China is losing the geopolitical battle of coronavirus. Unfortunately, the West is too

Posted: April 8, 2020 in Telegraph
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Trying to be a bit more rapid about my updates this time, here is a brief Telegraph commentary that came out looking at the geopolitics of Coronavirus and the impact it is having on the west and China in particular.

China is losing the geopolitical battle of coronavirus. Unfortunately, the West is too

The more dominant public narrative is of

The Chinese government has embarked on a highly-publicised campaign to supply medical supplies to European nations as they contend with their own domestic outbreaks of coronavirus. But for all the noise Beijing is making about its “medical diplomacy”, it is hard to see how many new friends it has won.

So far, expressions of gratitude have come from predictable places, while China’s critics have focused on the unreliability of Chinese data or conspiracy theories advanced by Foreign Ministry spokesmen. It is not clear that China is winning the geopolitical conflict around Covid-19. Unfortunately, neither is the United States, which leaves a dangerous vacuum at the top.

But while China might not be winning this narrative, it is strengthening itself at home, creating a context which will leave Beijing well-placed to paint itself as a successful government in comparison to others around the world, when the short-term nightmare of covid-19 has passed.

This will have repercussions for China’s future behaviour, and for parts of the world that were already inclined in Beijing’s direction. China may not be winning new geopolitical space, but it is shoring itself up at home. This will make it even more assertive in the future.

One narrative that has caught on in public discourse is that China has ramped up its medical aid in a cynical attempt to use the current chaos to win new influence. Countries like Italy are described as being abandoned by their European brothers while the friendly Chinese sweep in with aid and gifts, in a clear geopolitical “win” for China.

The reality is far more complicated. The EU has mobilised considerable resources to support its member states. EU rules around state aid have been relaxed to allow countries to support affected industries better. Medical aid has flowed around the continent, and a growing number of intensive care cases from the hardest stricken countries like Italy are being sent to neighbouring countries. And while there is no denying the Chinese support, it happened after considerable volumes of European aid flowed to China when the country was in the heat of its own crisis – all delivered with much less fanfare.

This is not unknown in the halls of power. European governments know that their first port of call will always be their neighbours. Those who shout about Chinese aid are for the most part using it to score political points against adversaries, either at home or in Brussels. Leaders who have thanked China in more modest tones have only done the courteous thing which is expressed gratitude when someone offers you support.

Media reports have instead focused on Chinese equipment being delivered either with caveats or outright defective or faulty. Conspiracy theories advanced by Chinese foreign ministry officials about the virus being a product of some US military plan have failed to gain traction, and there is open doubt about data around the virus reported by Beijing.

There is little evidence that we are seeing a groundswell of positive perspectives on China sweeping across Europe. For all Beijing’s efforts, it has failed to win hearts and minds through medical outreach and aid.

Where these narratives have worked is at home, where the conspiracy theories in particular, as well as the stories of munificence and the improved domestic situation, have shaped Chinese domestic perceptions of the virus. The narrative in China is that Beijing has controlled the virus domestically, but now faces a second wave from irresponsible European countries who failed to control their own outbreaks and are exporting trouble back to China.

Such narratives also focus on domestic success and external enemies stirring up trouble within China, something already visible in the conspiracy theories about the virus emanating from the United States military. The rally to the flag effect this produces is only exacerbated when Chinese people see the dominant narrative in Europe being of defective Chinese equipment and cynicism about Chinese motives. The sense of hurt this generates could widen the gulf between China and Europe. None of this is strengthening China geopolitically, but it is certainly strengthening the Chinese leadership at home.

This is not dissimilar to what is happening in Washington, where the government has slowly let the crisis overwhelm it, used anti-Chinese narratives to apportion blame and has failed to take a global leadership role. The result is a situation which could be wide open for middle powers – including Britain – to step forward. But this has not yet happened; everyone is understandably distracted with their own problems. The result is a rudderless moment in international geopolitics, at a moment when great conflict was already the keynote.

This is where the real danger of Chinese influence could lie. It is not in China influencing new parts of Europe, but instead becoming even more detached. Building a nationalist narrative at home will make even greater aggression abroad politically possible in the future. An already confident China will feel even more emboldened while the rest of the world lacks any clear way forward and will be left reeling by the economic damage Covid-19 will unleash.

We are entering a moment of even greater geopolitical uncertainty, with adversarial behaviour all around and no clear leader. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Covid-19 has torn a big hole in our already confused order.

Comments
  1. […] broader geopolitics and the COVID-19 mess. Covers ground not dissimilar to my earlier piece for the Telegraph though focused in a different direction. Has already received some anger online and was reproduced […]

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