A conversation on international cooperation in the time of the coronavirus

Tatiana Rosito of CEBRI and Qu Yuhui of the Chinese Embassy in Brasilia talk about opportunities for cooperation

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A meeting of the China-Brazil High-Level Coordination and Cooperation Committee (COSBAN) in Beijing, May 2019 (Photo: Alamy)

Latin American countries have entered into the most severe stretch of the coronavirus epidemic. While the light at the end of the tunnel still seems distant, many want to learn from China, which a few months ago passed through its most difficult stage of the epidemic.

For this reason, Tatiana Rosito, who coordinates the China Analysis Group at the Brazil Centre for International Relations (CEBRI), invited Qu Yuhui, the Minister-Counsellor responsible for political affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Brasilia, to participate in a conversation about the challenges of the pandemic and the opportunities for cooperation. The conversation took place in April.

Here we reprint some excerpts of the conversation published in videos by CEBRI. Passages were selected, and the statements were edited for clarity.

Tatiana Rosito: To start our conversation, could you share with us a little about the current experience in China?

Qu Yuhui: The coronavirus situation is much calmer than it was three or four weeks ago. But now our focus is also on trying to prevent imported cases. Because if we don’t, the efforts we have made will be completely wasted.

International coordination is late in coming

TR: Now greater coordination, in international terms, begins. We were already depending on the WHO to play an active role. Now we see a still nascent but welcome coordination by world leaders, perhaps a little late, since this crisis is also quite different from the recession of 2008, 2009. But is there any possibility that China will create a stimulus program as powerful as the one for the financial crisis, of almost 600 billion dollars?

QY: I’m not normally a pessimistic person, but this time I’m not being too optimistic about the future scenario, since unlike the situation in 2008, when the world was particularly affected by the financial crisis, I think that this time the world will suffer various crises.

The financial crisis is already taking shape. And this time we will probably have a recession in the real economy because we are being affected not only on the supply side but also on the demand side because of the coronavirus. Additionally, the measures taken by many countries that injected more capital liquidity may work in the short term, but nobody can foresee what the results will be in the medium and long term for the world economy.

On the other hand, we have also political factors. I think the geopolitics are much more complex than in 2008: protectionism, populism, unilateralism, and conservatism are very vivid and loud voices in today's world. And international coordination is late in coming.

But anyway, I think the good news is that the international community is finally managing to take or start taking some measures to try to analyse and better interpret the situation. This extraordinary G20 summit is good news [though it was later cancelled], the conference call between President Xi and President Trump is also good news, and of course we have the conversation between President Xi and President Jair Bolsonaro.

I think the international community is more aware of the need for greater international coordination – to respond together. But we need to do so much more. How can we produce more sensible macroeconomic policies together? Because it is not just about increasing investment, printing more money...

TR: An issue we talked about a lot in CEBRI and in the China group during the past year was the consequences of the trade war (which now seems so distant compared with everything we are experiencing). We considered whether phase 1 of the agreement with the United States will be maintained, and how can this agreement, if it is possible, not be harmful to other partners while still following the WHO rules?

QY: The situation has changed so quickly that a topic that drew so much attention has been nearly forgotten by everyone today. I think the coronavirus will certainly have some impacts on the implementation of this agreement. Honestly, I don't know, but at least I would say that right now it is not the number one priority in relations between China and the United States. The number one priority is how to cooperate and coordinate instead of compete in fighting the coronavirus. So a series of questions remain about the first phase of the agreement between China and the US.

TR As for the flow of trade and investments. Have you heard of any disruptions?

QY: We only have the data for the first two months. It’s a bit surprising because it is not being very strongly affected by the coronavirus. But I think that we can’t be too optimistic for this year. There will certainly be impacts, with reductions in transport and interchanges of people. In the area of investment, I don’t know, but it will perhaps face some difficulties this year.

This pandemic has made the need to improve and reform the global governance system even more evident.

TR: Some people are talking about China applying “mask diplomacy” [sending personal protective equipment to curry favour] but perhaps what matters is not so much that humanitarian cooperation but rather its effects in the medium and long term on the spaces that China can occupy. How is Chinese diplomacy seeing this?

QY: First, China is not interested in provoking a discussion about the best governance model. The world is very large, with many different cultures, each country has its own history and it doesn't make much sense to convince other countries that one model of governance or regime is the best.

But on the other hand, if we can have a discussion, exchange experiences about our way of dealing with some problems, it makes sense, especially for international issues, global issues. Then we can see what would be the most sensible and effective solutions for some problems. For example, whether we can improve our global governance a little. This subject is indeed interesting to China. Because China sees the current global governance system not as completely perfect, but rather still lacking many reforms, with a lot of room for improvement. And this pandemic has made the need to improve and reform the global governance system even more evident.

TR: Is BRICS an example of this?

QY: That’s one example. Perhaps we can make some comparisons about what international public policies could best meet needs and better respond to emergencies… I think that in this context we could perhaps build a discussion that is not necessarily conflicting, but constructive. About how, together, the international community can better respond to such serious issues as the coronavirus.

Without cooperation between China and the US, I think the world will not be able to win this battle.

China’s intention is precisely to introduce this type of discussion, not necessarily to provoke others, or to show that China is better than others, but to provoke this discussion so that little by little the international community can build some consensus for the greater good. This also may fit together a bit into the concept that China has very strongly defended in recent years – that humanity has a shared future. It seems very utopian, but considering the current scenario with the coronavirus, maybe we can interpret this concept differently, instead of something utopian... It may really make us think a little more about how we can share our lives, you know?

TR: Whether we want it or not, it exists… We are a community with a shared future.

QY: Yes, for better or for worse.

TR: This conversation has been very interesting. I want to thank you, and give you the chance to leave a final message for us if you’d like.

QY: Strict measures are not necessarily sufficient to eliminate the coronavirus, but instead gain us time so that we can conduct research and use technology to find solutions, and ensure that it does not affect our economy so much. This pandemic can be defeated.

I think we should look for a balanced path in fighting the coronavirus and in socioeconomic development; they are not contradictory. And international cooperation is essential. Right now, there are a lot of questions, especially in relation to China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies. I think the whole world wants to see a joint effort between these two great global economies rather than unnecessary disputes. That’s what China wants.

Without cooperation between China and the US, I think the world will not be able to win this battle. Because of the interdependence of the two economies. I think Brazil can also play an important role in this process. In other words, Brazil has always maintained an independent, balanced foreign policy, hasn’t it? Tatiana, you know more than I do. And if this balanced foreign policy continues, I think it could also help in the rapprochement between China and the US. This would ultimately benefit the entire international community.