RED KNIGHTS: Chinese medical teams arriving in Belgrade on March
As China began its recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, reviving the economy was followed closely by diplomatic moves to restore its position as a benevolent friend which may have suffered from ‘the Wuhan factor’. Nicholas Nugent finds what has been dubbed Beijing’s ‘mask diplomacy’ instructive
While much of the world was still considering the degree of lockdown necessary to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19, China was emerging from its own quarantine to provide support in the form of medical teams, personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators to anyone who asked. What was most impressive was the speed with which it responded to requests. Overall, its policy seemed to be to help everyone, even relatively robust countries such as the United States and Britain.
China’s ambassador to Greece summed up official thinking when she said, ‘We think that solidarity and co-operation are the best weapons in combating this virus.’ Even allowing for an element of embarrassment that the virus had spread from China, Beijing lost no time in trying to build a reputation for magnanimity. But could there also have been an ulterior motive?
One of the first countries to benefit from Chinese largesse was Italy, whose health service was overwhelmed by the scale of the medical task they faced. With the experience of a nation that had already ‘been there’, China sent a medical team fresh from its ‘frontline’ to provide assistance and guidance in Lombardy.
China also focused on nations whose needs were less acute, simply because they asked for aid. It sent a plane-load of medical workers and supplies to the Serbian capital Belgrade several days before the European Union – which Serbia aspires to join – offered a substantial aid package to help the country fight the pandemic. President Aleksandar Vučić, who described European solidarity as ‘a fairytale’ after France and Germany banned the export of medical equipment, told journalists reporting the arrival of the plane from China that ‘from now on we will listen to everything [the Chinese] say. This exceeds politics’.
Serbia was not alone in finding it easier and swifter to get help from Beijing than Brussels. As the plane from China reached Serbia on 21 March, before many European countries had locked down, China’s news network CGTN reported planes with tons of medical equipment had been sent to Greece, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In due course Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria were also to receive aid from China to fight the virus.
Analysts point out some strategic links. Italy was the first member of the G7 ‘rich countries club’ to back China’s international infrastructural Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, together with Greece, has received investment from a Chinese company to develop the ports of Genoa and Piraeus respectively. Most central and eastern European countries benefit from BRI projects as members of the China-led Framework for Economic Relations. It may be no coincidence, too, that some beneficiary EU member states, including Italy and Hungary, have criticised the European Union for being slow in offering support.
According to Jane’s Intelligence Review, ‘Chinese COVID-19 assistance was strategically directed towards European countries of importance to China’s own political, security, and economic ambitions’. The Guardian newspaper suggested China was ‘trying to change the narrative’ to present itself as ‘the solution to coronavirus, not its cause’.
Europe was China’s first target destination but other parts of the world are receiving vital medical equipment too. South American nations are major purchasers of Chinese ventilators, and Ethiopia, a beneficiary of Chinese BRI-related investment, has become a transport hub for delivering equipment there to avoid any risk of it being seized for use in America or Europe, as was reportedly happening.

US military aircraft flew over the South China Sea in late April as a warning that China should not turn aggressive over Taiwan

Almost unnoticed, China has become the chief supplier of medical equipment, including medicines, to the world. Wealthy countries like Britain are concerned at what are referred to as ‘supply chains that depend too heavily on China’, and at the decline or disappearance of their own production capacity in certain strategic medical fields.
Trade disputes such as the one already engulfing US-China relations seemed to speed up as a result of the COVID crisis. When Australia backed calls for an investigation into the source of the virus, Beijing took offence, cancelling beef purchases and imposing a crippling 80 per cent tariff on that country’s exports of barley to China. Chinese diplomats overseas pushing back against assertions that the virus ‘started in China’ have been characterised as ‘wolf warriors’ – named after the heroes of Chinese action films – engaged in a propaganda campaign.

China may be ‘trying to change the narrative’ to present itself as ‘the solution to coronavirus, not its cause’

The US used the virus as a reason to ramp up its own trade war, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling China ‘a danger to America and a threat to the free world’. Pressure on European countries to follow the US and Australia in banning the Chinese high-tech company Huawei intensified. Yet even countries with better developed health services, including Spain, Britain and the United States, urgently sourced PPE and ventilators from China. It seemed that only China had the industrial capacity to increase production of such items at short notice. On another trading front, both China and India, major pharmaceutical providers, are competing to play a role in the mass production of an anti-coronavirus vaccine when scientists come up with a winning formula.
There are other reasons for analysts to watch closely how China recovers from the economic and reputational setback of COVID-19. A lobby in China’s ruling circles wanted to use the virus’s ‘distraction’ as an opportunity to seize Taiwan, the autonomous Chinese nation that China claims as part of – and wants to reunite with – the People’s Republic. There was a moment in April when war-mongering reached a crescendo and the US, as guarantor of Taiwan’s independence, sent military aircraft over the South China Sea as a warning to China not to turn aggressive.
Meanwhile China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, tightened the laws against protest in Hong Kong, a move seen by some in Hong Kong as taking advantage of the world’s preoccupation with measures to control the pandemic.
With all this production effort on China’s part, it is easy to get the impression that the country has been less affected economically by the virus than many others. That may be true in that it has been spending less heavily than richer nations on unemployment and other benefit schemes to assist companies and individuals losing out as a result of the pandemic.
Still, GDP, the main measure of economic activity, fell in China by 7 per cent during the first quarter of 2020. But it had already recovered by April following government pressure on manufacturers to resume production. China, the world’s second largest economy, appears already to have surpassed its target of doubling GDP from around 6 trillion US dollars in 2010 by the end of this year. Whether it closes the economic gap on the US, whose economy is half as large again as China’s, will become clear in due course.
Nicholas Nugent, a former BBC correspondent, writes on Asian politics, diplomacy and trade
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