"We haven’t been soft on China… trade often gives us influence to try and help countries change their behaviour"
#Marr asks Defence Secretary Ben Wallace about allegations that China is carrying out a genocide against the Uighur peoplehttps://t.co/EshM3h6Abq pic.twitter.com/hYCmuZJxbU
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) March 21, 2021
Chris Goddard and Philip Mitchell are both members of Lewes Conservative Political Forum.
2020 provided a reality check in relation to China: no longer was it enough to promise, as the Cameron and May administrations had done, that Britain was “open for business” and that unpleasant features of Chinese nationalism could be overlooked because of trade. The scaling back of Huawei technology by Johnson provided a foretaste of a harder-edged response to growing Chinese influence throughout the world coupled with a realisation that, while trade normalises relations, it does not cure aggression or safeguard human rights.
Three events in particular have bought that reality into sharp focus. First, the introduction of the Hong Kong security law as an excuse to snuff out the remnants of democracy in that beleaguered territory has made plain that China regards any interference in its “internal affairs” as illegitimate and indeed worthy of denunciation – so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”.
Second, as Nus Ghani has recently pointed out in these pages, there is increasing evidence that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity in its repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, prompting the US already to take punitive action in the form of its Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.
The UK’s response has so far been limited to outbursts of righteous indignation from the Foreign Secretary. Ghani has (unsuccessfully) proposed that the current Trade Bill includes a provision whereby trade with nations can be restrained by the courts if genocide is adjudged to have taken place.
Third we have the widely reported news that Ofcom has revoked the broadcasting licence of the CGTN – the overseas division of Chinese Central Television – on the grounds that, contrary to the conditions of its licence, CGTN is not an independent entity but is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and echoes its political line (for instance on Hong Kong).
It’s ironical that this move emanates from a mere regulatory body rather than any grave political decision, and yet it is likely to cause the most damage in future relations. This is because China does not recognise that administrators can act independently of governments and a political motive is automatically attributed.
A crucial dilemma has thus arisen for UK policy makers: is it right to call out China for its alleged abuses, being prepared to countenance a period of diplomatic deep freeze of a sort currently existing with Putin’s Russia? Or do we have to accept that the Chinese are likely to respond actively to what they see as hostility, and likely damage the substantial trading relationship which the two countries currently enjoy?
Trade and Environment
As for UK-China trade, the UK imports £49 billion worth of Chinese goods while China imports from the UK £31 billion. While this is a substantial figure and the imbalance does not seem outrageous, it should be remembered that the population difference between the two countries means that the UK per capita amount is approximately £1,500 while for China it is only £25.
Ordinary consumers are not necessarily aware of this – and perhaps they don’t care – as although packaging will show the country of origin, there is no such requirement with online sales. At a time when the UK is urgently looking to improve its trading relationships with countries beyond the EU, is it sensible to risk this massive trade?
Also, if Britain is serious about net zero emissions, it must export pollution to manufacturing countries such as China to reach its targets. The choice is either to abandon those targets, unpalatable with COP26 imminent, or accept ever greater overseas dependence.
China has always needed overseas trade to sustain its double-digit annual growth but counterparties have become wary of sharp practices, such as appropriation of intellectual property and distortion of markets by selling at uneconomic prices. A current example is the sale unto the UK of MG electric cars. China now owns this former British brand and offers attractive models at prices with which other manufacturers could not reasonably compete.
Not only has it financed many infrastructure projects in developing counties with grants or loans at attractive rates, but China has increased its influence in organisations such as the UN and the WHO by agreeing to fund projects which increase its profile or directly benefit its Belt and Road programme .
This assertiveness has become increasingly political. The example of Hong Kong has already been given, for which the suppression of freedom in Tibet is the now-forgotten forerunner. Displays of military might in the South China Sea are of concern to its immediate neighbours. Australia and China are at serious loggerheads over various issues, with China openly faking pictures of Australian soldiers harming children in order to punish Canberra over trade embargo threats. There is no subtlety in its recent diplomacy.
