Beijing’s Aggressive COVID-19 Diplomacy Tarnishes its Global Credibility

The ongoing global pandemic has added significant strain to U.S.-China relations, already highly tense before the emergence of the novel in Wuhan late last year. With both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump facing domestic criticism for their management of the COVID-19 crisis, Beijing and Washington have been engaged in back-and-forth COVID-19 blaming. After a short-lived sign of a diplomatic thaw that allowed Xi to play the broker of international cooperation late last month, President Trump announced a suspension of U.S. WHO funding, citing the organization’s decision to take China’s virus claims “at face value.” While the WHO has widely been criticized for allowing undue Chinese influence, Trump’s decision to cut funding has come under fire for emboldening China on the global stage (China pledged an additional $30 million to the WHO after Trump’s announcement) and for further embattling global public health amid a pandemic.

This week, after White House trade adviser Peter Navarro accused China of “profiteering” on the pandemic, President Trump announced that his administration had “serious investigations” underway into the early days of the outbreak in China. At Reuters, Steve Holland and Cate Cadell report on Trump’s comments, and Beijing’s response:

“We’re doing very serious investigations… We are not happy with China,” Trump said at a White House briefing. “There are a lot of ways you can hold them accountable.

“We believe it could have been stopped at the source. It could have been stopped quickly and it wouldn’t have spread all over the world.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing that some U.S. politicians were lying to deflect attention from their insufficient response to the virus at home. He did not specifically refer to Trump or Pompeo.

[…] Asked [earlier] about Navarro’s comments, Geng said that the White House adviser was a habitual liar with no credibility, in line with previous comments by China. [Source]

A recent call from Australia for an investigation into the origins and spread of the coronavirus in China attracted rebuke from Beijing this week, and comments from Sweden’s health minister about the need for an investigation are seen as likely to add to strained diplomatic relations with Stockholm.

Since Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. election, much political commentary has focused on the potential opportunities that his “America First” platform could provide Beijing in its ongoing drive for international influence. As the world began grappling with the spread of the novel coronavirus, Chinese authorities last month sought to cast China as a leader in the global fight against the pandemic. However, official conduct is threatening to squander what The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Alissa J. Rubin described as Beijing’s “chance to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis.”

While facing domestic and international criticism for the late disclosure, initial downplaying, and strict control of information related to the Wuhan outbreak, Xi Jinping last month urged international cooperation on COVID-19, claimed that China had been “open, transparent, and responsible” in its approach to date, and pledged Beijing’s continued support in the battle against the pandemic. Beijing’s actions in recent months have made that promise harder to take at face value. China’s domestic suppression of information and dissent in the early days of the outbreak, and subsequent diplomatic attempts to win global hearts, minds, and foreign policy agendas have drawn criticism even from longterm ally Iran.

Amid resounding skepticism over China’s official virus statistics, and as infection rates in other countries were climbing rapidly, state media this month reported a 50% increase in the total number of COVID-19-related deaths in Wuhan, citing incorrect initial reporting, omissions, and delays. Last month, foreign ministry official Zhao Lijian spread a conspiracy theory that the U.S. military created and released the virus–part of a trend of Chinese officials using Twitter to spread propaganda and disinformation–and many other foreign social media accounts linked to Beijing have been documented spreading coronavirus disinformation. This month, Beijing put new restrictions on academic research into COVID-19, pressured science journal Nature into apologizing for linking its coverage of the virus to China, left critical protective gear stranded in limbo with new export restrictions, and was called out for asking local governments across the globe to publicly praise Beijing’s response to the outbreak. Meanwhile, while also waging an aggressive campaign criticizing foreign countries for their domestic epidemic responses, Beijing has been actively pursuing other longterm foreign policy goals. At Vox, Alex Ward reports:

China has capitalized on the world’s distraction to claim sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, intimidate Taiwan, and assert more authority over Hong Kong in an attempt to quash the pro-democracy movement there.

It’s taken advantage of vulnerable countries in Africa that are struggling to cope with the coronavirus and its economic impact by offering much-needed debt relief — but only if those countries provide lucrative national assets as collateral.

[…] “Everything they’re doing is a full-court press,” said Michael Sobolik, an expert on China at the American Foreign Policy Council. “Across the board, China is pushing hard.”

