(Sharma is an Associate Professor at Leshan Normal University, and Senior Research Fellow at Center for Trans-Himalaya Studies. Khatri is a graduate from Peking, University, Beijing)
China’s lead in global engagement for combating the COVID-19 has demonstrated that the world may become more dependent on China than China on the world
While hundreds of millions of people are put under strict quarantine measures across the world, China, which was the epicenter of the initial outbreak, is gradually lifting inter-cities travel bans and revamping mobility in the streets. The “Chinese model” of applying strict measures to contain virus spread, which was initially deemed unpopular, is now being implemented across democracies like the United States, India, or even Nepal with strict enforcement.
China’s influence has far-fetched beyond replicating its measures, as it aims to supply essential medical supplies and its health workers to pandemic-struck countries. In sharp contrast, the United States has poorly positioned itself towards the response to the pandemic and thus amplifying China’s robust engagement overseas. It will take some time before the COVID-19 pandemic can be eradicated. Until then it is clear that China’s influence will proliferate across the globe with more influence than ever before.
While China is trying to revive its economic activities, its trade and growth will depend heavily on external factors, for instance, the spread of viruses globally or the reduction in foreign demand for production. China is a consumption-driven economy and domestic consumption contributed to around 57 percent of overall GDP in 2019. With an estimated 53 million people still being kept out of offices and factories and a significant drop in consumption from 51 percent in January to 27 percent in February one of the main engines of global growth was running at its half speed.
According to Yukon Wang from Carnegie Endowment, sustainably reviving the Chinese economy would require unlikely demand from the United States or Europe, but given the Western nations are facing epidemic crises, it is clear that China would need to boost its domestic consumption to the pre-crisis level. However, despite the concern over the economy, China’s lead in global engagement for combating the COVID-19 has demonstrated that the world may become more dependent on China than China in the world.
A global pandemic has played a role in the disruption of social order. Historically, nothing has killed more human beings than the pandemic—not even wars and violence. In this era of increasing regional integration, unfortunately, the COVID-19 has demonstrated a lack of uniformity among regional groupings in responding to the crisis. The lackluster response from countries like the United States and the EU has allowed China to exercise its soft power that can contribute to its significant rise in years to come.
The United States and China are already competing for superiority. Many in Washington are concerned they might be losing to China as it has heavily invested in technology and acquiring data amidst the virus. Geo-politically, the narrative on naming viruses to the place of origin placed a paramount impact on China’s image which it now seeks to reinvigorate. It will seize the opportunity to turn the table of being a global leader in combating the virus, after its initial criticism of mishandling the outbreak.
For China, getting heavily scrutinized for some of its foreign policy initiatives has not been a new phenomenon. Its signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) had previously been under debate on its efficiency in ensuring debt sustainability and impact on under-developed countries. Adding to the current global pandemic, it is evident that for China, transparency on its actions will be a critical factor in efficiently operating activities like BRI or crisis management. In this regard, President Xi Jinping has recognized the challenges for China and called the outbreak “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance”.
Following the challenges and importance of its lead-in global governance, President Xi in conversation with Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte raised the notion of working with Italy to build a “Health Silk Road.” Since then, China has been supporting many countries as per the spirit of the “Health Silk Road” which included providing health equipment, masks, health workers, and drugs, and so on. Going by the notion of the original Silk Road Initiative, it aims to supply essential medical supplies while maintaining its status as a responsible power.
As professor Liu Jirong of Leshan Normal University says “this is a good opportunity for China to enhance international solidarity.” President Xi has taken such instance at the recent G20 summit, where he proposed creating a collective response of control and treatment, helping international organizations in playing active roles, and strengthening macroeconomic policy coordination.
Such areas of cooperation include opening up access to an online COVID-19 knowledge center and launching the G20 COVID-19 assistance initiative, jointly ensuring stability of global industrial and supply chain and convening a high-level meeting on global public health security. Chinese efforts demonstrate cause for international cooperation and solidarity.
Due to the nature of today's fast-paced globalization, cooperation between global powers and institutions is inevitable. In such sense, analyst Neal Kimberley writes, “the USSR and the US once worked together to develop a polio vaccine. Today, the US is more intent on killing off Chinese competition than working with China to avert economic depression.”
The Health Silk Road initiative will support China to promote international cooperation, restore its soft power image, and reboot the domestic and global economy. It is a critical factor to promote global peace and development and wiping out room for xenophobia. Global powers like the US and Europe should acknowledge and promote joint solidarity and mutual cooperation. For China, it is an opportunity to leverage its advantage in providing essential supplies to promote global health and mutual cooperation.