China is a proud country and is replacing Russia as a superpower. No country including the UK can afford to treat it as a pariah state. Yet the continuance of trade offers opportunities for criticism and negotiation provided the West stands together to call out abuses. With its economy faltering, the CCP will arguably not want to fight on too many fronts. While the UN, WHO and WTO are unlikely to be effective vehicles for moderation, the UK can utilise its post-Brexit freedoms and bilateral trade alliances to provide support to countries who want to stand up to Beijing. What it cannot do is act alone, a paper tiger in a post-Imperial world.
Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
She’s unstoppable, that Liz Truss. The epidemic has put most Whitehall ministries in damage limitation mode, but the Department of International Trade is on a roll, signing 62 free trade agreements to date – plus, obviously, the deal with the EU itself.
Those who can’t bear the thought of Brexit succeeding are, naturally, scoffing. These deals, they say, are largely replicas of what we already had as EU members. Their new line of criticism is, I suppose, an improvement on the position that they took until 12 months ago, namely that we would barely be able to strike any deals at all.
But it’s still not true. Many of the “rollover” treaties go further in small ways: more generous quotas, fewer restrictions. True, these liberalisations are chiefly tokens of intent. But that intent is real. With limited capacity, our priority has been to negotiate new FTAs – that is FTAs with countries where the EU currently has no trade deals, such as Australia and the United States.
Where there are serviceable existing arrangements, we have tended to say, in effect: “Let’s leave things roughly as they are for now, and agree to come back to it next year”. Even in these cases, though, we have often taken the opportunity to go further. The UK-Japan deal, for example, is more comprehensive when it comes to services and cross-border data flows than the EU-Japan deal, even though the latter had only just entered into effect.
This week, Britain took a momentous step when it applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade zone comprising Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
Again, many Europhiles are sneering. Joining a Pacific trade pact, they say, defies geography. And it is of course true that Britain is not a Pacific country (other than in the technical sense of owning the Pitcairn islands). But we have exceptionally close links to a number of CPTPP members. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Canada are common law, English-speaking nations. So, to a degree, are Brunei and Malaysia.
One of the arguments for Brexit was that, in the internet age, cultural proximity trumps physical proximity. That argument is stronger now than it was a year ago. The lockdown has habituated us to using Zoom or Teams for important discussions. When travel returns, it is hard to imagine that business people will be as ready to hop over to Düsseldorf for the day to make a presentation. If you’re online, Rotorua is no further than Rennes – indeed, nearer in the sense that it shares your language, legal system and accounting methods.
Another argument for Brexit was that, by global standards, the EU was a slow-growth region. That argument, too, is now looking stronger. Although we talk of the pandemic as a global event, the truth is that it hit Europe much harder than Asia, Africa or the Antipodes.
But the biggest difference between the EU and the CPTPP is that the latter is a trade agreement rather than a state-in-the-making. Its members simply seek to maximise their prosperity through greater specialisation and exchange. Joining the CPTPP does not involve making budget transfers to its poorer regions, or accepting the supremacy of its laws over our parliamentary statutes, or adopting a common flag, passport or anthem. Nor does it require a member to alter its standards on non-exported goods and services.
Viewed purely as a trade pact, the CPTPP is preferable to the EU because it elevates mutual recognition over harmonisation. The essence of the CPTPP is that its members agree to refrain from certain actions that would restrict free commerce. It is perfectly possible for CPTPP members simultaneously to have ambitious trade deals with each other and with the EU – as, for example, Japan and Canada do. On services and on professional qualifications, CPTPP uses a “negative list” approach. In other words, it assumes that whatever is legal in one state is legal in all the others unless it is expressly exempted in the treaty.
It is fair to say that the CPTPP is wide rather than deep. It does not go as far as, say, the Australia–New Zealand deal, which is arguably the most advanced on the planet. But, as Australia and New Zealand demonstrate, a deeper trade deal can nestle within a broader one.
Our aim should be to negotiate a deal similar to that which Australia and New Zealand enjoy with one another – assuming that is, that our protectionists in DEFRA and the NFU will let us. We should, in other words, seek both to participate fully in the CPTPP and, under its auspices, to secure even more ambitious agreements with the countries closest to us in terms of GDP per capita and regulatory interoperability – namely, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore.