Experts say this is all part of Xi’s broader strategy to dislodge America as the world’s sole superpower and expand China’s reach around the world. In other words, he’s merely exploiting the coronavirus crisis to achieve his aims even faster. [Source]

At The New York Times last week, Steven Lee Myers reported on how Xi’s use of the pandemic to consolidate power, demand praise, and shift blame away from China is damaging Beijing’s global credibility:

The lasting effect on Mr. Xi’s global ambitions could be profound. China’s relationship with the United States has already cratered, despite a rhetorical truce reached between Mr. Xi and President Trump. Now there is evidence the pandemic is forcing other countries to rethink relations.

[…] “How they operate domestically spills over into how they operate internationally,” said Susan L. Shirk, the chairwoman of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.

That means brooking no dissent, controlling the flow of information, emphasizing the central role of the Communist Party leadership and rarely, if ever, acknowledging mistakes.

[…] This newly aggressive tone — which Ms. Shirk and others attributed to Mr. Xi’s directives — risks alienating countries and provoking accusations like those China often makes about politicizing a public health emergency. [Source]

At Foreign Policy this week, James Traub questioned the practicality of analyzing the post-pandemic global order in terms of a competition between the “China model” and the dominant, U.S.-led neoliberal international order. After noting the many damaging instances of official conduct from both Washington and Beijing in their pandemic messaging and response efforts, Traub suggested that both troubled superpowers could derive lessons from the pandemic:

The pandemic has raised the stakes of the competition from a struggle for economic dominance to a contest between rival models. Whose system is better designed to adapt to the global crises, whether of public health or the climate, that lie in our future? The United States fostered the liberal world order after World War II and has sustained it ever since. That order has persisted not only because of U.S. military and economic predominance, but because it has promoted the interests of its leading members (including China). Is that era now drawing to a close? Does the arrow of the future point towards liberal democracy or free-market authoritarianism?

[…] While Chinese authorities were desperately hiding the truth, officials in Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong—and Singapore soon after—began screening at their borders and quarantining the sick, and then swiftly ramped up the production of protective gear and testing kits. The first two are vibrant democracies that feature open elections, independent judiciaries, and untrammeled free enterprise. (Singapore’s model is closest to China’s, though an independent civil service largely directs affairs of state.) Together, they have shown what is possible when citizens and the state respect rather than fear one another. Hong Kong has had four coronavirus deaths, Taiwan six, Singapore 12, and South Korea 240.

If some model has emerged as the winner of this dreadful sweepstakes, it is not China’s authoritarian one but rather that of the democracies that share China’s “Asian values” of collective discipline, deference to authority, and faith in the state. […]

[…] So yes, China has already “won” in the sense that Washington continues to dispute; soon it will be absurd to question its economic and technocratic supremacy. But it has not won in the sense that matters most, as a model for other nations. Germany has something to teach its European neighbors. Australia has something to teach the United States, its cultural near-twin. South Korea and Taiwan have something to teach China about the application of “Asian values.” It would be a fine thing if this global catastrophe could force nations to learn from their own failures. Even the United States. Even China. [Source]

As Washington and Beijing continue to highlight areas of respective blame, a recent Pew survey found a 20 point increase in negative views of China over the last three years, and the GOP has made China’s coronavirus complicity a major 2020 campaign strategy. While American reactions are consistent with the two countries’ existing tensions, China also faces mounting criticism elsewhere. French and German leaders have spoken out against China’s opacity over the outbreak, while Britain’s foreign secretary, citing similar concerns, has said there will be no return to “business as usual” in its relations with China. This may include the derailment of the UK’s controversial decision to allow Chinese telecoms giant Huawei a limited role in its 5G mobile networks. Bloomberg’s Alan Crawford and Peter Martin reported last week on the European backlash, including calls to prevent Chinese takeovers of companies weakened by the pandemic and to reduce reliance on Chinese manufacturing in fields well beyond medical supplies.​

Diplomats talk of mounting anger over China’s behavior during the coronavirus pandemic including claims of price gouging by Chinese suppliers of medical equipment and a blindness to how its actions are perceived. The upshot is that Beijing’s handling of the crisis has eroded trust just when it had a chance to demonstrate global leadership.​

“Over these months China has lost Europe,” said Reinhard Buetikofer, a German Green party lawmaker who chairs the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China. He cited concerns from China’s “truth management” in the early stages of the virus to an “extremely aggressive” stance by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing and “hard line ” that champions the superiority of Communist Party rule over democracy.

