IIn the early stages of COVID-19 in the United States, the test kits failed. That a biomedical plant like the United States failed to create a very simple diagnostic test was, literally, unimaginable, wrote Ed Yong in Atlantic. And yet he did. Years of budget cuts at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even during the crisis, left on misdirected country ill-prepared for such a crisis. Since then, despite dangerously Trumps misleading optimism, the United States has done nothing to maintain the global leadership role it has assumed in the fight against Ebola crisis. On the contrary. Trump invoked the Korean War era Defense Production Act to coerce the giant mask maker 3M to stop exporting to Canada and Mexico, its natural allies of the USMCA. Allegations of Germanyof modern hacking American practices underpin TrumpismAmerica First » and nationalist isolationism. China, on the other hand, has striven in recent years to globalization. Xi Jinping forged the ambitions of China’s foreign policy as wishing to build a community of shared destiny for common progress. While many countries have pointed fingers in China in the genesis of the epidemic, can Beijing transform this national and international catastrophe into a diplomatic opportunity? Can China take advantage of the situation and fill this vacuum of global leadership?
In 1990, Joseph Nye celebrates the term sweet power, in contrast to the hard power that referred to the military power of a country. In international relations (IR), soft power refers to culture, economic weight and political values, among others. China is barely mentioned in this founding article: only a decade after the beginning of the reform of Deng Xiaopings and its opening at the end of the Cold War and, above all, after the human and diplomatic fiasco of Tiananmen in 1989, China was far from close to his Hegemon status. Yet 30 years later, China now ranks 27th soft power index. The concept of Nyes was particularly relevant in the 20th century: the post-Cold War years, led by the hegemonic United States, were the scene of a gigantic conversion of the old economic and political systems. The number of liberal democracies has grown from around 100 to 150, capitalist free market economies have grown from 40 to 100, and multinational organizations have exploded, with countries increasingly giving globalism a chance. However, in the 21st century, attempts at democratization have failed, especially in the Arab Spring; extended military entanglement defined foreign policy in the Middle East; national populism has increasingly invaded Western liberal democracies such as Hungary, Poland, Italy, Austria and the United States; even US-EU relationships have cooled. Faced with these trends, China’s growing weak power, especially for the United States, which lost its index in first place in 2016, could signal a significant change in power.
While Deng was promoting a foreign policy geared towards slogan hide your strength and wait for your time, Xi has fully embraced China’s ambitions to play a role of world leader. The National Endowment for Democracy coined the term strong power to describe China’s policies abroad. Despite its efforts to develop soft power internationally, in particular through its many Confucius Institutes, China’s cultural and political reach remains weak internationally. Although its army is increasingly present abroad, it is still incomparable with that of the United States abroad. Therefore, a living power describes the subtle but very effective economic dependencies and the presence of the international diaspora linked to China. the One Belt One Road Initiative has sparked controversy over the creation of such economic dependencies. Under this gigantic foreign policy umbrella, a massive amount of foreign investment and infrastructure projects are being put in place by Chinese companies and the government. Attractive short-term returns had drawn mainly African countries to Italy decided to join last year, the first European nation and G7 member to do so. In addition, China has decisive advance in the battle for climate change when the United States left the Paris agreement. China supports the deal while encouraging lighter restrictions for developing countries that support its leadership. Despite this indulgence towards countries that are not yet equipped for an energy transition like his coal production and consumption remain gargantuan China has supported its diplomatic efforts with concrete actions, becoming world leader in electric vehicles, renewable energy and Energy storage. Leadership in the technology sector is not limited to renewable energy: despite controversies around the world, China Lead in the 5G the race for technological development seems insurmountable. The Belt and Road Initiative, along with these forays by leaders into some of the most important sectors of the 21st century, laid the groundwork for China as a credible world leader. While we may have expected global bipolar leadership, or even a partnership like the 2008 financial crisis or the Ebola outbreak, the United States (as incumbent) and China ( as a candidate) have rather become open confrontation, highlighted by the trade war this has continued in recent years. It can be difficult to avoid Thucydides trap, which haunts US foreign affairs and states that the challenge of one power in power by another usually ends in bloodshed.
It is in this context that China hide diplomacy must be understood. Now that he has mostly controlled the disease, at least until a potential second wave, China took advantage of the lack of leadership from the United States to provide equipment and expertise to countries in need. Italy, one of the hardest hit countries, has severely criticized the EU and its lack of European solidarity: while Germany and France have imposed restrictions on equipment exports, China has sold large quantities to Italy. Similar scenarios exist in other countries. China has donated test kits to Cambodia and deployed medical personnel to Iran and Iraq; even Spain, including the Prime Minister, Pedro Snchez, received a call from Xi to express solidarity, stating that the sun comes after the storm and may lead to future bilateral collaborations.