Indeed, New Zealand, Singapore and Chile – three of the world’s greatest free-traders – are currently setting the pace when it comes to digital trade. If Britain peels itself away from the wary and watchful EU, which has never been comfortable with the free-wheeling nature of the internet, and joins these Hayekian states, it is likely to end up crafting standards on digital trade that every competitive country will want to adopt.
Finally, there is a geopolitical case for membership. Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Pacific deal at the last minute opened the door to China which, three months ago, created a rival trade pact with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and all ten members of ASEAN.
My guess is that the Biden administration will want to reverse Trump’s mistake. After all, many of its leading members had been involved with putting the Trans-Pacific Partnership together in the first place under Obama. British membership of the zone, as well as being in itself a useful counterweight to Beijing’s ambitions in the region, will set the context for UK-US trade talks.
To sum up, then, our CPTPP application will boost jobs and growth, strengthen the Anglosphere, improve the prospects for a bilateral American deal, accelerate our pivot to the fastest-growing markets on Earth, and elevate Global Britain. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Secretary from 1995 until 1997 and was Minister of State in the Foreign Office from 1983-86. He was responsible for the final stage of negotiations with the Chinese Government over the return of Hong Kong to China.
A week today, assuming the constitutional democratic process takes its proper course, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President of the United States.
Immediately, he will face two challenges.
The first is that he is not Donald Trump. He will want to distance himself from everything his predecessor represents: belligerence, intolerance, rage, incompetence, incoherence and unilateralism.
He will want to prove himself to be the multilateralist, internationalist, engagement-minded president – and democrat – that we all hope for.
In some ways, he will make us all heave a sigh of relief.
At the same time, he should reject one of the mistakes of the Obama administration in which he served. Against the tyrants of the world, what counts is strength. Rhetoric, while welcome, must be accompanied by action if it is to mean anything.
And now more than any time there’s a need to stand up to Xi Jinping’s brutal regime in China.
Tonight, a major new report will be launched by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, titled The Darkness Deepens.
More than any other report in recent time, it provides the full catalogue of horrors of what Xi Jinping’s regime is up to, against its own people and against the free world.
Other reports have detailed individually the atrocities against the Uyghurs, the abuses in Tibet, the persecution of Christians, the suppression of dissent and the silencing of liberties in Hong Kong – but few have combined them all. This report weaves this house of horrors together.
It brings together the dismantling of freedom in Hong Kong, the atrocities in Tibet, the assault on freedom of religion and expression throughout China and the persecution of the Uyghurs, in a way that has seldom been combined before.
And it offers ways forward.
Crucially, the report makes clear, it is not anti-China – it is critical of the Chinese Communist Party regime.
The starting point is engagement and dialogue. But the issue is not should we talk, but what should we talk about and how. And an unavoidable topic of conversation should be human rights.
And then the next question is should we trade? And for me the answer is: yes, but on what terms?
Not on terms of bullying and intimidation. Not on ”wolf-warrior diplomacy”. And definitely not by surrendering our values.
And so we need a global response to Beijing’s belligerence, inhumanity and mendacity.
The British barrister Geoffrey Nice, who prosecuted Slobodan Milošević, now chairs an inquiry into atrocities facing the Uyghurs, and previously led an independent tribunal that concluded that forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China continues, and constitutes a crime against humanity. In that tribunal’s final judgement, published early last year, the eminent panel of lawyers and experts advise that anyone interacting with the Chinese regime should do so in the knowledge that they are “interacting with a criminal state”. The free world must do more to counter that criminality.
That should mean, as the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission proposes, Britain leading the establishment of an international coalition of democracies to coordinate a global response to the human rights crisis in China, bringing together not only the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and our European allies, but countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and others in Asia and beyond.
The British government should do more to help build support for the establishment of a United Nations mechanism to monitor human rights in China, as called for last summer by at least 50 serving UN independent experts and several former UN special rapporteurs, including Zeid Raad al-Hussain, the distinguished former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It is time to look at imposing targeted Magnitsky sanctions against key officials in the Chinese and Hong Kong regimes for serious human rights violations and breaches of international treaties.
