You could call it “pandemic diplomacy.”
Barely a month from its peak COVID-19 infection rate and price gouging on medical gear at home, China and its proxies are now shipping such equipment abroad by the planeload.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on March 18 fielded an offer from Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang of millions of medical masks and testing kits, following earlier Chinese deliveries to help stem the pandemic in Italy, Poland, Spain, and the Netherlands.
An Ethiopian Airlines jet on March 22 disgorged the first of millions of sets of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing kits pledged to “each of the 54 African states” by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.
China even teamed up this week with California-based entrepreneur Elon Musk, who played down the deadly pathogen as it was spreading to all 50 U.S. states, to send the United States some 1,255 ventilators — essential equipment for critically ill COVID-19 patients.
Beijing appears to have stemmed the tide of reports that focused on China’s early secrecy and mismanagement of the mushrooming COVID-19 outbreak with an outpouring of masks, respirators, and other protective equipment, deployments of Chinese epidemiologists, and millions of coronavirus test kits.
“China is trying to turn its health crisis into a geopolitical opportunity,” the Financial Times quoted Chatham House research fellow Yu Jie as saying of the “soft power play.”
One of the clearest signs of Beijing’s aggressive campaign to shift the coronavirus narrative has come in the Western Balkans, where EU integration has flagged and China and Russia are vying for influence.
Chinese loans and investments in that region have grown, but the pandemic has threatened to undo some of the “integrated trade policies” that closely align Beijing’s lending, trade, and political goals.
In February, Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority region that makes up one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two entities, suspended all work on hundreds of millions of dollars in hospital, dam, and other joint projects with Chinese companies.
In neighboring Serbia, however, a conspicuously unmasked President Aleksandar Vucic rolled out the red carpet on March 21 when a team of six Chinese health experts arrived with a planeload of medical equipment.
Vucic greeted them on the tarmac in Belgrade and thanked China for its “free help” and its “friendship and love” for his country.
“Hundreds of thousands of lives in Serbia will be saved thanks to the help that just came to us,” said Vucic, who less than a month earlier predicted his country’s only COVID-19 problem might be “deliberate or accidental panic.”
“Serbia must not forget that [China helped it],” he added.
Vucic, whose country of nearly 7 million is an official candidate for EU accession, had stung Brussels on March 15 by saying that “European solidarity does not exist” except as “a fairy tale.”
In almost the next breath, he appealed to “my brother, my friend, [China’s Communist President] Xi Jinping” and China as “the only country that can help us now.”
After meeting with the visiting Chinese experts, Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin repeated Vucic’s description of an “iron-clad friendship,” adding, “With the help of the People’s Republic of China, their doctors, medical and technical assistance, we again have hope.”
U.S. President Donald Trump, who campaigned in part in 2016 on bashing Beijing’s treatment of the United States and has since engaged in a trade war with China, has repeatedly spoken about Beijing’s cover-up efforts as what he calls the “Chinese virus” spread.
Such U.S. statements appear aimed in part at countering another of Beijing’s PR tactics: a whisper campaign suggesting the coronavirus originated with the “U.S. Army.”
Washington has accused Beijing of “spreading conspiracy theories” and trying to “deflect criticism for its role in starting a global pandemic and not telling the world.”
In an article for Foreign Affairs on March 24, Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the COVID-19 outbreak “should have offered a perfect opportunity for China and the United States to rise above their differences and tackle a common threat together.”
Instead, Huang said, “their antagonism” in the face of COVID-19 “makes matters worse.”
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, Reuters, the Financial Times, AFP, and the South China Morning Post