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China Is Its Own Worst Enemy

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

The global backlash against China over its culpability for the international spread of the deadly coronavirus from Wuhan has gained momentum in recent weeks. And China itself has added fuel to the fire, as exemplified by its recent legal crackdown on Hong Kong. From implicitly seeking a political quid pro quo for supplying other countries with protective medical gear, to rejecting calls for an independent international inquiry into the virus’s origins until a majority of countries backed such a probe, the bullying tactics of President Xi Jinping’s government have damaged and isolated China’s communist regime.

The backlash could take the form of Western sanctions as Xi’s regime seeks to overturn Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” framework with its proposed new national-security laws for the territory, which has been wracked by widespread pro-democracy protests for over a year. More broadly, Xi’s overreach is inviting increasing hostility among China’s neighbors and around the world.

Had Xi been wise, China would have sought to repair the pandemic-inflicted damage to its image by showing empathy and compassion, such as by granting debt relief to near-bankrupt Belt and Road Initiative partner countries and providing medical aid to poorer countries without seeking their support for its handling of the outbreak. Instead, China has acted in ways that undermine its long-term interests.

Whether through its aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy – named after two Chinese films in which special-operations forces rout US-led mercenaries – or military-backed expansionist moves in China’s neighborhood, Xi’s regime has caused international alarm. In fact, Xi, the self-styled indispensable leader, views the current global crisis as an opportunity to tighten his grip on power and advance his neo-imperialist agenda, recently telling a Chinese university audience that, “The great steps in history were all taken after major disasters.”

China has certainly sought to make the most of the pandemic. After buying up much of the world’s available supply of protective medical equipment in January, it has engaged in price-gouging and apparent profiteering. And Chinese exports of substandard or defective medical gear have only added to the international anger.

While the world grapples with COVID-19, the Chinese military has provoked border flare-ups with India and attempted to police the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. China has also recently established two new administrative districts in the South China Sea, and stepped up its incursions and other activities in the area. In early April, for example, a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, prompting the United States to caution China to “stop exploiting the [pandemic-related] distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”

Meanwhile, China has made good on its threat of economic reprisals against Australia for initiating the idea of an international coronavirus inquiry. Through trade actions, the Chinese government has effectively cut off imports of Australian barley and blocked more than one-third of Australia’s regular beef exports to China.

Whereas Japan readily allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct a full investigation into the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster – a probe that helped the country to improve safety governance – China strongly opposed any coronavirus inquiry, as if it had something to hide. In fact, some Chinese commentators denounced calls for an inquiry as racist.

But once a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the global response to COVID-19 gained the support of more than 100 countries in the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, Xi sought to save face by telling the assembly that “China supports the idea of a comprehensive review.” At the last minute, China co-sponsored the resolution, which was approved without objection.

The resolution, however, leaves it up to the WHO’s controversial director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to launch the review “at the earliest appropriate moment.” Tedros, who has been accused of aiding China’s initial COVID-19 cover-up, may decide to wait until the pandemic has come “under control,” as Xi has proposed.

Make no mistake: the world will not be the same after this wartime-like crisis. Future historians will regard the pandemic as a turning point that helped to reshape global politics and restructure vital production networks. Indeed, the crisis has made the world wake up to the potential threats stemming from China’s grip on many global supply chains, and moves are already afoot to loosen that control.

More fundamentally, Xi’s actions highlight how political institutions that bend to the whim of a single, omnipotent individual are prone to costly blunders. China’s diplomatic and information offensive to obscure facts and deflect criticism of its COVID-19 response may be only the latest example of its brazen use of censure and coercion to browbeat other countries. But it represents a watershed moment.

In the past, China’s reliance on persuasion secured its admission to international institutions like the World Trade Organization and helped to power its economic rise. But under Xi, spreading disinformation, exercising economic leverage, flexing military muscle, and running targeted influence operations have become China’s favorite tools for getting its way. Diplomacy serves as an adjunct of the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus.

Xi’s approach is alienating other countries, in the process jeopardizing their appetite for Chinese-made goods, scaring away investors, and accentuating China’s image problem. Negative views of China and its leadership among Americans have reached a record high. Major economies such as Japan and the US are offering firms relocation subsidies as an incentive to shift production out of China. And India’s new rule requiring prior government approval of any investment from China is the first of its kind.

China currently faces the most daunting international environment since it began opening up in the late 1970s, and now it risks suffering lasting damage to its image and interests. A boomerang effect from Xi’s overreach seems inevitable. A pandemic that originated in China will likely end up weakening the country’s global position and hamstringing its future growth. In this sense, the hollowing out of Hong Kong’s autonomy in the shadow of COVID-19 could prove to be the proverbial straw that breaks the Chinese camel’s back.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2020.

The world faces a moment of truth on China

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the global geopolitical landscape, including triggering a growing backlash against China. The world wants to know why and how a local outbreak in Wuhan turned into a global pandemic that has already killed more than a quarter of a million people. The incalculable human and economic toll continues to mount.

An independent international inquiry will give China a chance to clear the air with the rest of the world. But the Chinese Communist Party vehemently opposes such a probe, viewing it as a mortal threat.