​[…] An anonymously authored text posted on the website of the Chinese embassy in France this month falsely accused French retirement home staff of leaving old people to die. It was “an incredible accusation on one of the most sensitive and tragic aspects” of the crisis in France, Mathieu Duchatel of the Institut Montaigne wrote on Twitter.

The embassy website comments rang alarm bells for the needless offense caused. China underestimated the reaction to its conspiracy theories amplified by propaganda outlets, according to two European officials in Beijing. What’s more, China’s insistence that aid be accompanied by public thanks and praise has undercut the goodwill it might otherwise have gained, they said. [Source]​

Chinese diplomatic missions’ efforts to control the narrative have also backfired elsewhere. A letter from its Sydney consulate to Australia’s Daily Telegraph protesting its coverage of China’s role in the pandemic was published with satirical redactions that reversed its intended message. (Australia’s foreign secretary recently called for an independent inquiry into China’s handling of the outbreak, prompting Global Times editor Hu Xijin to accuse the nation of “political maneuvering”.)

In Canada, the Calgary consulate’s rebuke of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney over a tweet about pro-democrat Martin Lee’s arrest in Hong Kong—a move widely seen as emboldened by the cover offered by the pandemicwas similarly poorly received. In the U.S., consular efforts to plant a resolution praising China’s virus response in the Wisconsin state senate also went awry.​

LSE IDEAS’ Charles Dunst wrote at Foreign Policy on African governments’ responses to the pandemic and to recent mistreatment of their citizens in China:​

Opposition figures in China-friendly countries have long been comfortable using anti-Chinese language to bolster public support. But what should alarm Beijing is that those in office are now joining this chorus of criticism, if on more diplomatic terms.

Ghana’s finance minister declared that China must “come on stronger” on debt relief. Nigeria is seeking a similar respite from China. The leaders of Ethiopia, Senegal, and South Africa have called on the international community, including China, to enact immediate debt relief for the continent.

[…] As part of a wider crackdown on foreigners, now blamed for bringing the virus back to China, police have targeted Africans in particular. The images of Chinese officials pushing around African students and expatriates, evicting them from hotels, and forcing them to sleep on the street have reverberated across the continent—igniting a firestorm of criticism.

[…] Ghana’s minister of foreign affairs and regional integration summoned the Chinese ambassador to discuss the maltreatment of Africans in China. Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister summoned Beijing’s representative in his country to express his “extreme concern at allegations of maltreatment of Nigerians in Guangzhou.” The speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives then read the Chinese ambassador the riot act, telling him: “It is almost undiplomatic the way I’m talking, but it’s because I am actually upset about what you’re doing.” [Source]

​At Politico, Simon Marks similarly reported that in Africa, “the novel coronavirus has spawned a growing backlash that threatens to unwind the ties Beijing has carefully cultivated over decades.” On Twitter, “China’s Second Continent” author Howard French described the abuse of Africans in China as a “political crisis,” not a mere “PR disaster,” while also cautioning against viewing “African politics as a horse race between China and the US.”

​At StratNews Global, India’s recently retired foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale described the response to the pandemic as “not merely a medical war” but “a conflict of ideas,” and suggested that it had badly undermined those that China has sought to promote:

In the past 30 years and more and especially after 1992, China’s spectacular rise has shaped our world more than any other development. Its technocrat-governed, state-owned enterprises driven, export-oriented manufacturing model powered by a disciplined workforce, has been the world’s envy. As it created wealth, it also spun myths about the superiority of its governance model, mainly to convince its own population why the communist model is better than other political systems, and later to the rest of the world. It came to be labelled as the ‘BEIJING CONSENSUS’.​

[…] COVID-19 has dispelled the myths around the Beijing consensus. Try as the Chinese authorities might to showcase their system as having efficiently tackled a national emergency, even the remotest nation on earth has learned about their failure. This time it will not be so simple to white wash. After all it has adversely impacted the last person on earth. [Source]

