing. There are similar demands at home for an investigation into a crisis that led to an enormous loss of life in China and punishing those responsible. The leadership in Beijing is not comfortable with these demands.
Beyond the immediate debates, Delhi must look at the deeper issues that have hobbled the WHO. First is the need to develop new international norms that will increase the obligations of states and the powers of the WHO in facilitating early detection and notification of pandemics. This will involve finding ways to bridge the contested notions of state sovereignty and collective security.
Second is the question of funding. If you have a club that depends on donations rather than membership fees, donors will inevitably set the agenda. Over the decades, the WHO has become ever more reliant on voluntary contributions from governments and corporations rather than assessed contributions from the member states. This is going to leave the WHO rather vulnerable to pressures.
Third, India must also ask if the WHO is trying to do too many things. The WHO’s initial successes came when it focused on a few objectives like combatting malaria and the elimination of smallpox. A limited agenda might also make the WHO a more effective organisation.
For Delhi, the widespread support for the resolution is a vindication of its early call for transparency and accountability in the responses of China and the WHO to the pandemic. But India knows it is one thing to pass to a resolution and entirely another to compel a great power like China to comply.
Any current effort to understand the origin and spread of the COVID-19 virus and a long-term strategy to deal with future pandemics must necessarily involve more than a measure of Chinese cooperation. Sustained engagement with Beijing, then, is as important for Delhi as deeper cooperation with Washington and the “Quad plus” nations as well as more intensive engagement with the non-aligned nations in promoting a new global regime on preventing and managing pandemics.
This article was published in the Indian Express Print by the title “Diplomatic jujitsu at WHO”. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express
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