While the coronavirus crisis has forced many Countries, particularly the United States, to turn inward and focus on addressing their domestic needs, China has moved in the opposite direction and intensified its efforts to provide medical and healthcare support to other countries.

Furthermore, the magnitude of China’s healthcare support to other nations exceeds the contributions of other countries by such an extent that it has received considerable media attention around the world, as some have called it the “Mask Diplomacy”. 

China’s capability to undertake this initiative is partly a result of her tiding over the peak of the crisis in February and proceeding on a road to recovery with a significant decline in new cases and casualties ever since. While the substantial domestic improvement and jumpstart of the Chinese economy were necessary conditions for China to be able to assist other nations, it was not sufficient.

After all, the highly contagious disease gives Chinese officials enough reasons to simply stockpile medical supplies for domestic use lest there be a Second wave of Pandemic.

Evidence, however suggests that a political decision was made by the Chinese leadership to devote a portion of China’s healthcare products and services to other countries to help them contain the disease.

It appears that several factors played a role in the introduction of this Policy. First, a number of countries such as Italy and Iran sent medical supplies to China in February, when China was experiencing a shortage of medical equipment, and Chinese government wanted to reciprocate this crucial Support.

Consequently, China sent medical supplies and medical teams to these countries, when they were hit hard by the pandemic, in a gesture of reciprocity and solidarity. 

Second, by promoting international aid and trade in healthcare products and services, China wanted to offset the significant contraction of trade and investment activities in key components of its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), which was launched by President Xi in 2013.

Ever since, China has spent billions of dollars and sponsored hundreds of major investment projects in energy, transportation and commercial port development in more than 100 countries that have joined the initiative so far.

Most of these BRI projects came to a halt as China and other BRI member countries suspended economic activities and closed their borders in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Making matters worse, many BRI Member Countries are facing substantial financial and healthcare burdens in light of a potential economic collapse due to the pandemic, which might make it very difficult to restart these projects any time soon.

Health Silk Road

As long as the pandemic continues to ravage the global community, and BRI member countries have to suspend or scale down these core projects, China’s healthcare aid and trade will serve as a partial substitute that will meet the immediate technical and import needs of these countries.

This Chinese Initiative will increase connectivity and strengthen the Member Countries commitment to BRI. To emphasise this linkage, the Chinese government has framed its healthcare aid and trade with other Countries (specially the BRI partners) in the context of the Health Silk Road (HSR).

The Health Silk Road was publicised by President Xi Jinping during his phone conversation with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte about containing the pandemic on March 16.

However, the origins of the concept can be dated back to December 2015, when China’s National Health Commission, the cabinet-level department in charge of health issues, first announced its administrative guidance on improving the health cooperation under the Belt & Road Initiative.

Months later, on June 23, 2016, during his speech at the Legislative Chamber of the Supreme Assembly of Uzbekistan, President Xi formally proposed to promote medical and health cooperation under the framework of Belt & Road Initiative, and enhance mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of infectious disease notification, epidemic control, medical rescue, and traditional medicine to create a ‘Healthy Silk Road’.

Under HSR, China has provided humanitarian aid, including surgical masks, N95 masks, protective clothing, test kits, ventilators, to 120 countries and 4 international organisations, along with its $50 million donation to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Moreover, China has sent teams of specialists to countries whose healthcare system and resources are stretched thin facing an increasing number of patients, such as Italy, Iraq, and Iran. In addition to the Chinese government, some wealthy private chinese individuals and businesses, in particular the Alibaba Group and Jack Ma Foundation, are also providing aid to several countries that have suffered the most in the Pandemic.

With unconditional support to the global community, China’s healthcare assistance and the HSR campaign will help improve its international image, which has been tarnished in recent weeks by Western criticism that it did not alert the international community fast enough about the coronavirus outbreak.

This negative rhetoric is spearheaded by the Trump administration, which seems interested in intensifying anti-China sentiments ahead of the November Presidential Elections. For example, President Trump & Secretary of State Mike Pompe have blamed China for hiding information and the Wuhan Institute of Virology for creating the virus.

