Beijing’s coronavirus-era diplomacy ‘is outflanking America’s’, but some cite overreach

Mark Magnier

Beijing has run circles around Washington on the global diplomacy front during the coronavirus crisis, although the US has badly undercut its natural advantage even as China risks overplaying its hand.

That’s an early assessment by former officials, crisis management and China experts evaluating the two nations’ soft power – the ability to persuade rather than coerce – as the pandemic wreaks global havoc.

Both countries made mistakes – underplaying the threat, whitewashing problems, blaming local officials – and pointed fingers at each other, experts say.

During the crucial January-February period, censorship, scapegoating and a system that discourages reporting bad news spotlighted shortcomings in China’s one-party system. This allowed the disease to incubate and ultimately spread globally, they added.

Mistakes supposedly learned during China’s 2002-03 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) were repeated to deadly effect, leading to white-hot anger among ordinary Chinese and a battered reputation abroad.

But President Xi Jinping, increasingly aware of the outbreak’s threat to his power, took charge to slow the spread, deploying authoritarian methods not normally available to democracies.

The US also dithered for several crucial weeks, although the costs remain more national than global. In late February, re-election-driven President Donald Trump dismissed attention on the pandemic as a “hoax”, failing to mobilise equipment and manpower.

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State and local officials have done more to raise awareness and drive policy than Washington, with mixed reviews of Trump’s performance reflecting the polarised US electorate.

“We are where Xi Jinping was earlier in the crisis,” said J. Stapleton Roy, a scholar at the Wilson Centre in Washington and former US ambassador to China.

“President Trump has had an extremely appalling response to the crisis. In some ways, he’s even followed the Xi Jinping model in trying to put political controls on information. It’s truly a scandal.”

With new infections falling and domestic critics largely silenced, Beijing deftly pivoted, shifting the narrative in March to focus on China’s global largesse, as much for domestic as global consumption, analysts said. With TV cameras running, China has dispatched doctors, protective gear and expertise to some 80 countries worldwide.

The shift capitalises on China’s manufacturing strengths and accelerated production of masks and test kits. Beijing has also benefited in embracing a larger global role from early European Union foot dragging and a global leadership vacuum given Trump’s “America First” agenda.

The US reputation abroad has been further dented by Trump’s bid to acquire for exclusive American use a German company’s vaccine, threats to deploy troops on the Canadian border and insistence on calling it the “Chinese virus” before reversing course after World Health Organisation criticism and growing domestic concerns over racial profiling.

“A global crisis usually helps us [in the US], but we’re nowhere to be seen,” said Bonnie Glaser, China analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“Our president is in denial, too worried about the stock market rather than saving lives of Americans and citizens around the world.”

A worker in Alsip, Illinois, sews medical gowns and other personal protective equipment. Photo: Getty Images/AFP

In 2019, US soft power slipped to No 5 globally, according to the Soft Power 30 index compiled by the University of Southern California and the Portland consultancy. That was down from No 1 in 2016 before Trump took office. The index cites the administration’s trade wars with close partners and its questioning of long-standing security alliances for the decline.

The same year, China edged up one notch to No 27 as its culture, sports and education activities counterbalanced its handling of Hong Kong protests, the mass detention of Uygurs in Xinjiang and South China Sea island building, according to the index.

The US appeared to shift gears in late March when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced US$274 million in new health and disaster assistance for the world’s most at-risk countries.

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The US will continue to lead the global battle against the virus, Pompeo said, adding that America was the world’s greatest humanitarian nation and welcomed foreign donations provided there are “no strings attached”.

Some questioned the timing.

“This strikes me as a very defensive response, and one prompted by China's forward-leaning on this,” said Jude Blanchette, CSIS analyst and author of China's New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong.

“If the US government had rolled this out months or even weeks ago, the response would have been more positive, but I suspect anyone reading this knows it's reactionary.”

But China also risks overplaying its hand, others said. Apparently borrowing a page from Russia, and from Trump, Beijing has fuelled conspiracy theories in recent weeks, a possible new front in the US-China tussle over narratives.

Last month, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested on Twitter, which is banned in China, that the US military introduced the coronavirus to Wuhan.

This angered many in Washington, with Pompeo accusing Beijing of spreading “outlandish rumours”. In an apparent sign of poor coordination, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, dismissed the US-is-responsible idea as “crazy”. And state-run Global Times retweeted an unsubstantiated claim that Italy was the origin of Covid-19.

