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Blink and you'll miss it: China's opportunistic outlook on the COVID-19 pandemic

Jan Harrison | China Fellow

When China faced the first outbreak of COVID-19 at the beginning of the year, it posed an opportunity for the government to move forward in developing its public health system and catch up to international standards. The measures China implemented and the tenacity in which they did so to address COVID-19, would have a lasting positive impact not only domestically, but across the globe. Recently, China has made the point that the virus is under control within their borders with 83,000 reported cases (at time of publishing), though some nations and experts are sceptical of the legitimacy of these numbers. If the data is legitimate and China has indeed 'flattened the curve,' China is moving forward and capitalising on this pandemic as a gateway to global superpower status.

The United States (US)–the new epicentre of COVID-19–is focused domestically now more than ever. China has taken this opportunity to elevate its reputation internationally and increase its diplomatic posture in various regions.

Protecting China's Image

Beijing is adamant on defending its response to the outbreak and protecting the party’s legitimacy, especially in the eyes of the citizenry. Beijing has utilised the government's propaganda machine in the hope of distancing themselves from the global health pandemic that started within their borders.

Internationally, China has used publicity stunts to improve their standing and shift blame away from not announcing the outbreak earlier. China sent thousands of masks and much needed medical supplies overseas, but were rejected due to the products being faulty. China is making all the right moves as the new pioneers of international health and foreign aid.

Having an existing relationship with Italy through the Belt and Road Initiative, China is now helping Italy–the country with the highest amount of COVID-19 related deaths–out of its perils, and in doing so, is increasing its posture and image in Europe. In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić has expressed glowing reviews of President Xi Jinping's assistance during troubling times. Spain and France have been destinations for medical equipment, and Chinese doctors are helping Pakistan fight COVID-19. It is not all positive news for China, with the US and President Trump criticising the country's handling of the outbreak and labelling COVID-19 the "Wuhan Virus."

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has created a detailed account of the number of countries it is currently assisting, as well as making public the positive conversations and discussions various Chinese leaders have made with nations around the world in their fight against COVID-19. What the Chinese government is trying to do is, in essence, to be indispensable and beneficial for all countries. Take nothing away from the resolve, comradery of the Chinese, either through business or government, to help the world in such a trying time.

However, there is a deeper motive for these actions. China sees an opening to disrupt the current balance of power. They see other nations struggling, be they middle powers in Europe or neighbours in Southeast Asia. Almost all regions outside of China are facing an insurmountable challenge, but China has the tools, resources and ambition to help them through this pandemic.

Leveraging Soft Power Amidst a Pandemic

In recent times, the US and China have engaged in a tense competition for economic and political power. President Xi Jinping, has asserted himself–domestically–as the man for the job when it comes to realising the Chinese Dream (zhong guo meng xiang). China has, as Deng Xiaoping famously touted, been hiding its strengths and biding its time. The COVID-19 situation is quickly playing into the hands of the Chinese–who have been pushing reforms of Chinese-led global governance–and they are taking every chance and opportunity they are given to make it count.

The difference between a genuine, concerted effort by the Chinese government to support other countries in need, and using this global health pandemic as a means of highlighting the advantages and capabilities of the Chinese political system as a world leader, depends on who is asked.

Beijing most certainly could have handled the initial outbreak much better. In a way, it is overly optimistic to think the Chinese authoritarian system would thoroughly learn from the SARS epidemic. While Professor Michael Mandelbaum of John Hopkins University claims that this failure will hamper the gains China has made in recent years, there is a strong nationalistic sentiment growing within China. This burgeoning feeling within China is laying a solid foundation for a sustained effort to the summit of the international world order.

In the international popularity contest that is unfolding before our eyes, China has made the first moves. Their actions have brought much scepticism from the existing political hierarchy, but they remain unphased by these opinions. They have advanced their posture across the globe, tactically occupying political space and moving forward. COVID-19 may already be a watershed moment in the geopolitical landscape. As the first movers, China is poised to disrupt the existing world order. In doing so, it can finally solidify its position alongside the United States in a new bipolar international order.

Jan Harrison is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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