It’s taken a pandemic for many countries to wake up to just how powerful China really is—and how far its decisions can shape their peoples’ lives.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief recently remarked that Europe doesn’t “make a single gram of paracetamol,” the common pain medication also known as acetaminophen, while China makes most of the world’s antibiotics. One former high-ranking Australian official said that China’s coercive trade threats in response to Canberra’s call for an inquiry into the coronavirus’ origins are a “wake-up call”—despite the fact that China had been engaging in such behavior against other countries for years. The UK, which was supposed to be in the midst of a “golden era” of Sino-British relations, has proclaimed it won’t be “business as usual” with China anymore.
Frantic attempts to recalibrate relations with China are now underway all around the world. Many governments are studying ways to move manufacturing back home, or ensure that supply chains center more around friendly nations. US-China relations now appear to be at the point of no return. Support for Taiwan—which China claims as its own territory—is mounting.
This hardening of attitudes around the world against Beijing over the belief its secretive and punitive system allowed a localized outbreak to become a pandemic should, in theory, prompt a rethink by the Communist Party of its diplomatic strategies. Quite the opposite seems to be unfolding, however, as China doubles down on its bellicose rhetoric, advances its claims in the South China Sea, tussles with Indian troops in the Himalayas, and moves to take effective control over semi-autonomous Hong Kong through the implementation of a national security law.
In short, China is not letting this crisis go to waste—because it’s reading the events that unfolded this year as part of an inevitable evolution toward a new world order.
“Ever since the 2008 global financial crisis, through the Euro crisis of 2011 and now the coronavirus pandemic, [China is] tempted by a different narrative: the decline of America and more generally of Western democracies, with each crisis producing a new balance of forces that runs in favor of China’s system,” wrote François Godement, senior advisor for Asia at the Institut Montaigne think tank in Paris.
The growing unrest in the US over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota has further laid bare the fractiousness in American society, and will only bolster the Chinese perception of America’s decline.
China’s rightful place
The Communist Party with Xi Jinping at its helm has one overarching goal: The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which sees China ascending to its rightful place at the top of the global system whose discourse and power structures have long discriminated against it.
“China’s been very transparent about [its plans],” said Courtney Fung, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong and an associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House. “They want to re-conceive… how global politics is conducted. They see China as being a crucial component of global governance.”
For a while at the start of the pandemic, it almost seemed as if those plans had been scuppered. The early missteps of China’s coronavirus response, in particular the death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, spurred a trend of analysts pondering whether China’s “Chernobyl moment” had finally arrived, amid an unprecedented outpouring of public anger at the handling of the outbreak. Yet in a matter of months, or even weeks, any such doubts over the security of the party’s future were rectified and swept aside—helped in no small part by Western nations’ bungling of their own coronavirus responses and America’s continuing withdrawal from the multilateral order that it once strongly undergirded.
“China has stood the test” of Covid-19, proclaimed China’s foreign minister Wang Yi at a recent news conference during the “Two Sessions” political meetings in Beijing in May. “[O]ur economy will emerge stronger and more resilient, our people more united and confident in socialism with Chinese characteristics, and our nation more unstoppable in its march toward rejuvenation.”
Wang also set forth China’s bold ambitions in the post-coronavirus world. He reiterated China’s support for globalization and multilateralism, even invoking a speech delivered by Xi at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017 that was lauded as China’s global leadership moment and a rebuke of Donald Trump’s “America First” philosophy.
The pandemic is sharpening into greater focus the contours of China’s ambitions and hastening geopolitical trends that had already long been in motion. While much attention is being devoted to following the rapidly worsening relationship between the US and China, far beneath the great-power level “there’s a lot going on,” explained Nadège Rolland, senior fellow at the Washington-based National Bureau for Asian Research (NBR). The first strategy, she said, involves trying to divide America’s allies in Europe and Asia “so that they don’t coalesce with the US.”
A recent editorial in the nationalistic Global Times, for example, explicitly said that China needs to try harder to “break the camp” of the US-led “anti-China front,” and specifically advised Japan not to take sides between the US and China—unlike Australia, the bête noire that has been labeled “gum stuck to China’s shoe” and “dog of America” by state media. The EU, meanwhile, worries (paywall) that countries like Italy and Hungary could come under greater Chinese influence.
The second prong is a focus on the developing world, or “the soft underbelly of US influence,” as Rolland puts it. Appearing at a World Health Assembly meeting last month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping not only backed a watered-down proposal led by Australia calling for an investigation into the origins of the pandemic—which ultimately made no mention of China—but also pledged $2 billion to developing countries, mostly in Africa, to fight Covid-19. That announcement came one month after US president Donald Trump said he would suspend funding for the WHO.
“Wolf warriors” versus the “5G club”
For a country seemingly confident that its moment on the international stage has arrived and proud of its achievements in containing the pandemic, many recent aspects of China’s diplomacy and influence campaigns can seem hard to square. Government officials have spread conspiracy theories blaming the US for spreading the coronavirus, a Chinese diplomat in Israel compared travel restrictions against Chinese citizens to the Holocaust, and Beijing’s ambassadors around the world have been summoned for a range of offenses.
