China pursues global leadership ambitions in coronavirus response


Beijing is bolstering its soft power and taking the lead in a global response to the coronavirus public health crisis. The moves come as China’s daily number of new infections decline while those in the U.S. rise.

In the last few weeks, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been busy calling leaders across the world and rallying for global coordination in managing the coronavirus outbreak. Chinese health experts have hosted video conferences with those from other countries to share experiences.

“This is the first international crisis where China is actively taking a global leadership role and it stands in particular contrast to the US, which has disdained international cooperation and invested more political capital in criticizing China for its role in allowing the outbreak to spread,” said analysts from the Eurasia Group in a report this week.

On social and state media, China continues to promote its shipments of medical supplies to hard hit countries in Europe and Africa. 

China’s officials have also used Twitter — blocked in the country — to trumpet Beijing’s efforts. They laud China’s success in containing the outbreak domestically, even though the virus was first reported there and was met with missteps initially.

“I think this is the opportunity of the century for China to build trust in the world, which it has found so difficult to come by as a rising nation, and to rebuild its international image — China doesn’t (want to) waste an opportunity like this,” Keyu Jin, associate professor of economics at LSE.

She also told CNBC on Tuesday that the public health crisis could be the “opportunity of the century” for China to cement its place as a global power.

But the world’s second largest economy will not be able to fulfill its ambitions easily, according to risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

“Countries like the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey have found defects with masks and tests from China and this setback won’t be the last,” Eurasia analysts wrote.

‘International diplomacy for a domestic audience’

China’s diplomacy, even on Twitter, is one that is not just meant for the global audience, it is also for a domestic one.

Eurasia analysts said highlighting China’s leadership accomplishes two important political goals for Xi.

“First, it buttresses his claim in the superiority of China’s governance model, an implicit pushback against some of the criticism that has come from within China about aggressive containment measures and silencing of early warnings about the outbreak,” they said.

“Second, it taps into patriotic sentiment at home, rallying support for Beijing as Xi guides the economy through a painful year. Many of Xi’s conversations with foreign leaders have focused on keeping supply chains open and trade running as well as the delivery of aid,” they added.

But, such efforts also reveal China’s insecurities and weaknesses, said Ryan Hass and Kevin Dong at the Brookings Institution.

“They serve as reminders of China’s lethally botched initial response to the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan,” they wrote in a recent web post. “Recognising this reputational risk, Chinese propagandists are feverishly attempting to rewrite the COVID-19 narrative to place their leaders in a favourable light.”

This throws the world’s two most powerful countries in a narrative war, underscoring geopolitical rivalry and further tensions in the future.

Domestic stumbles

Although much of the posturing caters to the domestic population, it may not play that well all the time.

For instance, Beijing has downplayed Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeting a conspiracy theory that the virus was brought to the city of Wuhan from the U.S. This came as “his war of words with the US risked getting out of control,” said the Eurasia Group.

News of Beijing’s generous aid is also not always well received at home, as the crisis worsens income equality within China, the consultancy added.

“This will act as a constraint on the scale of Beijing’s aid, and also leads to a tendency to frame China’s assistance in ways that highlight the benefit to China. Chinese officials have openly said that one of their criteria for providing assistance is how those potential recipients have treated China in the past,” Eurasia Group said.

But this perpetuates a perception that China’s aid comes with strings attached or is narrowly targeted at furthering China’s strategic objectives, said Eurasia Group.

The EU in particular “has long been wary of China’s efforts to build relationships with smaller European economics and countries considering EU membership and is paying close attention to China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ in Italy, Hungary, and Serbia,” added the Eurasia Group analysts.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell recently raised that point in a blog post warning about the “battle of narratives” that has emerged in the public health crisis.

“China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner,” he wrote.

“We must be aware there is a geo-political component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity,'” Borrell added.


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