We should be looking to diversify supply chains and reduce strategic dependence on China, and put our values and national security first when looking at Chinese investment in critical infrastructure and other sectors.
And while growing claims of genocide against the Uyghurs are not proven, there can be little doubt that what the Chinese regime is doing to the people in Xinjiang reaches the level of mass atrocities and can be considered to be attempted cultural genocide.
Last month an ingenious amendment to the Trade Bill that would prohibit trade deals with states found guilty of genocide was passed in the House of Lords by a majority of 287 to 181. What is striking is that it was introduced and supported by a cross-party group of peers that include Michael Forsyth, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, Lord Blencathra, former Conservative Chief Whip, Eric Pickles, former Conservative Party Chairman, along with Helena Kennedy, Labour peer and leading human rights barrister, Lord Alton, cross-bencher and former Liberal chief whip, the Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, bishops and numerous others across the House of Lords including David Hope, the former Supreme Court Justice. This is no collection of rebels, but some of the country’s most distinguished experts in their field, and therefore should be taken seriously.
The Government’s position has always been that it is for the courts, not politicians, to determine genocide, and I agree. But the problem is that our international judicial mechanisms for genocide determination are found wanting, due to the referral requirements and veto power of some countries, and the result all too often is government inaction in the face of mass atrocities. This amendment creates a vehicle, allowing for the High Court of England and Wales to make a determination and, in any given situation that it does so, the government is duty-bound to abandon any trade deals it may have or hope for with the regimes responsible. As Nice says, “no well-ordered state would want to be trading with a genocidal state.”
It is worth noting that this amendment does not apply retrospectively, and it does not violate multilateral trade commitments, only bilateral agreements. It doesn’t preclude further action at an international level – indeed it strengthens the case for it. And – given my own concern that the charge of genocide should only ever be made when there is indisputable evidence of mass killing and proof of intent – it would, according to Nice, “discourage, and probably significantly reduce, casual and often instrumental assertions that genocide is being committed.”
So it may or may not apply to China. But it would signal Britain’s intent – to the Chinese regime and every other brutal dictatorship – that we will not stand by while grave atrocities are committed. For these reasons I hope Members of Parliament will support it when it comes to the House of Commons.
The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s report on Xi Jinping’s human rights record follows its previous one in 2016, titled The Darkest Moment. As the Commission acknowledges, the title four and a half years ago was with hindsight a little premature, for the darkness has clearly deepened – hence the title of the new report. It makes sad reading, but it should be read in every foreign ministry in the world. If only the Chinese people could themselves read it too, for then they would realise the degree to which millions of their fellow citizens are persecuted and imprisoned by a cruel regime. That cruelty requires a robust, co-ordinated and effective response by the free world, and I hope Britain – together with the new US administration and our other allies, will lead that effort.
Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
Chinese aggression hit the headlines after Beijing imposed punitive tariffs on Australian wine. But resisting Beijing’s exploitation of the international economy to build up its own power needs democracies to do far more than buy the odd bottle (or case) of Cab-Sauv.
On Tuesday, the China Research Group, led by Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien, released a hard hitting report, Defending Democracy in a New World, describing a toolkit of things democracies can do to limit China’s abuse of the international system (I was involved in drafting the report).
Quite rightly, the report emphasises the importance of engaging with China, and welcomes Chinese economic progress, which, since Deng Xiaoping began to open the Chinese economy in 1979, has brought huge gains in the standard of living of billions of Chinese people, and indirectly, to the rest of the world.
Yet that international economic system is based on fundamental principles that China has been systematically violating. Human rights abuses have intensified since Xi Jinping consolidated power, from the concentration camps into which Uighurs have been crammed, to the destruction of civil liberties and democratic rights in Hong Kong, and the totalitarian oppression to which all Chinese citizens are subjected. China is bullying its neighbours, even to the point of preventing Taiwan helping fight the Covid–19 pandemic through the World Health Organisation, and has been rearming to back that intimidation with force.
Defending Democracy’s most important contribution however, is that it identifies the core source of Chinese Communist Party power and presents a set of practical measures democracies can take to blunt this expansionism. Today’s China is capable of reaching into the open economies of the West and pressing the undoubted economic achievements of Chinese industry and technology into the service of the Chinese state.
