Although the coronavirus pandemic is causing short- and quite possibly serious long-term damage to China’s ambitious diplomatic and economic plans for international expansion, it has also given President Xi Jinping’s administration the opportunity to continue its ‘soft power’ strategy by way of its healthcare sector.
In a series of video conferences with officials in Europe, Africa and other Asian countries, Chinese doctors, scientists and immunologists have been sharing their experiences of fighting and containing the contagion; and last Monday, President Xi told Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that China was willing to work with Italy towards the creation of “a health silk road.”
China also announced a US$20 million donation to the WHO, has sent medical specialists to Iran, Iraq and Italy, and shipped protective garments and equipment to Pakistan, Laos and the Philippines. It has also pledged to “do whatever it can” to provide medical assistance to Ethiopia, Chile, Cuba, Egypt, and Belarus among dozens of other countries.
“China has unparalleled expertise and experience to share,” said Yun Sun, a senior fellow and director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre, a Washington-based think tank. “As long as its domestic situation is under control, I think China will contribute all it has. In this sense, Covid-19 is a golden opportunity for China to demonstrate leadership and responsibility.” The battle against the contagion was a worldwide campaign and much broader than China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, she added, predicting that China would continue to provide medical support to countries whether they were belt and road signatories or not.
As well as extending the offer of aid to Italy, China was also the first country to respond to requests for help from Serbia. A member of China’s 17+1 cooperation forum with middle and Eastern European countries and unhappy with slow European Union membership talks, its government in Belgrade has voiced its disappointment with the EU’s slow response to its calls for medical assistance compared to China’s.
Matt Ferchen, head of global China research with Berlin-based think tank the Mercator Institute for China Studies, said China was making a big propaganda push to promote itself as “a magnanimous contributor to global public goods” in the battle against the coronavirus. “That China would see OBOR as a natural platform for extending such public diplomacy efforts, especially in developing countries, is not a surprise,” he remarked. “The underlying contradiction, however, is that the OBOR initiative is a symbol of Chinese-led efforts to promote the benefits of connectivity, while the virus has exposed the risks and weaknesses of connectivity on a global scale,” he said.