During the initial stages of the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese leadership had come under heavy domestic pressure for its early handling of the brewing crisis. Nevertheless, the subsequent implementation of strict measures brought the pandemic under control and along with that, initial popular misgivings soon gave way to an acknowledgement of – if not pride in – the efficacy of the Chinese approach. Indeed, in the eyes of its citizenry today, the fact that the Chinese state was able to dispatch medical resources across the vast country at short notice to deal with scattered outbreaks, or that it managed to control the spread of the virus internally through strict travel curbs with the help of surveillance technologies like facial recognition and QR codes, virtually bringing the number of infections down to zero, was compelling evidence that the Chinese model of centralised, authoritarian governance was best suited to ensure the health and safety of its population. More to the point, it allowed China to craft a Covid-19 narrative that turned on the superiority of its social and political system even as it elides the question of the origins of the virus.
The Battle of Narratives
Indeed, the battle between narratives and political systems has emerged to become a distinct feature of global discussions and debate over the pandemic, particularly in the face of its spread and the onset of competition over vaccine development and distribution. As the most scientifically advanced economy in the world, the U.S. invested more than $12 billion in Operation Warp Speed to accelerate vaccine research and development. In response, and in keeping with its efforts to shift the global narrative away from origins to solution and its desire not to be eclipsed by the U.S., China also mobilised its considerable public and private resources in its own vaccine push, to the point of even experimenting on military personnel and fostering military-private sector collaboration. Ironically, Chinese efforts to develop effective vaccines were hampered by its success in controlling the pandemic. Given the need for a sufficiently large case count to test for efficacy, Chinese vaccine development had to initiate offshore trials in countries like Brazil and Indonesia since China itself did not have sufficient cases for Stage Three tests. In the context of growing discussions on the objectives of vaccine diplomacy however, this prompted speculation about possible quid pro quo arrangements that might have been struck between China and these countries which would involve approval for trials in exchange for access to vaccines, and how these conditions would afford China a reservoir of political leverage. At any rate, despite claims that Chinese vaccines are being created using less sophisticated technologies, the conditions of Chinese vaccine diplomacy combined with the considerably lower cost and general satisfactory efficacy rates of Chinese vaccines have allowed Beijing to secure significant market share especially in developing countries. Moreover, the fact that China joined the global vaccine sharing programme, COVAX, last October, while the U.S. dragged its feet and only signed up in January this year, has lent further to the appeal that China may present for some developing countries.
The success of its response to Covid-19 has also facilitated an impressive economic recovery in China, making it the only major economy to register positive growth in a virus-ravaged 2020. The stellar economic performance accented Beijing’s efforts to assume a leadership role in the global effort to counter the Covid-19 pandemic, predicated on the mantra of “a global community of health for all,” while the U.S. remained mired in economic, public health, and political duress. According to statistics provided by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by the end of 2020 China had provided more than 220 billion masks, 2.25 billion sets of personal protective equipment, and 1.02 billion testing kits to other countries. In addition, China had dispatched 36 medical teams to 34 countries worldwide, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Lesotho, Russia, Saudi Arabia,, and Venezuela. Having joined the multilateral COVAX initiative fronted by the WHO in October 2020, China guaranteed provision of 10 million doses of vaccines to the global vaccine programme to contribute to efforts to secure “fair and equitable access” to Covid-19 vaccines especially for less affluent countries. Even prior to confirming its contribution to COVAX, Chinese vaccines were already being rolled out in several developing countries, including Brazil, Indonesia, Philippines, and Turkey. In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates was the first country in the world to approve a Sinopharm vaccine on December 9, 2020, while Bahrain followed suit on December 13. Significantly, these moves were made even before China authorised its own Sinopharm vaccine for domestic use, and were thereby indicative not only of the level of trust that some Arab countries were prepared to place in the Chinese vaccine, but also the progress that Sino-Arab ties had made more broadly. Meanwhile, the first batch of Chinese vaccines to Africa arrived in Equatorial Guinea on February 11, making good on a pledge by President Xi Jinping guaranteeing vaccine accessibility for Africa at the special China-Africa Summit on Covid-19 last June.
To be sure, Chinese diplomatic activism during the pandemic period was not confined to vaccine diplomacy. Significant steps were taken in other areas as well: most notably, the conclusion of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) on November 15, 2020 and the Comprehensive Investment Agreement with the EU on December 30, both of which reinforced prevailing views not only of Chinese economic heft, but its centrality to growth in the respective regions. In a move that surprised many, on November 20 China also expressed interest to join the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership), the successor to the stillborn TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership).
