Coronavirus – Economic Issues

Medicine and frontiers


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much.

Mains level: Paper 3- Dominance of China in international trade and its implications for national security.


Although the slowdown in Chinese manufacturing has disrupted the supply chains of many goods, the impact on the drug industry has helped highlight the national security implications of China’s dominance over the pharmaceutical industry.

Implications of the coronavirus disruption in China

  • Global dependence on China in focus: As the coronavirus spreads far and wide, the global dependence on China for drugs and medical supplies has come into sharp focus.
  • The argument for domestic production of medicine: In both the US and Europe, the shortage of essential drugs to treat the victims of the virus is strengthening the arguments for restoring some domestic production of pharmaceuticals.
  • National security implications: Although the slowdown in Chinese manufacturing has disrupted the supply chains of many goods, the impact on the drug industry has helped highlight the national security implications of China’s dominance over the pharmaceutical industry.

China’s dominance in pharmaceutical production

  • Two factors that contributed to China rise:
    • Active state support from Beijing and-
    • Western drug companies eager to shift production to cheaper destinations has facilitated China’s emergence as the most important global source for pharmaceutical products and medical devices.
  • Global dependence on China for drugs: America and Europe are said to import nearly 80 per cent of their antibiotics from China.
    • India’s dependence for API: India is also an important supplier of generic drugs to the Western world, but it is itself dependent on massive imports of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) from China.
    • Impact on India: The reduction in supplies from China after the virus breakout has been accentuated by the recent decision of Government of India to limit the export of common drugs like paracetamol.
  • How the US is responding to dominance? Well before the current crisis, there had been warnings in the US about the national security risks from the massive reliance on external sources for basic medicines.
    • Weaponising the dominance: Late last year, the US-China Security Review Commission, established by the US Congress, pointed to the prospects of China weaponising its dominance over pharmaceutical production and its massive consequences for healthcare in the US.
    • Government support in China: The report also pointed out that the Chinese government promotes and protects the nation’s pharmaceutical companies to the disadvantage of foreign competitors and that leaves other nations little leverage with China.
  • Need to limit the exposure to China in other sectors: While the current international focus is on the supply chains in the pharmaceutical sector, there has been growing recognition of the need to limit the expansive exposure to China in many different sectors.

National security argument of the dominance

  • National security dimension of trade war: Trump’s case for bringing manufacturing back to America — by challenging the traditional framework of international trade — was not just economic.
    • It also had a strong national security argument — that the US cannot rely on China for servicing its national security needs in a range of sectors from digital components and drugs.
  • What supporters of the globalisation said? Supporters of economic globalisation had countered these arguments by saying that tight interdependence will reduce the incentives for taking unilateral advantage by nations.
  • China using trade dominance into leverage: The critics have pointed to the fact that China was turning its role as the “world’s factory” into powerful leverage.
    • Why did the West start regarding China as a challenge? The Chinese decision to stop rare earth exports to Japan during 2010 in relation to a minor political dispute had led many to put up red flags.
    • Since then, China’s greater political assertiveness and challenge to Western dominance in critical areas have strengthened the case in the West to regard China as a challenge if not an outright threat.
  • De-coupling gaining traction: As the bipartisan political consensus in the US and Europe in favour of a strong economic partnership with China began to break down in recent years, the case for de-coupling has gained much traction.

How using economic leverage for strategic gains undergone changes?

  • Use of economic leverage and stockpiling: The history of statecraft suggests that it was quite common for states to use economic leverage for strategic gains.
    • Use of strategy during the cold war: Through the Cold War, both America and Russia sought to corner strategic resources around the world. They also adopted policies for stockpiling special materials for use during conflicts. Sustaining a strategic petroleum reserve, for example, was a major priority for the US during the Cold War.
  • Changes due to globalisation: The importance of hoarding resources at home and denying it to one’s adversaries seemed to diminish amidst great power harmony and economic globalisation that flourished after the Soviet Union collapsed.
    • Recent challenges due to weakening of globalisation: The erosion of that moment in the last few years has set up new tensions between the competing imperatives on Western governments.
  • Capital vs. Security issue: While the logic of security compels the state to limit strategic economic exposure, the logic of capital demands policies that reduce costs of production and increase the margins of profit.
    • This tension has been at the heart of the recent Western debates on the China question.


While the world finds ways to deal with the Chinese dominance in the other sector, meanwhile, in the health sector, large continental entities like the US, Europe and India are likely to insure against over-reliance on a single source for life-saving drugs. They are likely to find ways to shorten the supply chains, expand domestic production and explore coordination among like-minded nations.

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