When globalisation brought barriers between states down, it did so on the implicit assumption that in market economies, the purpose of business was to make money – not serve the home states of the companies’ owners.
This created a world where it’s possible for all of us who can afford it, no matter where we are from, to own parts of foreign companies by buying shares in them, and have that ownership protected by the foreign country’s legal system. Instead of competing politically-like nineteenth century powers, we invest in each others’ economies and reap the benefits of companies competing with each other across a massive international market.
This ideal, however, is based on governments’ understanding that their job isn’t to promote “our own” companies at the expense of “theirs”, but to create an economic environment where a market economy could meet people’s needs and create jobs. Notwithstanding occasional outbursts of protectionism like France’s declaring dairy producer Danone a “strategic” industry, or outright state capture in some of the smaller ex-Communist European states, this ideal has mostly been upheld in the advanced economies of the world.
Xi Jinping’s China has seen that it is possible to apply the subversion of open Western economies, pioneered by the KGB, at industrial scale. When Western countries began to open up to each other after World War II, we did so on the condition that foreign trade and investment would not be used as a crude tool of political influence.
Perhaps seduced by the size of the Chinese market, and deceiving ourselves into thinking that as the Chinese grew richer, their political system would automatically grow democratic, we neglected to apply the same condition to Beijing. China is now going further, and using its power not only to enrich itself at the expense of a naive international economic and political system, but to start shaping the system’s rules in its own favour, and against liberal democracy.
This report is the start of a line of thinking that democracies, including of course the incoming Biden administration, need to join forces to impose costs on China for as long as its abuse of the international system continues. It contains some powerful measures that we can take to limit proposes some powerful measures that can be used to limit the extent of Beijing’s exploitation of our openness to further entrench its totalitarian rule.
As well as innovative specific measures to support the people of Hong Kong, and British National Overseas passport holders, to which the UK has a special responsibility, the report develops policies that can be applied by other democracies.
These include the systematic extension of Magnitsky Act-style sanctions to individuals responsible for human rights violations in China, including those in leadership positions.
Another key proposal is a “know your supplier” obligation to hold companies responsible for goods they sell that have been produced in supply chains where slave labour has been used. Companies that fail to adequately investigate their own supply chains could be fined, and their directors be subject to personal liability and asset forfeiture if it is found that their wealth resulted from forced labour.
Chinese state-owned enterprises could be excluded from national-security sensitive infrastructure projects. Indeed, given the control the Chinese government exerts over even non-state owned enterprises such as Huawei, through its own national security legislation, the report could perhaps have gone further here, though considerable work is needed to make such restrictions compatible with WTO rules.
China’s participation in the open global economy has been good for China, and good for the rest of us, but it has become clear that China is actively undermining the separation of politics and business upon which economic openness depends. Until Beijing changes its behaviour, democracies need to work together to ensure that China can no longer use its economic power to to bend the international system out of shape.
Jason Reed is External Communications Officer at the British Conservation Alliance.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), which is an arm of the UN, has come under a great deal of scrutiny this year as a result of its disastrous leadership throughout the pandemic, the most troubling aspect of which is its close links with China.
When the Coronavirus first emerged, transparency of information in government was suddenly more pivotal than ever before. But little to no information sharing occurred between countries at that crucial time, thanks to the combination of the WHO being at Beijing’s behest and the Chinese Communist Party’s aversion to openness of any kind. The cost of that failure was tens of thousands of lives.
The CCP’s tentacles extend far beyond the WHO, of course. The Chinese government has spent the last several decades worming its way into every corner of the UN. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of that is the UN’s persistent refusal to recognise Taiwan as anything other than Chinese territory.
Imperialism is alive and well in the twenty-first century. China, a modern colonial power, still claims sovereignty over Taiwan, despite the fact that Taiwan has been an independent country for over 70 years, and its government was democratically elected by its population of 24 million.
Taiwan’s exclusion from the UN has nothing to do with Taiwan itself. It’s not as if the UN considered Taiwan’s request to join and rejected it on merit. Even North Korea is a member, after all. The UN simply refuses to acknowledge Taiwan’s existence. It is so beholden to the will of the Chinese government that it does not dare contradict anything that comes out of Beijing. What is the point of an international peace project if it reliably does the bidding of a communist dictatorship?