Beyond demonstrating leadership in international trade, Beijing also pledged to enhance its commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 towards the objective of achieving carbon neutrality, as scheduled, by 2060, and to donate $30 million to the WHO following the U.S. decision to withdraw from the organization (the decision was subsequently overturned by the Biden administration).
Consolidation of China’s Position
Within this pattern of foreign policy activism, China was doubtless seeking to consolidate its strategic position while the U.S. was preoccupied with domestic politics and the rest of the world, with the Covid-19 pandemic. Several measures were instructive in this regard. The CCP moved decisively to impose a controversial National Security Law on Hong Kong on June 30, while the PLA stepped up patrols and military exercises in the South China Sea, continued (if not increased) military activity around Taiwan, and clashed with the Indian military in the summer. To be sure, there is precedent to Chinese foreign policy adventurism during periods of political transition in the U.S.: Chinese vessels entered the Diaoyu/Senkaku waters, where they are locked in a dispute with Japan, in December 2008, a month before the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Just two days after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Beijing passed a new Coast Guard Law as a means through which it intends to defend its maritime interests in the South and East China Seas. The day after the adoption of the law, Taiwan reported a large incursion by the PLA Air Force, which according to Chinese sources served as a “solemn warning to external forces.”
What explains these moves that have conceivably upped the stakes in an already testy Sino-U.S. relationship?
First, there was clearly an element of Chinese strategic opportunism at work. The U.S. was consumed by a divisive presidential election, which was soon followed by a political crisis stemming from allegations on the part of the Trump campaign of electoral fraud. The raft of court cases that followed and the storming of the U.S. Capitol building by Trump supporters in the buildup to the inauguration contrived to divert American attention, and China seized upon the opportunity to advance its strategic interests.
Second, through these actions, China projected an image of strength in response to international pressure to account for the origins of the virus, but also domestic challenges in the form of early criticisms of the handling of the pandemic and the economic downturn it threatened (at the time). It bears noting that the legitimacy of the CCP is ultimately anchored on its ability to deliver economic growth, and its leaders continue to harbour deep anxieties that external forces could exploit signs of weakness and internal difficulties to undermine the party. Third, notwithstanding the immediacy of the circumstances occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic, China and the U.S. have been locked in something of a security dilemma that has been escalating since the introduction of the Obama administration’s “Rebalance” strategy in 2011. From that perspective, recent Chinese activities are arguably but an extension of the deepening structural rivalry between the two great powers, and Beijing’s acute threat perceptions particularly towards American naval presence in its surrounding waters.
As much as China sees Covid-19 as an opportunity to demonstrate global leadership and steal a march on U.S. regional engagement, doubts linger as to the matter of Chinese intent. This comes as the U.S. relentlessly criticizes the refusal on the part of Beijing to acknowledge the origins of the pandemic or share more information on the early spread of the virus in Wuhan. Concomitantly, this intransigence has cast a long shadow over its attempts to portray itself as a benevolent global power positioned and prepared to provide global public goods, particularly given the urgent need to uncover how a potentially debilitating infectious disease such as Covid-19 could spread to such extents as to bring the global economy almost to a standstill. Further doubts have been prompted by the conditions that appear to have been attached to Covid-19 related aid that China had been providing. When the European Union sounded caution towards the “politics of generosity” associated with Chinese aid, Huawei was instructed to freeze donations to several European countries, including Italy and the Netherlands. By the same token, a recent Pew Research Centre survey indicated that negativity towards China had risen in 12 developed economies between 2019 and the summer of 2020. A similar view also obtained in the survey by the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute titled The State of Southeast Asia. It is worth noting too, the sizable list of states that aligned themselves with the call from Australia and the European Union for a probe into the origin of the virus. Numbering among these were Indonesia and Malaysia, and a collection of 47 African states. Despite initial vehement protests, the winds of international opinion eventually compelled China to agree with the resolution, though not without first reframing it away from the original Australian call for an independent inquiry. A WHO team subsequently arrived in Wuhan to begin the investigation on January 14, 2021.
All said, while China has worked to capitalise on a distracted U.S. and an increasingly alarming Covid-19 pandemic situation that it has managed to control domestically, Chinese foreign policy ventures continue to be prone to overreach and missteps, and these do cause concern and consternation on the part of many countries in the international community.
Prof Joseph Chinyong Liow
Dean and Tan Kah Kee Chair Professor of Comparative and International Politics, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University