Against this background, the forthcoming session of the World Health Assembly (the decision-making body of the World Health Organization) is shaping up as a test of China’s ability to block an independent investigation into the origins and spread of the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan. The European Union is the latest to state that it will back a resolution at the assembly calling for an independent review.

Getting to the bottom of how the COVID-19 virus flared and spread is essential for designing rapid-response efforts to prevent a future local outbreak from spiraling into another pandemic. After all, this is not the first deadly disease to spread globally from China. A Chinese coverup of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak triggered the world’s first 21st-century pandemic. Even the WHO agrees on the need for an investigation, with its representative in China saying that knowing the origins of the COVID-19 virus is “very important” to prevent “reoccurrence.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has offered China an incentive for cooperation by contrasting a mistake with willful action: “If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, I mean, then sure there should be consequences.” Beijing, however, has shied away from answering even basic questions.

For example, why did China stop domestic flights from Wuhan from Jan. 23, yet allowed some international flights to continue operating from there, such as charter flights? It aided the international spread of the virus by continuing to encourage foreign travel from other Chinese cities until late March. Also, by the time it belatedly locked down Wuhan, about 5 million of its residents, according to the mayor, had already left the city, with an unknown number flying overseas from other Chinese cities. Simply put, infected travelers from Wuhan seeded outbreaks in many countries.

Another key question is why China has clamped down on further research by Chinese scientists into the virus’s origins. It instituted a new policy mandating prior vetting after several Chinese research papers highlighted dangerous work on bat coronaviruses, with one study concluding that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.”

In fact, authorities shut a Shanghai laboratory for “rectification” a day after its Jan. 12 publication of the coronavirus genome opened the global path to diagnostic tests. China, significantly, has still not shared any live virus sample with the outside world, “making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution,” to quote U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Moreover, China has not given foreign experts access to any facility or location where the virus may have originated, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. China’s infamous “batwoman,” Shi Zhengli, was leading lab experiments there in manipulating natural coronaviruses from bats.

The dangerous research may explain why China, instead of sharing coronavirus samples with the outside world, chose to destroy its lab samples, according to Pompeo and the Beijing-based Caixin Global news site. U.S. intelligence has confirmed that it is investigating whether the pandemic was “the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” Pompeo says there is already “enormous evidence” indicating that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab.

In January, while China was playing down the contagion’s threat, it was quietly engaged in a frenzied import of medical gear — from personal protective equipment to masks. According to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security intelligence report dated May 1, China “intentionally concealed the severity” of the outbreak to facilitate its hoarding. By the time the virus seriously hit Europe, China had bought up much of the global supply of protective gear, including 56 million respirators and masks in the last week of January alone.

Now, China has stepped up a crackdown at home to keep what happened at Wuhan under wraps. According to one account, grieving relatives and their lawyers have been threatened by police and volunteers “who tried to thwart the state’s censorship apparatus by preserving reports about the outbreak have disappeared.”

Just think: If China was not guilty of any coverup, wouldn’t it be welcoming the growing international calls for an independent inquiry and offering to provide assistance to such a probe? Instead, Beijing seems to be showcasing its guilt by belligerently rejecting the pleas for an inquiry. It insists the world must avoid “pointing fingers, demanding accountability and other non-constructive approaches.”

Australia, for example, has come under China’s withering attack for proposing that WHO member nations support an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus. The Chinese ambassador to Australia, calling Australia’s proposal “dangerous,” threatened punishment through Chinese boycotts of Australian wine, beef, tourism and education sectors.

Meanwhile, as the Group of Seven countries, India and others seek a review and reform of the WHO, China’s decision to give an additional $30 million to the agency appears aimed at frustrating such calls. International rules mandate that countries notify the WHO of “a public health emergency of international concern within 24 hours of assessment.” China’s glaring failure to do so has led to calls for introducing WHO inspectors with the power to enter a country to probe a disease outbreak in the style of weapons inspectors.

Make no mistake: Money alone can neither aid China’s strategy to deflect blame for the global crisis nor help defuse the backlash against it. Its carrot-and-stick approach of mixing financial inducements with threats will only fuel greater mistrust of Beijing.

In fact, the pandemic has made the world arrive at its moment of truth: It must break China’s stranglehold on vital supply chains, including by incentivizing foreign manufacturers to move out of China, or else risk a situation in which Beijing weaponizes its leverage.

China’s mercantilist expansionism has led to a spate of new regulations in the EU, Australia, Germany, Spain and Italy. But India’s recent new rule mandating prior scrutiny of Chinese investment in any form — and across all sectors — is the first of its kind. Another major recent move is by Japan, which has set aside $2.2 billion of its pandemic-linked economic support package for a specific purpose: To help Japanese firms shift manufacturing out of China.

Today, the world is looking for answers that only a thorough inquiry can reveal. If China refuses to join such a probe, it will encourage important economies to start distancing themselves from it, through new tariffs, nontariff barriers, relocation of manufacturing and other policy moves. Such systematic “decoupling,” by undermining the communist monopoly on power, would be the CCP’s worst nightmare come true.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

© The Japan Times, 2020.

If there was no coverup, why is China opposing an inquiry?

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Hill

China insists it has been fully transparent and hidden nothing on the killer coronavirus, whose international spread from Wuhan has turned into the greatest global disaster of our time. So why is Beijing rancorously opposing an independent international inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus?

