Will COVID-19 grow China’s influence on the world stage?

Will COVID-19 grow China’s influence on the world stage?
Source: Andy Wong

China’s rise over recent decades has been both feared and welcomed.

Think pieces on whether China’s increased global prominence might lead to a resurgence of authoritarianism or the eradication of liberal norms on the international stage can be as found as easily as those arguing over whether Beijing’s “peaceful rise” will be a boon for global prosperity.

A sense of ambivalence may be at the heart of many of these opinions.

Much of the West has lamented China’s one-party communist state as the antithesis of what open, free societies around the globe should emulate and arguments persist over whether the country’s economic and technological prowess could be a model for developing nations.

Although China is consistently ranked among the worst countries in the world in regards to all kinds of human freedoms – be they freedom of religion, freedom of the Internet, human rights,  personal expression and access to information – the country has also taken immense strides economically and has lifted 850 million people out of poverty in recent decades.

With the economic and political fallout caused by the coronavirus set to be a force on both a national and international level in the coming months, if not years, the virus’ impact on the dominant powers in both the East and the West is likely to leave an enduring mark.

With so much unknown in regards to the future of the virus, it’s nearly impossible to fully gauge the impact it will have when all is said and done, leaving a whole series of questions yet to be answered.

Which country will gain access to the world’s first coronavirus vaccine? What effect will the virus have on the United States presidential election? Will there be a second wave of infections?

Superpower disagreements

In the wake of COVID-19, China and the US have sparred over issues ranging from how the virus originated, what the actual number of cases within each country are and which, if either, country has taken the adequate steps in the face of the pandemic.

Over the past several months, Trump has publicly questioned whether Beijing purposely hid the true impact of the virus within its borders, claimed that China downplayed the threat when it first emerged and suggested that the virus could have leaked from a Chinese lab.

According to the World Health Organization and the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, an agency of the US Department of Health, there is no evidence that the virus leaked from a lab.

China’s Foreign Ministry released a point-by-point rebuttal in response to assertions by the Trump administration which it has called inaccurate.

Examples of US allegations addressed in the piece include the claim that the true origin of the virus is still being investigated by Chinese scientists. China replied by stating that government officials “provided timely information to the world in an open, transparent and responsible manner” and that any delay in public response was due to the need to “take time to study and understand” what was happening.

According to the Associated Press, Chinese officials took six days to publicly warn the country of a likely pandemic.

While partisans on both sides of the debate claim to have the facts on their side, analysts argue that both countries are losing credibility on the global stage amid the fighting.

According to James Green, a former US government official who currently hosts Georgetown University’s “U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast,” both countries need to focus on what matters during an outbreak, namely, working together to see that it’s brought to an end.

“Policymakers should not let geostrategic competition and the shifting international landscape cloud their thinking,” argued Green. “Now is the time to focus on what’s necessary to protect lives and restart the economy—not on dangerous distractions,” he added.

China’s economic sway

China’s international influence has drastically increased in recent decades.

In addition to becoming a global economic powerhouse, China has made moves to expand its economic presence in emerging markets via a policy known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Since 2013, BRI has brought Chinese investment projects to over 60 countries, mostly by way of large-scale infrastructure projects. By 2027, economists at Morgan Stanley predict that these investments could total over US$1 trillion.

While many developing countries stand to benefit from new infrastructure and the subsequent economic growth it would bring, observers warn that China’s investments could drastically increase the country’s global sway, both geo-politically and financially.

According to Italian economist Michele Geraci, the former Italian undersecretary of state in Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development, COVID-19 could have a positive effect on China’s BRI outreach.

“The type of industries that are involved in the Belt and Road, such as infrastructure, trains and roads, port development, are not things done indoors like small companies or service industries. So social distancing is easily achieved," he argued.

Geraci further believes that opening rifts with China economically would not be smart policy after the pandemic.

“China supplies a lot of goods for European and American companies. If there were to be a breakdown of the economic relationship between the US, for example, and China, it would be US companies that suffer most," he said.

The COVID-19 wild card

The fluidity of the coronavirus crisis gives weight to the idea that the global order could be affected by the virus in the long run.

China may get a vaccine first and distribute it to the rest of the world, thereby increasing international perceptions that China has taken over the global leadership mantle from the US.

There are also an assortment of political concerns surrounding the virus, especially in the US. If a viable treatment is found before the US presidential election, it could assuage economic uncertainty and impact American voters’ views of how Trump has handled the virus.

For Stewart Patrick, a foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, much of what happens may depend on what the US does.

“The game [of international influence] is afoot, now as much as ever,” Patrick says. “Decades ago, after World War II, the United States wrote the rules to the game. Today, it whines from the sidelines. To compete once more—to say nothing of winning—the country needs to get back on the field, round up like minded teammates, and play hardball.”

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In this article, “Will COVID-19 grow China’s influence on the world stage?” published on Tuesday May 25, it was inaccurately stated that China had lifted “billions” out of poverty in recent decades. The figure is approximately 850 million.