Yes, China must acknowledge being the main source of the coronavirus and initially suppressing information about the outbreak. But many other countries, especially in the West, are equally responsible for letting their guard down and allowing the disease to assume pandemic proportions.

While the blame game continues, China in its typical robust fashion has recovered to now become the main source of global assistance via the Health Silk Road (HSR) project

While the diplomatic exercise could be construed as humanitarian aid, it is also true that the future of China’s economy, especially the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), is closely linked to its success in cooperating with the coronavirus-infected countries.

The success or failure of the HSR will determine if China is viewed as a risky or risk-free partner in the future and how quickly Beijing will be able to restore its disrupted supply connectivity strategy with the world.

And, since China’s success impacts the global economic and political balance of power, the origin, goings-on and the eventual end of this tumultuous crisis have yielded diverse interpretations.

After proposing the HSR idea, which includes socio-economic measures to improve public health governance to the World Health Organisation in 2017, China wasted no opportunity in using this crisis to institutionalise and translate it into a policy that could have wider ramifications.  

After first receiving support from about 80 countries after the outbreak. Beijing is now using the HSR both as a goodwill gesture and as a tool to further the BRI, which is the 21st-century version of the ancient Silk Road.

Showcasing its recovery and launching its international cooperation outreach in mid-March, China has offered help to as many countries as it received help from. While many of them are members of the BRI, several others are not even remotely linked to the infrastructure and trade connectivity project.

Linking the two, China pointed out that the HSR has increased the scope for collaboration in the BRI. The State Media Agency, Xinhua, stressed that it will particularly benefit human wellbeing, which is a part of the BRI. “To win the battle (against COVID-19), countries must uphold solidarity and cooperation, be future-oriented, and improve global health governance…”

Since then Chinese medical experts have remotely shared their successful experience with officials in several countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and even South America. As the BRI is a land- and sea-based project, China delivered huge quantities of protective medical equipment mostly by trains and ships.

Apart from humanitarian assistance, which has greatly benefited Italy and Spain, the HSR is also serving as a vital economic tool. Even the United States, which is involved in a trade war with China, has been forced to buy emergency medical supplies from its strategic competitor. Lithuania is buying “several hundred” lung ventilators from China, without waiting for joint EU medical supply purchases.

Norway, which has one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, is receiving Chinese help. Serbia compared real Chinese cooperation with the “fairy tale” of European solidarity. And, while several Western experts saw sinister designs in Chinese aid to the rest of the world, an European Union official said it was no more than “reciprocal” assistance.

Responding to some adverse interpretations of the HSR being an alluring project, a Chinese ex-diplomat said it was not Beijing’s intention to charm anyone, because “in the fight against COVID-19, mankind is in the same boat.”

Looking ahead, the HSR bears the potential to shape the future of China’s BRI and its overall economy. It will be interesting to watch if initial trends of some countries’ economic reliance decoupling from China and some foreign companies interest in shifting their manufacturing units out of China would be temporary or permanent features after the coronavirus tide turns for the better.

While it serves as a public diplomacy tool for China to overcome some of the recent negative sentiments, the HSR combined with the BRI also intensifies the global leadership race. The question on most analysts’ minds is two-fold.

First, will this crisis and follow-up soft power response hasten or reduce the pace of China’s hard power challenge to the United States, especially since Washington which led the fight against Ebola a few years ago has been consumed by its own containment efforts?

Second, how would this impact the process of strategic hedging that many countries, including those in the Gulf, have been involved in over the last two decades?

As the Gulf countries contemplate expanding their humanitarian support to other countries, the HSR model serves both as a template for them to work on their own and as a multilateral tool to work with China in some of the affected countries.

While the former will enhance their soft power reputation, the latter holds the potential to positively impact their strategic ties with China, a superpower in its own right.

Author: N Janardhan, Senior Research Fellow, Gulf-Asia Programme UAE.
Editor’s Note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.