The lethal virus emanated from China, leading to a paralyzing pandemic. The mounting socioeconomic costs of the unparalleled global crisis will remain immeasurable. In this light, is it unreasonable that the world wants to know how and why it happened?

Investigating the pandemic’s genesis is critical for another reason — this is not the first deadly disease to spread globally from China. A Chinese coverup of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak triggered the world’s first 21st-century pandemic. Getting to the bottom of how the latest pathogen flared and spread is essential for designing rapid-response efforts to prevent a future local disease outbreak from spiraling into yet another pandemic.

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. This is the organization whose repeated deference helped Beijing to cover its tracks, prompting President Donald Trump to say recently that the WHO “should be ashamed of themselves because they are like the public-relations agency for China.” In fact, several countries seeking an inquiry want the investigation to focus on the pandemic-related roles of both China and the WHO.

The WHO representative in China has said the “origins of virus are very important” to prevent “reoccurrence.” Yet Beijing has shut out even the WHO from its COVID-19 investigations.

Trump has offered China an incentive for cooperation by contrasting a mistake with willful action: “If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, I mean, then sure there should be consequences.” Beijing, however, has shied away from answering even basic questions.

For example, why did China stop flights from Wuhan to the rest of the country from January 23, yet allowed some international flights from Wuhan, including charter flights, thus facilitating the international spread of the virus? Or why did it recently clamp down on further research by Chinese scientists into the virus’s origins? It instituted a new policy mandating prior vetting after several Chinese research papers highlighted dangerous work on bat coronaviruses, with one study concluding that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.”

In fact, authorities shut a Shanghai laboratory a day after its January 12 publication of the coronavirus genome opened the global path to diagnostic tests. China has not shared any live virus sample with the outside world, “making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution,” to quote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Moreover, China has not given foreign experts access to any facility or location where the virus may have originated, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The infamous “batwoman,” Shi Zhengli, was leading lab experiments there in manipulating natural coronaviruses from bats.

The dangerous research may explain why China, instead of sharing any coronavirus sample with the outside world, chose to destroy its lab samples, according to Pompeo and the Beijing-based Caixin Global news site. U.S. intelligence has confirmed that it is investigating whether the pandemic was “the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”

Just think — if China was not guilty of any coverup, wouldn’t it be welcoming the growing international calls for an independent inquiry and offering to provide assistance to such a probe? Such an inquiry would give China a chance to clear the air with the rest of the world.

Instead, Beijing seems to be showcasing its guilt by belligerently rejecting the pleas for such an inquiry, including by the European Commission president. China says such calls are destined to fail because the world, in the words of its foreign ministry, must avoid “pointing fingers, demanding accountability and other non-constructive approaches.”

Australia is Exhibit A. The country is more economically tied with China than with its security patron, the United States, which explains why it has long hedged its bets. Yet Australia has come under China’s withering attack for merely proposing that WHO member-nations support an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus. Australia said it will push for such an investigation at the WHO assembly (the decision-making body) when it convenes for its annual meeting on May 17.

In response, the Chinese ambassador to Australia has lashed out at his host country, threatening punishment through Chinese boycotts of Australian wine, beef and tourism and education sectors. Australia, however, is not the only country to call for a probe. Sweden, for example, has echoed Australia’s call.

Meanwhile, as the Group of Seven (G7) countries, India and others seek a review of and to reform the WHO, China’s decision to give an additional $30 million to the agency appears aimed at frustrating such calls. International rules require countries to notify the WHO of “a public health emergency of international concern within 24 hours of assessment.” China’s glaring failure to do so has led to calls for introducing WHO inspectors with the power to enter a country to probe a disease outbreak in the style of weapons inspectors.

Make no mistake: Money alone can neither aid China’s strategy to deflect blame for the current crisis nor help defuse the increasing global backlash against it. Its carrot-and-stick approach of mixing financial inducements with threats will only fuel greater mistrust of Beijing.

China is genuinely worried that, once the crisis passes, battered countries or communities may seek a reckoning, including by suing it for damages. Trump has said that his administration is looking at a “very substantial” compensation claim against China. Against this background, Beijing has aggressively sought to rebrand itself as the world’s counter-pandemic leader, while trying to rewrite the outbreak’s history.

But calls are growing louder across the world to publicly hold China accountable for the pandemic’s mounting human and economic toll. The only way China can silence such calls and begin to repair the serious damage to its image is through an independent international inquiry.

If it blocks such a probe, China will pay enormous costs — not as reparations but by compelling other major economies to restructure their relationships with it, a process that ultimately would end its status as the global hub of vital supply chains. China’s mercantilist expansionism has already led to a spate of new regulations in the European Union, Australia, Germany, Spain and Italy. But India’s recent new rule mandating prior scrutiny of Chinese investment in any form – and across all sectors – is the first of its kind. Another major recent move is by Japan, which has set aside $2.2 billion to help Japanese firms shift manufacturing out of China.

If China refuses to come clean, important countries are likely to start economically distancing themselves from it, through new tariffs, non-tariff barriers, relocation of manufacturing and other policy moves. Eventually, such action could undermine the communist monopoly on power in China.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

© The Hill, 2020.

The Chinese Health Organization?