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“The controversial Foreign Ministry statements, the willingness to engage in conspiracy theories, there’s some domestic pushback that they’re lowering China to Trump’s level, hurting its moral authority,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, associate government professor at Cornell University and author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations.

Beijing’s messaging tends to be most effective when accompanied by material benefits, she and others said.

“Chinese propaganda works best when it’s backed by significant sums of money,” said Blanchette. “It’s the wrapping paper. When it stands on its own, most people find their propaganda pretty limp.”

Countries everywhere make political calculations in dispensing foreign aid. But some say Beijing’s “mask diplomacy” has been overly short-term and transactional.

Beijing has loudly touted “aid” and “donations” for items actually sold or, in the case of Italy, provided as for Italian Red Cross donations a short while earlier, said Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

And some Chinese masks and test kits sent to Spain, the Netherlands and Turkey reportedly arrived defective. While certainly not intentional, it undercuts Beijing’s messaging.

“With China’s soft-power projection, it might be that it’s pushing too far,” Poggetti said. “Initially it was ‘thank God, someone is giving us a hand.’ But the second reaction is ‘OK, this is a bit manipulative’.”

This concern was echoed by Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top foreign and security policy coordinator. “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner,” he said “We must be aware there is a geopolitical component, including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity’.”

Xu Hong, China’s ambassador to the Netherlands, denied any political agenda. “We are trying to save lives,” he said.

Medical supplies donated by China to help Laos fight the coronavirus pandemic are stacked in Vientiane, Laos. Photo: Xinhua

In addition to official Chinese aid, Red Cross shipments and commercial sales under “mask diplomacy”, China also has seen donations sent worldwide from foundations run by Huawei Technologies, ZTE, Jack Ma and the Alibaba Group. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

After Borrell raised EU concerns, however, some European reports suggested that Huawei, wary of getting caught in a US-China power play, might scale down its donations.

Some of the disconnect may reflect a Chinese view that “aid” can include outright gifts, reciprocity and even a willingness to sell items in short supply, said Marina Rudyak, a researcher on Chinese aid policies at Heidelberg University in Germany.

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From Beijing’s perspective, emerging nations like the Philippines generally qualify for outright gifts with developed countries expected to pay – unless they donated earlier to China, in which case they can expect an equal amount back, she said.

Political considerations also colour these decisions, including whether a country recognises Taiwan or is part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

“It’s very dynamic,” said Rudyak. “It’s a bit of crossing the river by feeling the stones.”

For beleaguered countries, however, Chinese shipments are welcome no matter the motivation. “I doubt if it’s been taken with any cynicism,” said Dayo Aiyetan, executive director of Nigeria’s International Centre for Investigative Reporting. “We need supplies and we would take it from whoever gives it.”

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While America’s poor crisis management does not directly affect many Africans, Aiyetan said, it has badly undercut Washington’s reputation.

“Many people are disappointed at the US response and lack of show of leadership,” said Aiyetan. “The way it – read Trump – has handled the pandemic is deemed scandalous here. And that has led to fears that Nigeria faces an even more devastating fate.”

Part of the subtext behind Beijing’s publicity campaign and “mask diplomacy”, experts say, is that China’s autocratic system operates faster and better in a crisis than liberal democracies.

Amid the political posturing, sometimes missed is the sacrifice of ordinary Chinese people, analysts said.

“No society has all the answers or the means to act unilaterally,” said Nicholas Cull, professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

But “the willingness of Chinese people to put their community before the self was impressive and gave an important lesson to the world”.

Trump has also missed easy opportunities to counter China’s political narrative, analysts say. Instead of engaging in name-calling with China, he could have pointed out that democratic South Korea and Taiwan have done well during the crisis without some of the heavy-handed social controls employed by Beijing.

Analysts also say some of the best elements of American soft power – including its generous citizens, companies and civic groups – are continuing despite Washington’s missteps, with tonnes of supplies, field hospitals and health equipment quietly donated to other countries in recent weeks.

The soft power slide by the US also could reverse if Trump significantly alters his approach after November or if a new president is elected.

“Trump changes every day, ‘Everything’s beautiful, we’ll reopen by Easter,’” said Maria Repnikova, director of the Centre for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University and author of the book Media Politics in China: Improvising Power under Authoritarianism.

“A lot of soft power weakness comes out of his performance. But if there’s a new leader in November, that could turn around pretty quickly.”

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