Since mid-January 2020, China’s political leadership single-mindedly concentrated on managing a deadly coronavirus epidemic that began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Recently, however, China has been conducting a major diplomatic and humanitarian offensive aimed at assisting countries that are struggling against the raging pandemic. Since early March 2020, China has been sending medical experts, rapid diagnostic testing kits, and protective medical gear to the Philippines, Serbia, Spain, Iran, and Italy.
From East Asia to the Middle East, China is providing or offering humanitarian and medical assistance in the form of medical expertise and equipment. Chinese officials are also claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic should be viewed as an opportunity for international cooperation not competition. They also publicly flaunted the idea that China’s national lockdown was a national sacrifice that decisively slowed down global spread of the disease.
Diseases have long been the deadliest and most dangerous threat to human lives, despite the unprecedented advances in medical sciences since the early 19th century. The Black Death of the 14th century claimed more lives in medieval Europe in a span of five years than any armed conflict before this epidemic. Another infamous epidemic in history was the Plague of Justinian, which began in the winter months of 6th century Constantinople and then spread throughout the Mediterranean world. The most lethal epidemic in contemporary history happened in the aftermath of the First World War, the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918-20.
Diseases have also provoked human fear, which is oftentimes worse than the diseases themselves. This is because through human history, several diseases have plagued all human societies, and they have claimed more lives than natural disaster and warfare combined. As a case in point, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) represents a far greater threat to human beings than armed conflicts for most Sub-Saharan Africans and for many more people around the world. This fear is further fueled by the acceptance of the stark reality that diseases, as existential threats to human existence, can never be eradicated despite rapid progress in the natural sciences and medicine in the last two centuries.
The COVID-19 epidemic added two very volatile elements to the ongoing US-China strategic competition, disease and fear. China’s moves to play the lead in addressing the global pandemic and spin to blame the US for the transmission of COVID-19 in Wuhan City was to deflect the Chinese public’s resentment because their top leaders suppressed early information and mishandled the epidemic.
Municipal and provincial party leaders in Wuhan City and Hubei Province, fearing the wrath of the central government, downplayed the extent of the infection. When the outbreak was apparent, the central leadership, like any authoritarian regime, reacted by blaming local officials; ramping up domestic censorship; arresting or silencing whistle-blowers; and withholding information about the brewing public health crisis while at the same time refusing American offers for assistance. China is also worried that its international status has been severely damaged by the mishandling of the outbreak and thus, by donating medical supplies, China is trying to repair this damage by projecting an image of a responsible and generous power.
The US and its Western European allies viewed with uneasiness China’s moves in fostering international cooperation against the pandemic. They see them as components of a calculated diplomatic gambit aimed at giving China the opportunity to project itself as a responsible great power now leading global society in confronting this raging pandemic to cover their liability in mishandling the outbreak and record as a social incubator of deadly epidemics.
China’s flaunting of its effectivity in managing the epidemic with its well communicated assistance like medical supplies and equipment, medical advice, and even organizing public health systems for other governments is seen by the US as an attempt to take advantage of the Trump Administration’s early missteps in addressing the crisis.
Many Western European states agreed that China is leveraging on its current position of being the leading producer of medical equipment and supplies by rewarding states that are considered as friendly and withholding them from countries that are critical of Chinese interests and policies.
For Washington and its allies, China is using its advantageous position as the world’s largest maker of medicine and protective medical suits to temper the global anger over its initial mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak and to prove that its authoritarian model of governance works effectively against all types of crisis. There is no doubt that the 2020 Wuhan virus pandemic has opened a new front in the raging US-China strategic competition.
Dr. Renato de Castro is a trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program, Stratbase ADR Institute