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If the World Health Organization is to spearhead international health policy and respond to disease outbreaks effectively, it must pursue deep reforms aimed at broadening its jurisdiction and authority. That won’t happen unless and until the WHO rebuilds its credibility, beginning with new leadership.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

The COVID-19 pandemic, much like a major war, is a defining moment for the world – one that demands major reforms of international institutions. The World Health Organization, whose credibility has taken a severe beating of late, is a good place to start.

The WHO is the only institution that can provide global health leadership. But, at a time when such leadership is urgently needed, the body has failed miserably. Before belatedly declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, the WHO provided conflicting and confusing guidance. More damaging, it helped China, where the crisis originated, to cover its tracks.

It is now widely recognized that China’s political culture of secrecy helped to turn a local viral outbreak into the greatest global disaster of our time. Far from sounding the alarm when the new coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, the Communist Party of China (CPC) concealed the outbreak, allowing it to spread far and wide. Months later, China continues to sow doubt about the pandemic’s origins and withhold potentially life-saving data.

The WHO has been complicit in this deception. Instead of attempting independently to verify Chinese claims, the WHO took them at face value – and disseminated them to the world.

In mid-January, the body tweeted that investigations by Chinese authorities had found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus. Taiwan’s December 31 warning that such transmission was likely happening in Wuhan was ignored by the WHO, even though the information had been enough to convince the Taiwanese authorities – which may have better intelligence on China than anyone else – to institute preventive measures at home before any other country, including China.

The WHO’s persistent publicizing of China’s narrative lulled other countries into a dangerous complacency, delaying their responses by weeks. In fact, the WHO actively discouraged action. On January 11, with Wuhan gripped by the outbreak, the WHO said that it did “not recommend any specific health measures for travelers to and from Wuhan,” adding that “entry screening offers little benefit.” It also advised “against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China.”

Even after China’s most famous pulmonologist, Zhong Nanshan, confirmed human-to-human transmission on January 20, the WHO continued to undermine effective responses by downplaying the risks of asymptomatic transmission and discouraging widespread testing. Meanwhile, China was hoarding personal protective equipment – scaling back exports of Chinese-made PPE and other medical gear and importing the rest of the world’s supply. In the final week of January alone, the country imported 56 million respirators and masks, according to official data.

By the time the WHO finally labeled the epidemic a public-health emergency on January 30, travelers from China had carried COVID-19 to far-flung corners of the world, including AustraliaBrazilFrance, and Germany. Yet, when Australia, India, Indonesia, Italy, and the US imposed restrictions on travel from China, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus roundly criticized the actions, arguing that they would increase “fear and stigma, with little public-health benefit.”

At the same time, Tedros extolled Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “very rare leadership” and China’s “transparency.” The bias has been so pronounced that Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso recently noted that, for many, the WHO is looking more like the “CHO” – the Chinese Health Organization.

Yet, despite the WHO’s repeated deference to China, the authorities there did not allow a WHO team to visit until mid-February. Three of the team’s 12 members were allowed to visit Wuhan, but no one was granted access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the high-containment laboratory from which a natural coronavirus derived from bats is rumored to have escaped. In fact, a study conducted at the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou with support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China concluded in February that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan” working on bat coronaviruses.

China did not always enjoy deferential treatment from the WHO. When the first twenty-first-century pandemic – severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) – emerged from China in 2002, the agency publicly rebuked the Chinese authorities for concealing vital information in what proved to be a costly cover-up.

Why has the WHO changed its tune? The answer is not money: China remains a relatively small contributor to the WHO’s $6 billion budget. The issue is the WHO’s leadership.

Tedros, who became the agency’s first non-physician chief in 2017 with China’s support, was accused of covering up three cholera outbreaks while serving as Ethiopia’s health minister. Nonetheless, few would have imagined that, as WHO chief, the microbiologist and malaria researcher would be complicit in China’s deadly deception.

The WHO’s faltering response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak underscored the imperative for reforms before Tedros was at the helm of the agency. But, rather than overseeing the needed changes, Tedros has allowed political considerations to trump public health.

As the costs of the mismanagement continue to mount, a reckoning is becoming all but inevitable. An online petition calling for Tedros to resign has garnered almost a million signatures. More consequential, President Donald Trump’s administration has suspended the WHO’s US funding, which accounts for 9.2% of its budget.

The world needs the WHO. But if the agency is to spearhead international health policy and respond to disease outbreaks effectively, it must pursue deep reforms aimed at broadening its jurisdiction and authority. That won’t happen unless and until the WHO rebuilds its credibility beginning with new leadership.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2020.

China’s coverup unleashed a pandemic

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

The staggering costs the world is bearing for the spread of the killer coronavirus from China promise to shake up the international order. China, for its part, faces lasting damage to its image. After all, if China had acted promptly and decisively, the Covid-19 outbreak could have been confined to its central Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. Instead, China’s initial, weeks-long coverup helped spawn the greatest global disaster of our time, sending the world hurtling toward a recession.

China is actually a repeat offender: It unleashed in a similar manner the world’s first 21st-century pandemic, SARS. The Communist Party of China (CPC) treated the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in November as a political embarrassment rather than a public health emergency, delaying the start of containment measures until January 23. The CPC not only turned a local outbreak into a global pandemic but also, by falsifying China’s Covid-19 data, it has staged a second coverup that has impeded an effective global response to the disease.