If there was ever a time to put our foot down and begin to roll back China’s power on the world stage, it is now. “De-Sinoficiation” will define international relations in the coming decades. The Coronavirus coverup, along with flagrant assaults on democracy in Hong Kong and the appalling genocide of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, mean that the world has no choice but to begin to distance itself from the CCP.
This will be an almighty task. For at least forty years, our politics and our economies have gradually become more and more intimately connected with those of China. Disentangling ourselves from that relationship will be a lengthy and arduous process. Finally deciding to exclude Huawei from our 5G network was the first step on a very long road.
But it is a journey we must make. De-Sinoficiation is a necessary task. The entire western world has effectively turned a blind eye to China’s wrongdoing for far too long. The watershed moment has now passed – there is no going back. In order to preserve any semblance of a liberal, globalised world order, China must be knocked off its omnipotent pedestal and held accountable for its actions.
Taiwan’s right to exist as an independent nation seems a good place to start. The right and wrong of the issue is clear-cut and it has always been a touchy area for the CCP, whose greatest fear is its sweeping authority being undermined.
In the Economist’s democracy index, Taiwan ranks third in Asia and 31st in the world (higher than Italy and Belgium). Meanwhile, China languishes among the fifteen least democratic countries, making it more authoritarian than Cuba and Iran. While Taiwan was legalising same-sex marriage, making it the first country in Asia to do so, China was writing ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ into its constitution.
Taiwan stands ready and able to become a fully-fledged member of the international community. There ought to be no question about its validity as an independent country. You might even argue that the island nation, which calls itself the Republic of China, has a much stronger claim to be the Chinese government than Beijing.
On top of everything else, Taiwan is a trailblazing Covid success story. Its total death count from the pandemic to date is seven. The Taiwanese government is also going above and beyond any reasonable expectations in order to build friendships with other democracies around the world, including the UK.
Despite the western world unfairly shunning it in favour of China’s economic might, Taiwan continues to behave courteously towards its would-be allies. For instance, the Taiwanese government donated over a million face masks to the NHS at the height of the British coronavirus outbreak.
Since then, Taiwan has – politely – asked to join the UN and be recognised as an independent nation, calmly pointing out the enormous body of evidence and precedents in its favour. Those calls have gone unheard. Some bridge-building is going on – such as through UK Export Finance investing in a Taiwanese renewable energy project – but it will never go far enough while China is still in the picture.
The British left is beginning to stake its flag in Beijing apologia. Now is the time for Conservatives to demonstrate what post-Brexit Global Britain could look like by standing up for freedom on the world stage. The first step ought to be reconsidering the long-outdated One-China Policy, which would surely cause a ripple of similar actions across the west and – potentially – force the UN to reconsider its close relationship with China.
The Government has an opportunity to lead the world on de-Sinofication and create a valuable new ally for Britain in the process. Let’s not waste any more time.
Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, surgeon, barrister, and senior member of the Voluntary Conservative Party in the West Midlands.
“The WHO really blew it…We will be giving that a good look”. President Trump fired a shot across the bows of the World Health Organization (WHO).
In his Tweet on April 7 this year, the President barely concealed his disdain. It had been clear for some time. Going further, he vowed to defund the organisation.
At the time, many questioned whether the president had the authority to shift policy in such a dramatic way. Then, at the beginning of July, Trump’s administration notified both Congress and the UN that a formal notice of withdrawal from the WHO was being submitted.
This week, Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, even accused it accused of being a “political not a science-based organisation”, whose director general is too close to Beijing.
These criticisms of the WHO are as scathing as they are clear. Trump claims that the organisation is submissive to China, complicit in assisting a cover up as to the risk Covid-19 posed, and, as a result, has failed to sound the klaxon sufficiently swiftly to the wider world amid the spread of the virus.
Is there credence to his analysis? In short, yes. There is no doubt that the WHO’s response could have been better. There are genuine concerns as to the credibility and weight given by the WHO to China’s assurances regarding Covid-19; in particular, China’s unsubstantiated declaration that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”.
