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Beijing is bolstering its soft power and taking the lead in a global response to the coronavirus public health crisis, CNBC reported

In the last few weeks, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been seeking leaders around the world and joining forces to coordinate global efforts to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Chinese health experts organized video conferences with representatives of other countries to exchange experiences.

“This is the first international crisis where China is actively taking a global leadership role and it stands in particular contrast to the US, which has disdained international cooperation and invested more political capital in criticizing China for its role in allowing the outbreak to spread,” said analysts from the Eurasia Group in a report this week.

On social and state media, China continues to promote its shipments of medical supplies to hard hit countries in Europe and Africa. 

Chinese officials also used Twitter - blocked in the country - to trumpet Beijing’s efforts. They praise China's success in containing the outbreak.

“I think this is the opportunity of the century for China to build trust in the world, which it has found so difficult to come by as a rising nation, and to rebuild its international image — China doesn’t (want to) waste an opportunity like this,” Keyu Jin, associate professor of economics at LSE.

However, the second largest economy in the world will not be able to fulfill its ambitions wisely, says the risk management consulting company Eurasia Group.

“Countries like the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey have found defects with masks and tests from China and this setback won’t be the last,” Eurasia analysts wrote.

Chinese diplomacy is intended not only for a global audience, but also for a domestic one.

Analysts said that emphasizing China’s leadership achieves two important political goals for Xi Jinping. 

“First, it buttresses his claim in the superiority of China’s governance model, an implicit pushback against some of the criticism that has come from within China about aggressive containment measures and silencing of early warnings about the outbreak,” they said. “Second, it taps into patriotic sentiment at home, rallying support for Beijing as Xi guides the economy through a painful year. Many of Xi’s conversations with foreign leaders have focused on keeping supply chains open and trade running as well as the delivery of aid.”

But such efforts also show China’s uncertainty and weakness, said Ryan Hass and Kevin Dong at the Brookings Institution. 

“They serve as reminders of China’s lethally botched initial response to the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan,” they wrote in a recent web post. “Recognising this reputational risk, Chinese propagandists are feverishly attempting to rewrite the COVID-19 narrative to place their leaders in a favourable light.”

This leads the two most powerful countries in the world to rhetorical warfare, emphasizing geopolitical rivalry and further tensions in the future.

News of Beijing’s generous help is also not always well received at home, as the crisis worsens income equality in China. “This will act as a constraint on the scale of Beijing’s aid, and also leads to a tendency to frame China’s assistance in ways that highlight the benefit to China. Chinese officials have openly said that one of their criteria for providing assistance is how those potential recipients have treated China in the past,” Eurasia Group said.

In particular, the EU “has long been wary of China’s efforts to build relationships with smaller European economics and countries considering EU membership and is paying close attention to China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ in Italy, Hungary, and Serbia,” added the Eurasia Group analysts.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has recently raised this issue in a blog post warning about the “battle of narratives” that has emerged in the public health crisis.

“China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner,” he wrote. 

“We must be aware there is a geo-political component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity,’” Borrell added.

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