The pandemic has highlighted that only by loosening China’s grip on global supply chains – beginning with the pharmaceutical sector – can the world be kept safe from Beijing’s machinations. Japan has already earmarked $2.2 billion to help Japanese manufacturers shift production out of China, while White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow says the US could lure American firms to move back to the US by paying their full moving costs.

China, meanwhile, has launched a public-relations blitzkrieg to rewrite the pandemic’s history and rebrand itself as the world’s counter-pandemic leader, including by exporting medical equipment to stricken countries and claiming to have won the Covid-19 battle at home. However, in a double whammy, China not only triggered the pandemic but also accentuated the devastation in some countries by exporting millions of flawed test kits and substandard personal protective equipment and face masks for health workers.

In fact, by blocking a mere discussion on the pandemic at the UN Security Council while it served as its president in March, China underlined its guilt. If India had unleashed this pandemic through a coverup, China would have been in the lead to hold a Security Council discussion and to inflict punishment with UN sanctions. But, as underscored by Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi’s telephone call, it sought India’s help to ward off international censure.

Transparency is essential to make us all safer. One country’s authoritarianism and opacity have contributed to spiralling coronavirus infections and deaths, mammoth economic losses, and a mounting social and psychological toll across the world.

The pandemic has also dented the World Health Organization’s credibility. Instead of providing global health leadership, the WHO under Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has become part of the problem by putting politics ahead of public health. Indeed, by disseminating China’s false narrative and dubious figures, the WHO lulled other nations into a dangerous complacency, thereby delaying national responses by multiple weeks.

Tedros, who uses his first name, was accused of covering up three cholera epidemics while serving as his country’s health minister. But who could have imagined that, as the WHO chief, he would do something even worse – lend a helping hand to China’s COVID-19 dual coverup? Nothing better illustrates the WHO’s credibility problem than the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s statement that many people worry that the agency’s acronym may need to change from WHO to “CHO” (“Chinese Health Organization”).

US President Donald Trump’s decision to halt US funding, which makes up nearly 10% of the WHO’s $6 billion annual budget, puts pressure on the agency to clean up its act. To restore its credibility, the WHO needs fresh leadership that can independently coordinate international health policy, including by reversing the Tedros-initiated politicisation of global health.

By affecting people everywhere, the pandemic is truly more global in its impacts than either of the two world wars. But like the world wars, this once-in-a-century pandemic is a defining moment that promises to introduce profound changes in societies and economies.

The writer is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2020.

The other contagion: Political and religious fanaticism

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

unnamedJust as fascism led to World War II, communism has engendered the greatest global health catastrophe of our time. The Chinese Communist Party, by initially covering up the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, helped unleash the world’s worst pandemic in more than a century. Today’s paralyzing pandemic, in terms of the extent of economic and social disruptions, has no parallel in modern history.

This underscores that China’s political system is a mortal threat to the world, even though its greatest impact is borne by Chinese nationals, who have to withstand its Orwellian surveillance and untold repression, including “re-education” of Muslims in the gulag. The pandemic’s inestimable human and economic toll has shown how one country’s authoritarianism can ravage the entire world.

Accentuating the pandemic is another extremism — one grounded in religion. The role of two proselytizing fundamentalist organizations in spreading the deadly coronavirus has exemplified how religious extremism threatens public health and national security.

South Korea’s secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus sparked a major crisis in the country by importing the virus from Wuhan, where it organized a congregation. More than half of South Korea’s COVID-19 cases have been linked to this doomsday sect.

Meanwhile, a transnational Islamist movement, the Tablighi Jamaat (“Proselytizing Society”), by holding large gatherings in Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia, helped export the pathogen to multiple countries extending from Southeast Asia to West Africa. This Sunni missionary movement also held a session in New Delhi that helped spread the virus across India.

Through its large events, the Tablighi Jamaat — which has long served as a recruiting ground for terrorist groups — has emerged as the super-spreader of COVID-19. This organization masks its millenarian philosophy and refusal to recognize national borders by claiming to be apolitical. But its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its very political mission.

A number of Westerners convicted of terrorism were associated with the Tablighi Jamaat. They include “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla and “Brooklyn Bridge bomber” Lyman Harris. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation found after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that al-Qaida used the Tablighi Jamaat for recruiting new terrorists.

The Tablighi Jamaat’s February 27-March 1 gathering of 16,000 activists at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur spread the disease in six Southeast Asian countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Its March 11-12 congregation in Lahore, Pakistan, attracted up to a quarter million participants but ended up creating the largest viral vector in the Sunni world. It spread the coronavirus far and wide — from Kyrgyzstan to Gaza.

Indonesia banned a similar Tablighi Jamaat event on Sulawesi island but not before nearly 8,800 activists from 10 countries had gathered. But India inexplicably allowed Tablighi Jamaat missionaries, including many foreigners, to congregate in its capital city from March 13, a day after the state of Delhi (which includes New Delhi) declared COVID-19 an epidemic and prohibited large events, besides shutting all schools, colleges and movie theaters.