Given China’s history of misinformation, scepticism is justified. Those defending the WHO will point to the challenge it was faced with. Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, is a self-confessed critic of the WHO.
However, she has acknowledged that “[i]t’s hard to fault a lot of what the WHO has been trying to do, given the difficult balancing act of trying to get countries to address this epidemic and take it seriously, while also trying to keep all countries at the table”.
And that is one of the real sticking points; the WHO has a diplomatic as well as scientific role. There is some strength to the line of argument that publicly confronting China may have proven detrimental in the longer term. After all, the importance of data sharing, with respect to this and future pandemics, will be vital. The retrospectoscope is a dangerous tool. Therefore, it would be unfair to laden the WHO with too many criticisms when faced with a novel and evolving situation.
However, in certain respects the WHO’s response has appeared somewhat leaden footed at times. Optics matter, and presentationally a firmer stance with China was needed.
Not dismissing its shortcomings, the United States’ decision to withdraw from the WHO is of concern for all players. I fear that it will serve to weaken our collective ability to tackle future global health crises.
The challenges and, dare I say, deficiencies of the WHO have been apparent for some time. During the Ebola epidemic that spread across West Africa, questions were being asked about institutional failings and their impact on global health. Arguably, the time for reform was some years ago. As the world takes stock in the shadow of Covid, it is high time that such reform takes place now.
When the WHO first came into existence, in 1948, it was at the vanguard of global health. Made up of the world’s leading minds pioneering the health agenda, it was the epicentre of concentrated knowledge. But times have changed. The field is much more crowded, with multilateral and bilateral agencies competing alongside large non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for space.
With the emergence of new stakeholders, the WHO has, at times, appeared to have lost its sense of mission. Its scope has outgrown its budgetary resources. It is weighed down by bureaucracy. It is, in many ways, a conflicted organisation; independent scientists operating in an overtly political arena.
That said, the WHO still carries cachet; its formal authority can and must be harnessed to mobilise other global health organisations in the pursuit of better health outcomes.
A prime example of that cachet can be seen when one looks at information gathering. Its members are provided with access that would otherwise not exist if nations operated in isolation. It is unimaginable that US scientists would have, albeit belatedly, been permitted to enter Hubei Province, and the city of Wuhan, had they not done so under the auspices of the WHO.
In the midst of a global fight against a deadly pandemic, I would implore the United States, and other nations minded to follow suit, not to retreat from the WHO but to reform it. The WHO is more than a sum of its parts: it is incumbent upon its members to work together and shape it for the better.
Covid-19 cannot be managed by nations acting alone. It needs a global response. This will be just as true of future pandemics. Less economically-developed countries will continue to rely heavily on the WHO in tackling these health crises. It is the only global health organisation that has the reach and infrastructure to do so.
By walking away from the WHO, America will take with them 15 per cent of the WHO’s $4.85 billion two-year budget. This will only mean that the organisation, already cash-strapped, will find fulfilling its mission all the more difficult.
There is another point that must not be overlooked. The sizeable hole left by the US will provide an opportunity for less altruistic countries, such as China, to fill the void. With a greater financial stake, they will have greater power and influence to wield.
The task facing the international community is to preserve the integrity of the WHO, while at the same time acknowledging its faults, and setting about reform. This will not be a simple process but its importance must not be underestimated.
There are a number of different models that will need to be considered. One example would involve leveraging expertise from NGOs and multilateral agencies by outsourcing key activities. In order to achieve such a co-ordinated approach, it would be imperative that the WHO provides strong, global leadership and policy direction from the centre.
Furthermore, there is a strong argument for the WHO beefing up its powers. The first step would be bolstering the International Health Regulations 2005, so that the WHO can impose sanctions on those countries who repeatedly and fragrantly contravene the rules.
History is punctuated with examples of when the world has found itself at a crossroads. The world currently finds itself in such a situation. Rather than turn inwardly, we must hope that nation states look outwards. We must hope that global co-operation continues to grow. We must hope for the reform that is desperately needed.
The WHO must embrace this challenge. In facing emergent health threats, a reformed WHO will unite the global community.