The most important public relations cascade can come from Serbia. Strongly denouncing the lack of help from Europeans, President Vucic turned to China and his brother and friend Xi Jinping for help and equipment; a video of the president saying that Serbia could not contain the virus without the help of his Chinese brothers has 300 million views in China. Jack Mas Foundation also promised large quantities of equipment not only for each of the 54 African countries, but also for the United States. This last movement, beyond its altruism, serves as a strong symbolic message. Relations between the two countries have rarely reached such a low level, two months after the first phase of the trade war agreement. The expulsion of American journalists in retaliation for the United States, reducing the number of journalists in the country, is one of the latest developments in this quarrel that leaves the world without the cooperation of its two biggest superpowers.
China’s diplomatic efforts are gaining credibility for leadership around the world. But is it enough to take the lead with firmness and determination in this crisis? Perhaps more importantly, will the capital of goodwill created by his acts of altruism suffice to overtake the United States and generate new alliances and partnerships at the end of the crisis?
Despite all of China’s efforts, it seems that the world is not yet ready for such a change of power paradigm.
One of the main reasons is that, whatever the size of the Chinese effort, many countries will see these efforts as a simple compensation for the fact that the epidemic was not only born in Wuhan, China, local authorities also hid it for weeks, wasting the opportunity to suppress it at its root. Another important criticism is the lack of transparency manifested by the Chinese authorities concerning its data: certain factors, such as crematorium activity, suggested a number of deaths probably higher than the official number of 3,300 people. China cannot hide behind the fact that Western countries were ill-prepared compared to other Asian countries to legitimize its lack of transparency. Reliable data is important because action plans in other countries often depend on past experience and the data reported. Western countries could have been proactive in their response instead of lingering on passive waiting, but they did not have the same experience and the same trauma that informed the preparation of the surrounding Asian countries. The United States and the UK have vehemently hammered these points over the past few weeks, namely that Trump has deliberately and systematically called COVID-19 the Chinese virus or the Wuhan virus.
Despite the slow initial response and subsequent concealment of some data, China medical and scientific efforts, including the open source publication of the initial viral genome, have won praise in the scientific community. In addition, as already mentioned, the situation in the country is stable enough to provide the material necessary for its masked diplomacy. Given this, why is every humanitarian gesture from China received with suspicion and cynicism? Why is China not receiving more praise in the Western media for its response? After decades of making China the red devil, especially in the United States, moving to unanimous praise would be too abrupt a change. This may be one of the reasons why Vietnam, which could so far be used as a great success story for developing countries with fewer resources, is virtually absent from the Western media. The world does not seem ready to praise the communist regimes. It is true that one of the most important theories in IR is democratic peace, who claims that democratic countries do not wage war on each other. While China, through its grassroots political participation and local governments, is more democratic than what is described in the Western media, it remains an authoritarian state which Western countries and liberal democracies are still wary of. Ironically, the response to COVID-19 in most of these liberal democracies has been increased state participation, both politically and economically. This trend, however, will likely remain temporary and will not mark a paradigm shift towards socialism with Chinese characteristics. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said rare national television advertisingdress, these restrictions can only be justified when they are absolutely necessary. In a democracy, they should not be taken lightly and only temporarily. But for the moment, they are essential to save human lives.
Another symptom of the world’s lack of preparation to follow an Asian hegemon is the rise of anti-asian racial sentiment, which recalls the anti-japanese feeling which marked the rise of Japan on the diplomatic scene in the first half of the 20th century. Although this argument may be part of the equation, it is difficult to appreciate it correctly and it is weakened by praise that others asian countries have received. The praise that the Western media has South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan rather reinforce the idea that Western countries aim to follow the example of democracies closer and understandable to them. It is true that these countries depend on populations which are generally more respectful of their governments than the western populations, taking into account in particular the alive memory of the epidemic of SARS. Nevertheless, they all reacted quickly and all have the merit, in the eyes of the West, of having done so through democratic institutions and with the collaboration of their populations. For China, the success of the Taiwans could constitute a major obstacle to its offensive of diplomatic charm. While the WHO Bruce Aylward incident awkwardly reminded the world of Taiwan’s diplomatic issue, the island launched its own offensive diplomacy mask. Not only is China’s effort to establish the narrative that its form of government is the only one capable of effectively containing the virus endangered, it is now challenged by none other than Taiwan, its diplomatic question unresolved and incidentally an ally American.
It is difficult to predict when and how the pandemic will end. It is even more difficult to predict the magnitude of its consequences. If a recession as severe as 1929 is what we can expect and the United States emerges from the crisis weakened, who knows what kind of leadership China can assume? For now, however, her pandemic charm offensive may be insufficient for countries around the world to forget the mistakes she made in her initial management of the epidemic. It is certainly insufficient to inspire the West to ignore the deep ideological and political divisions that persist and may even hinder China’s long-term ability to mobilize enough support to become world hegemony.
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