How China’s coronavirus medical diplomacy is failing to win over the world

Posted: April 9, 2020 in South China Morning Post
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And now finally up to date with my latest piece for the South China Morning Post, this time looking at some of the geopolitical questions flowing around China, 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 in a Singaporean local Today. In other media work, earlier piece for ORF on Kashmir and the UK and my last RSIS piece on the Maldives were both picked up and reproduced by Eurasia Review, while spoke to the Independent about recent UK terrorism numbers release and last interview in CTC Sentinel with Lord Evans was written up by the paper.

How China’s coronavirus medical diplomacy is failing to win over the world

Forget Pax Sinica, China’s medical outreach is struggling to attract new friends. And even though Russia and Iran, its closest allies, may be on the same page, underlying tensions remain. There is a global leadership gap but Beijing is not filling it

Raffaello Pantucci

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The world is grasping for an understanding of how the geopolitics of the coronavirus will play out. One dominant theme is that China is mendaciously riding the media waves to paint itself as a saviour dispensing medical equipment.

Yet, it is hard to see how Beijing is benefiting from its medical diplomacy, with opprobrium from every direction. Even given China’s close alliances with Iran and Russia, it is possible to see tensions emerging.

It is not at all clear that China will come out of the virus crisis as the rhetoric winner, notwithstanding the frantic narrative seeking to paint it that way.

Given the energy that China appears to be putting into promoting and pushing its medical diplomacy, it is surprisingly hard to uncover much evidence of a positive reception. While news stories speak of Chinese doctors and equipment arriving in stricken European states, it is difficult to find many news stories trumpeting China’s magnanimity.

Those who do speak of it positively tend to be the ones who already hold a positive view of China. The bigger narrative that seems to have caught on of late, however, is that much of the Chinese equipment appears to be faulty. It certainly does not seem that China is winning many new friends with its medical diplomacy.

Where China is finding resonance is in the predictable places, but even this is with caveats. The almost comical conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was a US military weapon has, unsurprisingly, found resonance in both Tehran and Moscow.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to the theory on his Twitter feed, while Russia’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, defended China’s work on the virus and helped to propagate narratives espoused by Beijing.

Yet, singing from the same hymn sheet about the virus has not swept away the underlying tensions. For example, Sinochem is refusing to buy oil from Russia’s Rosneft after the US warned of sanctions if it did so.

At the same time, Chinese purchasers have bought record volumes of Russian oil from other suppliers, taking advantage of record low prices to fill strategic reserves.

Iran may still be supplying energy to China, but some calculations have concluded that Tehran is doing this for zero income, given that it is paying off earlier Chinese investments. This is hardly magnanimous action on Beijing’s part to strategic allies in difficult positions.

The coronavirus has caused tensions between the three nations. Russia was one of the first countries to close its borders to China (doing so at the same time as
Italy and before theUnited States), while reports from Iran suggest that its outbreak, which started in Qom, may have come either from businessmen travelling back from China or Chinese workers.

In Russia, there have been reports of East Asians being attacked, while Moscow bus drivers were told to report it to the police if they found a Chinese person on board.

We are seeing a classic dance play out here, with all three powers playing the same game of rhetoric (deriding Europe and attacking America), while the realist dynamics churn on relentlessly below the surface.

There is little evidence that the coronavirus has changed the dynamics between the three, nor that it has bolstered China and its axis of convenience on the world stage.

Some fear that in some ways Beijing’s displays of medical diplomacy will permanently reshape the international order. Yet, the reality is that the most damaging impact to the international order comes from the absence of leadership in Washington.

Some European capitals have been slow to respond to the pandemic and walked when they should have run, but the truth is that few expected the European Union to lead the world in responding to this crisis. The EU remains confounded by its fundamental governance contradictions.

But none of this means that China can credibly fill the vacuum. Rather, a vacuum continues to exist, and is only being made larger by the fumbling response from US President Donald Trump and his administration. This is the acceleration that is happening in international geopolitics. Power is ebbing away while others desperately thrash around for influence.

Yet no one is able to fill it, creating a confusing order where rules and behaviour are increasingly incomprehensible, where state leaders and their spokespeople lie, and we refuse to acknowledge goodwill and impressive gestures for what they are. The cynicism is obvious, but the absence of something better means such narratives are gaining greater attention.

China has undoubtedly used its medical aid politically, but ultimately this is not going to shape the new world order. We may not be seeing an end to an American-led order in favour of Pax Sinica, but we are witnessing a rebalancing of the two.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

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