“I am puzzled about the degree to which China is deciding to pick a lot of fights at the same time,” said Rui Zhong, researcher at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute in Washington, DC.
The pugilistic behavior of the Chinese diplomatic corps—now dubbed “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” in reference to the movie that is a sort of Chinese version of Rambo—is a manifestation of both China’s self-confidence, and its insecurities. It is reportedly carried out with the blessing of the highest levels of the Communist Party, with the diplomats as authorized ambassadors of a China in ascendance (though some do believe the behavior is damaging and want to see it reined in). But it’s also a by-product of a China that has taken a massive global reputational hit, while having to contend with unprecedented economic troubles at home.
“[W]hen the Chinese government’s efforts to sell its preferred [pandemic] story on the international stage backfired, suspicion and hostility from the West further enhanced nationalism at home,” wrote Chenchen Zhang, lecturer in politics and international relations at Queen’s University Belfast, adding that the party has a long history of engaging in “disaster nationalism.”
The sharp edge of China’s diplomacy has already cost the country what it could have gained in influence and goodwill, undermining an opportunity for China to lead during the pandemic. Its economic threats against Australia, for example—a country heavily dependent on exports to China—have only served to deepen already growing wariness toward Chinese influence in the country. The effect, said Darren Lim, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the Australian National University (ANU), is more “rallying around the flag” by citizens who are willing to “accept the consequences of Chinese punishment.”
And while China saw the world’s preoccupation with the coronavirus as an opportunity to escalate its control over Hong Kong, that’s also creating a level of blowback that it may not have anticipated. Dozens of countries crossed one of China’s biggest red lines by calling for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO, which Beijing sees as an affront to its sovereignty. The Hong Kong issue has long had bipartisan support in the US, but it is now also dominating the EU’s foreign policy agenda, as many see it as a litmus test for the bloc’s relationship with Beijing going forward. Even the Federation of German Industries issued a rare rebuke of China’s national security law in Hong Kong—despite past threats by the Chinese ambassador in Berlin that Germany’s auto industry could suffer if it dares cross China.
With US global leadership veering between erratic and absent, it’s the middle powers including Australia, Germany, and Canada—which has two of its citizens in Chinese detention likely in connection to Huawei’s legal issues—that are coming together to cooperate against China’s influence, according to research from the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. The UK is now taking the lead on the formation of a “5G club” of democracies.
Of course, there is far from a clear blueprint for how exactly liberal, like-minded countries plan to reduce their dependence on China, particularly as many of their economies will be decimated by the pandemic and continue to rely on China’s supply chains and consumer power. That will always act as a brake on how far countries are willing to push back. The EU has already signaled that it will take a far different tack to the US and other Western allies with regards to Hong Kong.
And at the end of the day, as the NBR’s Rolland said, China doesn’t
Keeping friends close
China’s influence campaign is likely to continue to enjoy success in the “Global South” countries, with which it has already built up strong relations largely through its landmark Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, though those relationships will be severely tested as developing countries, pummeled by the coronavirus, struggle to repay debts.
Nor is China’s reputational damage as a result of the pandemic limited to the Western world. The most serious example is China’s relationship with African nations (Quartz member exclusive), which reached a nadir earlier this year after African migrants in the city of Guangzhou suffered racist treatment including forced evictions, amid a broader wave of xenophobic sentiment heightened by the pandemic. Perhaps sensing an opening, the US—which has engaged minimally with Africa under Trump—is now stepping up its commitments there. But more than two decades of infrastructure investment on the part of the Chinese in the continent will make it tough to compete.
Chatham House’s Fung sees China’s promise of the $2 billion allotment as evidence not only that China understands the seriousness of the rupture in that relationship, but also that China continues to be more focused on “more parochial goals” like “making the world safer for China,” even as it proclaims its commitment to goals such as defending the multilateral global order. The financial commitment suggested that China was ready to step in to fill the leadership vacuum at an important international organization, but Fung caveats that those funds will not be routed through the WHO system, but rather through bilateral channels.
There are ruptures elsewhere in China’s relationships with the developing world. Lim, at ANU, highlighted Brazil as one example of a country that has seen relations with China rapidly deteriorate as a result of the pandemic, but ultimately, for leaders of the developing world “what China is offering in terms of infrastructure remains the number one priority.”
And even as one bilateral relationship suffers, many other new opportunities will present themselves—Brazil’s neighbor Paraguay, for example, which is one of Taiwan’s few remaining allies in the Americas, recently held a senate vote on whether to urge its president to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing instead, as China can better assist the country in fighting Covid-19. The motion did not pass, but it’s likely that similar calculations will persist across the other dozen or so poor countries that count Taiwan as an ally.
Despite these tensions, the unpredictability of American leadership and policy means that many smaller, poorer countries will be “scrambling for known quantities,” said the Wilson Center’s Zhong—and China is, for these countries, a “known quantity.” But the relationships are likely to be rockier in the future, as calls in developing countries grow for debt relief from China, all the while as China must allocate huge amounts of money at home to bolster its own economy.
On top of the inevitable writedowns of Belt-and-Road debtors, China’s economy is at its worst state for decades while unemployment is mounting, trends that could threaten the social pact that lends the party its legitimacy and support. Perhaps the real limit on China’s ambitions, then, lies within.