Permitting this congregation, which authorities did not disperse until April 1, proved costly: Nearly one-third of India’s total number of COVID-19 cases have been linked to that gathering. Those who contracted the disease at the gathering spread the infection to families and other contacts across India after returning home.

The Tablighi Jamaat went ahead with its planned congregations in different countries despite the pandemic because, as one of its clerics put it, calling off any event would have amounted to “repudiating Allah’s directive.” However, with these gatherings becoming rapid multipliers of the coronavirus, the organization will be remembered for the deaths and suffering it caused in many communities.

The lesson is that religious fanaticism, like political despotism, is often deadly. Indeed, the blind faith of religious zealots has been a significant trigger in spreading the coronavirus, as Iran’s case underscores.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 disease in Iran, one of the world’s worst-affected countries, began in the sacred city of Qom, which is visited by some 20 million pilgrims every year and where the 1979 Islamic revolution started. The ayatollahs who run the seminaries in Qom discounted the coronavirus risks by saying prayer would keep the disease away.

Indeed, Mohammad Saeedi, the head of Qom’s famous Fatima Masumeh shrine, released a video message calling on pilgrims to keep coming. “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases,” said Saeedi, who is also the Qom representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The 80-year-old Khamenei himself said in early March that the coronavirus “is not that big a deal,” adding that “prayer can solve many problems.”

COVID-19 cases in Shiite communities in countries stretching from Afghanistan and Iraq to Bahrain and Lebanon have been traced to Iran.

Likewise, in Israel, ultraorthodox Jews caused the coronavirus to spread rapidly by flouting the government’s stay-at-home measures. Although they account for 12% of Israel’s total population, they make as much as 60% of the country’s COVID-19 cases in major hospitals. To help protect the wider population, security troops have now started policing ultraorthodox Jewish neighborhoods, imposing large fines on those violating containment measures.

However, no religious group has played a greater role in spreading the coronavirus across national frontiers than the Tablighi Jamaat, known for its wandering bands of preachers. The Tablighi Jamaat shuns the modern world and urges its followers to replicate the life of Muhammad and work toward creating a rule of Islam on Earth.

From China’s authoritarianism gifting the world a horrendous pandemic to the role of religious zealots in accelerating the spread of the disease, the global costs of political and religious extremism have been laid bare. Extremism is antithetical to the social and economic well-being of societies.

The virulent contagions of political and religious fanaticism have become more pronounced during the current pandemic, underscoring that the only way to contain the threat from extremists is to discredit their insidious ideologies. As the Algerian writer Mouloud Benzadi has put it, “Kill extremists and more extremists will appear. Kill extremist ideology and extremism will disappear.”

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2020.

Don’t disregard the long-term threat from Tablighi Jamaat

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Wolf in sheep’s clothing? The Tablighi Jamaat claims to be apolitical but its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its political mission. Authorities in multiple countries view its missionary training as providing members a stepping stone to later join terrorist groups. 

Tabilighi

Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, chief of the Tablighi Jamaat (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)

Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

The greatest global health catastrophe of our time has helped shine a spotlight on the role of religious evangelists and other fundamentalists in spreading the China-originating COVID-19 disease. In a number of countries, from the United States and Israel to Iran and Indonesia, religious zealots — whether Christian, Jew, Shia or Sunni — have resisted adhering to government stay-at-home orders.

In some cases, their disobedience has led to spiralling COVID-19 infection rates. In Israel, for example, ultra-orthodox Jews account for 12% of the country’s total population but make as much as 60% of its COVID-19 cases in major hospitals, compelling the government to start policing ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods in order to protect the wider population.

But no group has played a greater role in spreading the deadly coronavirus far and wide than the Tablighi Jamaat (“Proselytizing Society”), a transnational missionary movement of the Deobandi branch of Sunni Islam that boasts more than 80 million members across the world, including in Europe and North America. It was founded in 1927 near New Delhi in Mewat, Haryana, by a prominent Deobandi cleric, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi. Some commentators, not familiar with its ideology or larger goals, have presented in benign light the puritanical Tablighi Jamaat, known for its wandering bands of preachers.

In truth, the Tablighi Jamaat represents a fusion of religious obscurantism, missionary zeal and an enduring commitment to global jihad — a toxic cocktail that holds long-term implications for international security and for modern democracies. Basically, the Tablighi Jamaat shuns the modern world and urges its followers to replicate the life of Muhammad and work toward creating a rule of Islam on earth.

Its revivalist and regressive ideology is espoused by radical preachers and Islamist televangelists, such as Junaid Jamshed and Tariq Jamil, both Pakistanis. The Tablighi Jamaat claims to be apolitical, but its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its very political mission.

To be clear, the Tablighi Jamaat itself is not a hotbed of terrorism, despite some individual acts of terror by its associates. However, the ideological indoctrination it imparts to the largely illiterate and semiliterate youths it enlists helps to create recruits for militant and terrorist outfits. In fact, it has long served as a recruiting ground for terrorist groups ranging from Al Qaeda and the Taliban to two of its spinoffs — the Harakat ul-Mujahideen and the Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami. The Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami has proved a security challenge for India in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and in states like Gujarat where it has taken over mosques from moderate Muslims and installed radical clerics.