These accusations have led to a fierce diplomatic rift between the US and China. China’s Medical Support, however, appears to have had a positive effect on Sino-European diplomatic relations and public opinion in many European Countries such as Serbia, Italy and Spain, despite some complaints about the quality and effectiveness of some Chinese Covid-19 testing kits.

Digital Silk Road

The coronavirus pandemic has also created a sharp increase in demand for internet and telecommunication connectivity all over the world. Advanced information technology not only plays a crucial role in detection and containment of the pandemic, but it is also crucial for sustainable economic activity under quarantine and social distancing, as many organisations and companies switch to online and work-from-home activities.

In recent years Chinese firms have made significant progress in information and digital technologies, which is best exemplified by the progress of Huawei Corporation in 5G telecommunication technologies.

In response to the unexpected rise in global demand for IT services, the Chinese government has encouraged these firms to actively promote their products and services internationally.  The  IT sector is so important to China’s long term global strategy that the Chinese government is promoting it under the banner of the Digital Silk Road (DSR).

Similar to the Health Silk Road, the Digital Silk Road is also a new and emerging component of China’s Belt & Road Initiative. Trade and investment in digital technology not only can help China offset the loss of some of its traditional manufacturing exports during and after the pandemic, but it will also facilitate globalisation and connectivity among BRI members in the long run.

The coronavirus pandemic has sharply increased the global demand for digital technologies that can improve the healthcare systems and internet services; and as such it has created a unique opportunity for China to promote the DSR.

Despite the US efforts to discourage European countries from awarding contracts to China’s IT giant Huawei, the UK, has recently followed France’s step in allowing Huawei to enter the country’s 5G network market, while constraining the company’s business in non-sensitive areas.

Italy, which welcomed Huawei to upgrade its 5G network before the UK and France, has received help from this company to fight the coronavirus. Huawei has set up video conference terminals and used cloud computing technology to connect Italian hospitals with Huashan hospital in Shanghai.

This digital connectivity has enabled Chinese medical experts to share their experience and remedies with their Italian counterparts. In addition, Huawei has provided AI-based diagnosis systems and remote conference devices to many countries including the Philippines, Bangladesh and Zambia to improve the efficiency of their healthcare systems.

The Digital Silk Road has achieved a much higher level of penetration in Africa than Europe.  The Chinese hi-tech firms like Alibaba and Huawei are involved in many projects to upgrade the internet and telecommunications services in multiple African countries. The main advantage of these firms in comparison to Western companies is their competitive prices.

Establishment of advanced data centres and smart cities in Countries like Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa will allow these countries to increase their share of the global market for remote and online data services. These services will be in high demand in the next few years as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Furthermore, Chinese technology is making internet services available and affordable in many remote and underdeveloped regions of African countries. The access to internet and telecommunications will help African governments improve the healthcare and educational services in these regions.

Overall, it is clear that the Chinese government has intensified its commitment to globalisation in response to the coronavirus pandemic and Western accusations of negligence. Furthermore, it has also shown a remarkable capacity to adapt and modify the Belt & Road Initiative to the repercussions of this pandemic.

Well aware of the uncertainties and severe adverse impact of the crisis on mainstream Belt & Road Projects in construction and energy sectors, China is pragmatically promoting two new sectors for its global engagement: the Healthcare and Digital Telecommunication Industries. 

These are being promoted not as alternatives to the Belt & Road initiative, but as its emerging sub-branches that are appropriately titled the Health Silk Road and the Digital Silk Road. Focusing on these two critical sectors will not only improve the cooperation mechanisms under the current BRI framework, but also create new opportunities in the post-pandemic era.

Furthermore, the addition of new elements could restructure and revitalise the Belt & Road Initiative, and hence make it more attractive to current participating countries and potential applicants in the long run.

Author: Nader Habibi, Professor of Practice in Economics of the Middle East, Crown Center for Middle East Studies & Department of Economics, Brandeis University (U.S.). Co-authored by Hans Yue Zhu completed his Masters degree at Yale University in May 2019 and he is currently a Research Assistant at the Yale Jackson Institute of Global Affairs.
Editor’s Note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of the editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.