At The Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan reported that although India’s government has so far been more reticent, “anti-China sentiment has soared” among the public:

[…] Like many countries, India doesn’t count China as a key ally, nor does it necessarily have much incentive to praise Beijing for its response to the pandemic so far. India is, however, also among the many countries that have become reliant on China—not just for trade and investment, which was the case before the pandemic, but, perhaps most crucially now, for the vital equipment required to curb the spread of the virus, including testing kits, face masks, and other personal protective gear. That dependence has proved enough to prevent India from openly criticizing China—at least in any official capacity. It hasn’t stopped the Indian public from turning on Beijing, though, nor is it likely to prevent other countries’ populations from doing the same.​

[…] “Many of the things that China does in terms of public are actually counterproductive,” Tanvi Madan, the director of the Brookings Institution’s India Project, told me. She noted that Beijing’s attempts to highlight its own assistance—and, in some cases, deflect blame—have come across in India as condescending. “Maybe they think that is helpful, but in India, where people are going to resent this Chinese sense of superiority,” Madan said, “that actually builds resentment.”​

[…] When I asked Madan whether the Chinese government cares about its perception among the Indian public, she said it’s unlikely. “They still think that their primary audience is the Indian government [because] that’s who they can get stuff done with,” she said.

This may be the case for now, but it could prove problematic for Beijing in the long term. After all, how India—and, indeed, the rest of the world—perceives China in this moment will likely impact its global perception long after the pandemic has passed. “Being oblivious to the sentiments of 1.3 billion people of a country whose median age is 27 is not a sign of wisdom,” Nitin Pai, a co-founder and the director of the Takshashila Institution, told me in an email, “for they will see you as an adversary for the rest of their long lives.” [Source]

​Serhan cites a recent survey from the Takshashila Institution in which around two thirds of respondents blamed China for the pandemic; a tiny fraction (3.1%) viewed its handling of the outbreak as a model for the world or a demonstration of “the strength of China’s governance system; and almost 90% felt that China’s aid to other countries was either inadequate or in some way exploitative.”

At Reuters, Martin Petty reported on a botched diplomatic outreach campaign to Manila. A music video produced by Beijing went unappreciated by many Filipinos who view China as an aggressor in the South China Sea:

By Monday afternoon, the video posted last week on YouTube with the hashtag #CNPHHealAsOne had 149,000 dislikes compared with 2,100 likes, while a Change.org petition demanding the video be taken down had more than 8,000 respondents.

[…] “We have to stop the evil of China spreading”, wrote one, Leonard Anthony Arcilla. “We do not unify with China”, said Elna Lynda Acuerdo, while Venus Liwanag said the video was “slapping the faces of each Filipino”.

[…] The Philippines last week filed diplomatic protests accusing China of locking radar on a Philippine navy boat and rejecting its formation of an administrative unit in disputed areas, following a similar move by Vietnam..

It also comes amid unease over China’s deployment of coastguard and survey vessels that have disrupted Malaysian drilling operations, and the arrival of Australian and U.S. warships in the area. [Source]

In Foreign Policy’s China Brief, James Palmer noted other examples of continued diplomatic aggression from Beijing this week:

China’s rhetorical assaults on the West amid the coronavirus pandemic have continued this week, with Beijing’s ambassadors taking an increasingly undiplomatic tone—likely in response to pressure from home. After Australia’s prime minister called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, the Chinese ambassador in Canberra made a thinly veiled threat of boycotting the Australian economy.

That’s not empty talk: China has a record of directing boycotts over what it sees as political slights by other countries, from South Korea’s 2017 decision to use a U.S. missile defense system to the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident. State media doubled down on criticism of Australia’s call for an investigation, with the editor of the Global Times calling Australia “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe.”

Performing patriotism. The Netherlands was also in China’s firing line this week after it changed the name of its representative office in Taipei—it doesn’t have an embassy there—to a form that Beijing interpreted as being more supportive of Taiwanese independence. The Netherlands also criticized the quality of coronavirus tests sold in Europe by Chinese companies. In response, China made vague threats against the Dutch—likely to be backed up by future sanctions. China’s fierce language is driven in part by anti-foreign feeling at home and officials desperate to stand out by waving the flag. Performative patriotism appears to be a necessity for political survival. [Source]

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