A bigger challenge has been posed by the other offshoot, the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, an internationally designated terrorist organization. Founded by the Tablighi Jamaat’s Pakistan branch, the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, as the United Nations has put it, “was responsible for the hijacking of an Indian airliner on December 24, 1999, which resulted in the release of Masood Azhar”. Azhar was not the only terrorist released from Indian jails to meet the demands of the hijackers of the IC-814 flight.

In an ignominious episode unparalleled in modern history, then Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh flew to Taliban-held Kandahar to hand-deliver Azhar and two other terrorists: Omar Sheikh, a purported financier of 9/11, whose subsequent conviction for journalist Daniel Pearl’s 2002 murder was recently overturned by a Pakistani court; and Mushtaq Zargar, who went on to form the Al-Umar terror group. Azhar, for his part, established the Jaish-e-Mohammad, a front organization of Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Just the way India’s terrorists-for-Rubaiya Sayed swap in 1989 aided Pakistan’s “politico-military decision”, as Benazir Bhutto put it, “to start low-intensity operations” in J&K, the Kandahar cave-in led to a qualitative escalation in cross-border terrorism.

The Tablighi Jamaat came under intense scrutiny in the United States after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “We have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the United States,” the deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section said in 2003. “And we have found that Al Qaeda used them for recruiting now and in the past.”

Alex Alexiev, the late American counterterrorism expert of Bulgarian origin, described the Tablighi Jamaat in an essay as “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The hardcore jihadists the Tablighi Jamaat spawns in its ranks are later recruited by terrorist organizations as replacements for slain warriors. From Morocco and France to Indonesia and the Philippines, intelligence agencies and prosecutors have viewed the Tablighi Jamaat training as a stepping stone to membership in terrorist outfits. French intelligence officers, for example, called the Tablighi Jamaat the “antechamber” of violent extremism, according to a 2002 report in Le Monde.

The current pandemic, for its part, has shown how the Tablighi Jamaat’s religious obscurantism, fanaticism, blinkered delusions of divine protection and open disdain for science can endanger public health and the larger social good. A prominent Tablighi Jamaat leader in Pakistan, Mufti Taqi Usmani, who is also a leading expert in sharia finance, claimed on national television that the Prophet, by coming in the dream of a Tablighi Jamaat activist, revealed “the cure for the coronavirus”, which was the recitation of certain Quranic verses.

Amid the raging pandemic, the Tablighi Jamaat held ijtemas (or congregations) in several different countries even after Saudi Arabia suspended the Umrah pilgrimage, Iran shut the holiest Shia sites, and multiple Islamic nations closed mosques, including Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, after closing off the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to foreigners, has asked the more than one million Muslims planning to perform the hajj from late July to indefinitely delay their trips, raising the possibility that the pilgrimage could be cancelled for the first time in more than 200 years.

For the Tablighi Jamaat, however, the fast-spreading coronavirus was no deterrent to staging ijtemas in several countries. Calling off any ijtema — which is an annual three-day Tablighi Jamaat congregation to help instil a sense of brotherhood and a commitment to jihad among its members — would have amounted to repudiating Allah’s directive, according to Tablighi Jamaat clerics.

In fact, the Tablighi Jamaat’s New Delhi-based chief, Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, pushed innocent Tablighis into the jaws of the new disease by talking about the “healing power” of the “markaz” — the mosque-cum-dormitory complex that serves as the organization’s headquarters. Saad, the great-grandson of the Tablighi Jamaat’s founder, told his followers that, in any event, the “best death” for any devout Muslim was in the markaz.

Saad’s sermons that “Allah will protect us” were redolent of how Shia clerics earlier turned the holy city of Qom into Iran’s COVID-19 epicentre. Indeed, Iran’s outbreak of the disease began in Qom, which is visited by some 20 million pilgrims every year and where the 1979 Islamic revolution started. The ayatollahs who run the seminaries in Qom openly discounted the coronavirus risks. Indeed, Mohammad Saeedi, the head of Qom’s famous Fatima Masumeh shrine, released a video message calling on pilgrims to keep coming. “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases,” said Saeedi, who is also the representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader in Qom.

The Tablighi Jamaat’s ijtemas amid the pandemic unleashed the largest known viral vector in the Sunni world, spreading the disease in communities stretching from Southeast Asia to West Africa. The February 27-March 1 ijtema of 16,000 activists at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur helped spread the disease to six Southeast Asian countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Nearly two-thirds of coronavirus cases in Malaysia last month were linked to that ijtema.

The Kuala Lumpur gathering was followed by a much larger international ijtema at the Tablighi Jamaat’s Pakistan headquarters at Raiwind, in suburban Lahore. A quarter of a million participants congregated in Raiwind on March 11-12 before authorities privately persuaded the organizers to end the ijtema and disperse. But hundreds of participants contracted COVID-19. Within days, they spread the disease far and wide, not just within Pakistan, but also elsewhere — from Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria.

After Raiwind came the New Delhi ijtema from March 13, although the state of Delhi (which includes New Delhi) had already declared COVID-19 an epidemic and prohibited all large events, besides shutting all schools, colleges and movie theatres. While a large throng packed New Delhi’s Markaz Nizamuddin, Indonesia — in a last-minute decision — banned an ijtema in South Sulawesi just as it was about to begin on March 18 with nearly 8,800 participants. The Tablighi Jamaat initially resisted the Indonesian order but then complied by asking its activists to leave.

