Covid-19 – A not so fleeting moment in the period, rather a defining and turning point. Just like the major events of history (the Great Depression, World Wars, 9/11, 2008 financial crisis), this too will transform the world politics and its dynamics. China’s aid amid the pandemic will have longstanding implications for the world.
Is China’s aid a means of increasing its soft power?
Till now, China has emerged as the “sole lending hand” for the countries marred by the pandemic. China has aided in multiple ways. From sharing personal experiences fighting the virus over video conferences to sending experienced medical staff and protective gear to hard-hit countries.
The focus has been on China’s aid amid the pandemic, rather than on its underlying soft power intentions. The measures are directed towards promoting a favourable image of itself in the backdrop of its neglectful dealings in the initial stages of the corona outbreak. But will its soft power ambitions materialise? Will its strategy to become the ‘next big thing’ in the global arena work?
Though it is too early to predict how the future scenario unfolds, still the current situation provides us with some cues. According to the Soft Power 30 Index (2019), China ranks 27/30 globally, with the democracies being top-ranked. Let’s assess the status of the country post-China’s aid amid the pandemic.
Events tarnishing China’s image worldwide
Firstly, after the global economic shock, the China-centered global supply chains will accelerate the relocation of industries that started with the US-China trade war. According to QIMA (supply chain monitor), the requests for audits by U.S. firms in China have fallen by 14% while requests have risen nearly 10% in southeast Asia. The impacts of trade war coupled with pandemic fallout will eventually reduce dependency on Chinese goods and materials.
“The Chinese government in 2004 launched Confucius institutes at various foreign universities, with the goal of promoting Chinese language & culture. U.S. officials have stated the institutes are a propaganda tool meant to enhance China’s “soft power.” https://t.co/HDB2yZ6OzK
— Alireza Nader (@AlirezaNader) April 24, 2020
Secondly, a nation’s power is not merely determined by the size of its economy. There are certain areas in which China still lags behind most democracies of the Western world. For example in research and development expenditure. Total U.S. spending is $549 billion while China spends $496 billion (U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF) biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report).
Thirdly, the US-China trade war also struck a blow to China’s soft power appeal and global image. The harsh treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, tensions in the South China Sea, Huawei ban, the pro-democracy protests that paralyzed Hong Kong, all proved detrimental to China’s global image. Hence, China’s aid amid the pandemic will do little to change the already created image.
Fourthly, all these factors coupled with the initial reluctance to deal with the Covid-19, do not favour China to replace the liberal world order. According to a report by the Associated Press based on leaked documents from a confidential teleconference with China’s National Health Commission, China’s leaders allegedly failed to notify the public about the looming crisis for a 6-day critical period. This led to 3000 people being rapidly infected by the virus.
Fifthly, China is in hot waters over the alleged supply of defective equipment just for the sake of furthering its influence globally. Spain and the Netherlands’ authorities have raised concerns that the testing kits were ineffective and the masks were below the quality standards. They returned many of the shipments.
— CBC News (@CBCNews) April 19, 2020
Sixthly, the illegal wildlife trade, with an estimated worth of $74 billion, according to Chinese Academy of Engineering report (2017)- the supposed epicentre of the pandemic, has also placed China – its wildlife trade policies in the spotlight.
According to the World Health Organization, almost three-quarters of all epidemics in recent decades have spilt over from animals. Although China’s government has temporarily banned the trading and consumption of wildlife, there are still concerns that the stakeholders of a multi-billion dollar wildlife industry would act as a resistance in the way of a permanent ban. And if China does not act swiftly against it no amount of aid amid the pandemic will help it further its soft power ambitions.
Lastly, once the dust settles, the countries stabilize and get hold of themselves there’s going to be huge pressure on China to adopt food safety laws, and take stringent measures to curb the illegal wildlife trade. The anti-Chinese sentiment was already rampant in the developing world before the Covid-19 outbreak. Now the poor initial response towards reporting the outbreak has added fuel to the fire.
Although China has adopted quite a comprehensive strategy to fill the void created by the internal strife within western democracies, still it isn’t yet ready to become the next super-power. At least not in the immediate future.