The banal geopolitical fallout of the laboratory leak hypothesis

On September 11, 2001, the United States suffered four coordinated terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people, injured more than 25,000 and caused at least $ 10 billion in property damage. Within hours, the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted phone calls that led them to suspect Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda of planning and executing the attacks. The same evening, the director of the CIA confirmed this assessment to the American president. Within two weeks, the FBI identified the specific attackers and, by the end of the month, had released the photographs and nationalities of the 19 terrorists who carried out the attacks. Among them were 15 Saudis, two Emiratis, a Lebanese and an Egyptian. Bin Laden himself was a Saudi national and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, one of the main conspirators, was Pakistani. The American authorities knew Bin Laden and his team quite well, having fought together the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, alongside the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services. It is therefore fair to say that one would have to have one’s head firmly buried in the sand not to see the blatant Saudi and Pakistani links with the attacks and their possible complicity.

Yet when the United States declared a global war on terrorism a few months later, its forces first invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq and later Yemen. Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have become Washington’s allies in this war, and the latter has received tens of billions of dollars in aid. To a casual observer, it might appear that the world maps circulating in Washington have some sort of zero error, hitting neighboring countries instead of the real culprits.

Well, there was nothing wrong with his cards. What the story of the worst terrorist attack in history reminds us is that international relations are more about relative power than facts, evidence and truth. Despite being the only superpower at the time, the United States couldn’t even officially blame Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, let alone military retaliation against them. Washington expressed its anger by whipping those it could safely, even if their involvement was secondary, as in the case of Afghanistan, or almost non-existent, as in the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

It is instructive to recall these events as the world begins to take seriously the possibility that the covid pandemic was not due to natural causes, but to an incident at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Wuhan. In recent months, enough circumstantial evidence has been provided: peculiarities of the viral genome, absence of an intermediate host animal, intelligence reports, conflicts of interest of Western scientists involved, blocking, denial and possible destruction of crucial evidence by the China. – so that the hypothesis of laboratory leaks seems at least as plausible as that of natural causes. The Joe Biden administration has set a 90-day target for US intelligence to come to a final assessment on the matter. For this to reveal anything other than a range of probabilities and confidence scores, a proper forensic investigation is needed. This is unlikely to happen, as it is the last thing Beijing wants.

Fortunately, President Biden and his administration don’t seem like the type to order airstrikes on, say, Mongolia and Laos, to make up for that. But, seriously, anything less than a smoking gun – do it with fingerprints, DNA and CCTV footage – is unlikely to change the way things look on the geopolitical front. There will be greater pressure on China to raise the safety standards of its laboratories, ban its wildlife trade and be more transparent on public health issues. This Beijing will resist, while quietly doing certain things that are in its own interest. Meanwhile, its economic preponderance will silence many governments around the world, placing bilateral relations above establishing blame.

The United States and China are already at loggerheads, and their relationship will be affected if guilt is established. Unless China’s guilt goes beyond the simple cover-up of an accident and in the extremely unlikely event of willful malice, the case for punishing the country is weak. Collaborative scientific research will almost certainly be reduced in the life sciences and many other fields, not least because some of the research conducted at the Wuhan lab was funded by the US government.

In addition, the US government could find itself legally responsible in its own jurisdiction if it is determined that the virus has escaped from the Chinese laboratory. Here is another parallel with Al-Qaida. But China cannot be persuaded to spit out reparations. The United States, Europe and India are required to calculate that the benefits of pursuing damages are not worth the costs. The use of force is in any case excluded.

If the accusation of a laboratory accident gains credibility, the international reputation of China and its leaders will be severely damaged. However, if the current diplomacy of Beijing’s Wolf Warriors is any indication, President Xi Jinping doesn’t care much. Maybe he’s right, and like it or not, China will be even more indispensable to the post-covid world.

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

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent center for public policy research and education

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