Despite knowing all this, including how the Kuala Lumpur ijtema helped spread COVID-19 across Southeast Asia, Indian federal and state authorities allowed the New Delhi ijtema to proceed. Maharashtra state, by contrast, acted wisely by cancelling permission for an ijtema in Vasai. The New Delhi congregation stretched for 18 days until the final 2,346 holdouts were evacuated from Markaz Nizamuddin on April 1.

Permitting this congregation has proved costly for India, including undermining the nationwide lockdown that has been in force since March 22 to combat COVID-19. Nearly one-third of India’s total number of COVID-19 cases have been linked to that gathering. Many contracted the coronavirus at the congregation, which they then spread to families and communities across India after returning home. Such has been the adverse fallout from the ijtema that the national lockdown is likely to be extended beyond April 14.

The fact that many participants from other Islamic countries at the New Delhi ijtema misused tourist visas for missionary activity has also cast an unflattering light on Indian security agencies. Initial investigations suggest that some of the foreign attendees, including preachers from Indonesia and Malaysia, brought the coronavirus to the gathering.

Today, with prayer failing to keep the disease away, Markaz Nizamuddin — which Saad portrays as the most sacred place after Mecca and Medina — has been shut after being disinfected by authorities. Saad, for his part, initially went into hiding to escape police investigations.

Looking ahead, the Tablighi Jamaat will not find it easy to repair the damage to its reputation. Long after the current pandemic is over, it will be remembered for the deaths and suffering that its ijtemas caused in many communities in the Sunni world. The ijtemas became rapid multipliers of the coronavirus.

The rancour over the Tablighi Jamaat’s pandemic-related role could, in fact, exacerbate the factional infighting that has increasingly racked the organization in recent years. The infighting largely centres on the leadership issue, with the more radical Tablighi Jamaat factions in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Britain challenging Saad’s headship. The infighting has triggered even violent clashes between rival groups, resulting in multiple deaths.

Such violence has been recurrent in Bangladesh, which hosts the Tablighi Jamaat’s Bishwa Ijtema (Global Congregation), supposedly the second-largest annual gathering of Sunni Muslims after hajj. Bishwa Ijtema is held usually in January along River Turag in Tongi, just outside Dhaka. The Tablighi Jamaat in Bangladesh, however, has split into two groups, with the more militant, anti-Saad faction supported by radical clerics and the hardline Islamist outfit Hefazat-e-Islam.

This faction, by staging a violent demonstration, forced Saad last year to return to New Delhi without joining the Bishwa Ijtema. At present, Saad’s followers are not allowed into the Tablighi Jamaat’s Bangladesh headquarters — the Kakrail Mosque in Dhaka.

In Pakistan, the longstanding military-mullah alliance, which has facilitated the military generals’ use of terrorist proxies against India and Afghanistan, looks askance at the Tablighi Jamaat’s global headquarters in New Delhi. Control over Islamist and terror groups is central to the generals’ power at home and their regional strategy.

Not surprisingly, the generals have encouraged the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan to be independent of the New Delhi group. In fact, the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan maintains close ties with the generals, at whose behest it allows state-sponsored terrorist groups to enlist some of its best students for military training. Such transfer of students usually takes place at the Tablighi Jamaat centre in Raiwind, where the organization’s star recruits receive four months of special missionary training.

The generals’ backing, however, has not protected the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan from attacks by jihadist groups that are outside the control of the military establishment. Several prominent Deobandi/Tablighi Jamaat clerics have been assassinated, including by the Pakistani Taliban — the Pakistan military’s nemesis.

Maintaining state control over clerics is also the reason why Saudi Arabia does not allow the Tablighi Jamaat to operate in the kingdom. A transnational Islamist movement headquartered in a non-Muslim country runs counter to the Saudi policy of keeping the religious establishment on a tight leash and using it to bankroll fundamentalist groups elsewhere.

Against this background, India’s indulgent act in letting the Tablighi Jamaat hold its ijtema in New Delhi, despite pandemic-related state curbs, has stuck out like a sore thumb. In fact, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s widely publicized meeting with Saad in the early hours of March 29 to get the holdouts in Markaz Nizamuddin to leave could weaken Saad’s hand in the factional infighting.

More fundamentally, it is past time for India to recognize the threat from the Tablighi Jamaat’s regressive ideology. That ideology is antithetical to secularism and democracy, including religious tolerance and separation of church and state. The Tablighi Jamaat, by not recognizing national borders, also challenges the nation-state system.

Indeed, no counterterrorism strategy can ignore the intersection between religious fundamentalism and violent extremism that this movement symbolizes. Terrorist groups draw sustenance from the Tablighi Jamaat’s ideology of Islamic revivalism. These groups also enlist some of those that the Tablighi Jamaat trains. In a limited number of cases, Tablighi Jamaat associates have directly committed acts of terrorism, including convicted Westerners such as “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla and “Brooklyn Bridge bomber” Lyman Harris.

The manner the Tablighi Jamaat’s obscurantism and obduracy contributed to the spread of COVID-19 is just the latest reminder of the group’s threat to national and international security.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War : Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Open magazine, 2020.