By Austin Peters.
The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of The Carter Center or its associates.
The protracted COVID-19 crisis has exposed and magnified the hidden rifts in the U.S.-China relationship, accelerating subtle shifts in cross-border brinkmanship that could redraw the contours of Chinese political influence and shift the broader balance of power. Throughout the pandemic, an increasingly assertive China has capitalized on the pandemic to advance its economic, political, and cultural influence beyond its borders while Western nations remain distracted by the pandemic’s carnage within their own. To this effect, Beijing has deployed two notable soft-power strategies, mask diplomacy and “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, to varying degrees of success.
As gold, silver, and ivory once served as currency to curry favor through economic exchange and gifts, personal protective equipment (PPE) is now a valuable source of soft power. As the U.S. is engrossed by its domestic battle with COVID-19, China has seized the opportunity to strengthen its global image by donating and exporting PPE to other countries, known as ‘mask diplomacy,’ and by carefully dictating its diplomatic narrative around the pandemic. ‘Mask diplomacy’ has been used to describe the provision of Chinese aid and exports of PPE, ventilators, and other COVID-19 related medical products.
Given that China was the first country to encounter the virus, but also one of the first countries to contain it, China was uniquely positioned to manufacture PPE for other countries as their infection curves peaked. After the 2002 SARS outbreak, Chinese economic advisors identified the need to bolster domestic anti-viral supplies manufacturing. Thereafter, China began to dominate the global supply chains for PPE, even before demand exploded early this year. Although China’s PPE exports dropped approximately 15% early in 2020 as China addressed the domestic outbreak, the state-directed industrial complex is once again producing massive amounts of PPE for export. From March 1 through the end of May, China exported more than 70 billion masks, 300 million protective suits, and 95 thousand ventilators. Although the government was a core exporter and donor of PPE, prominent companies and individuals also donated PPE, notably Huawei and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma.
Countries around the globe received donations or Chinese exports of PPE. Italy initially served as an example of the languid European response, driven by euro-skeptic lawmakers. At the same time, the Chinese provided PPE to Italy as the country’s caseload exploded. Some of these supplies arrived on pallets with signs attached noting the PPE originated in China. Some sources have claimed that the Chinese PPE delivered to Italy was actually PPE initially donated by Europeans to China at the beginning of the outbreak. Some have speculated about China’s intentions in delivering such aid to other countries.
Responses to transnational crisis serve as a litmus test for diplomatic and organizational prowess on the global stage. Writing for The Diplomat, Brian Wong highlights a number of historical examples where catastrophe and foreign policy collide: the United States sponsored the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, Singapore provided medical supplies and expertise during the SARS epidemic, and the European Union effectively responded to the Ebola outbreak. Intentions behind these instances of international aid could be interpreted along a spectrum of altruistic giving for the global good to tactical attempts at foreign influence. The actual motive most likely lies somewhere in the area between these two extremes. Contextualizing China’s COVID-19 response, Wong writes that “China’s mask diplomacy is best understood as a rather successful emulation and adaptation of long-standing diplomatic best practices.”
However, China’s role as a global provider of PPE has raised red flags for national leaders, particularly in the West. Concerns arise from global reliance on Chinese manufacturing for essential medical supplies, political influence attached to Chinese aid, and China’s push to control the COVID-19 media narrative. According to the Peterson Institute on International Economics, Chinese PPE exports comprise roughly 50% of total PPE imports in the United States and the European Union, 27-29 percentage points higher than the purchases of Chinese exports for all other products. PPE is not only utilized for long-term soft power, but also for short-term tactical gains. Former Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma donated PPE to Ethiopia, as Africa represents a huge business opportunity. Additionally, Huawei donated PPE to Canada despite the fact that Meng Wanzhou, the CFO and daughter of Huawei’s founder, is detained in Canada. 5G infrastructure development in Canada also represents a massive business opportunity for Huawei.
As China uses its state-directed industrial machine to mass-produce PPE, it also uses its foreign affairs arm to control the narrative around COVID-19, downplaying its early failure to control the virus and highlighting its generosity in both knowledge and resources. Encapsulating this state of affairs, China Daily published with regards to the coronavirus outbreak that “During this global battle against the pandemic, there is relief called ‘Chinese measures,’ a style called ‘China’s responsibility,’ an attitude called ‘Chinese spirit,’ and a warmth called ‘Chinese aid.’”
As a result of PPE shortages and mask diplomacy, many countries have realized their dependence on China for important medical supplies and are considering options to mitigate risks to their citizens if supply chains are compromised. Aligning with the glboal tide of regionalism and nationalism, some countries have also encouraged business leaders to “repatriate” manufacturing that had been outsourced in the preceding decades. Economics are often overlooked in favor of politics. As China’s global manufacturing heft has grown, its tone in foreign affairs has evolved to reflect that newfound influence.
Wolf Warrior Diplomacy
In addition to mask diplomacy, Chinese “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, aptly named after a series of nationalistic Chinese military action movies, has dramatically changed the tone of Chinese foreign policy, particularly in the wake of COVID-19. After years of adherence to Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to conceal one’s strengths and bide one’s time (韬光养晦), Chinese diplomats are departing from this neutralist precedent.
This new style of diplomacy has manifested itself in loud rhetoric paired with aggressive responses to rhetoric or actions by foreign countries perceived as slights to China. When the Trump administration re-classified Chinese state-run media outlets as foreign entities, the Chinese responded by expelling many journalists across major American news outlets. Furthermore, when the Australian government called for an international inquiry into the origins on the novel coronavirus, the Chinese responded with punitive tariffs on its beef and barley. Chinese diplomats claim that the tariffs were anti-dumping measures, but the timing of the tariffs leaves China’s motives open to question.
According to Professor Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor in the government department at Cornell University, this more aggressive style of diplomacy cuts both ways. “Wolf Warrior diplomacy might appease Chinese nationalists at home, but it will limit China’s appeal abroad,” Chen Weiss wrote for Foreign Affairs. American policy towards China has encouraged this behavior due to increasingly bipartisan support of provocative measures targeting Chinese government or businesses, along with the upcoming 2020 elections which will likely inflame relations even further. Every time the U.S. president or other American governmental body attacks Chinese interests or reputation, the Chinese leadership begins the complex calculus of engineering a response that satisfies domestic constituencies and ensures its international interest. In certain cases, domestic nationalism and vociferous diplomats conflict with Beijing’s hopes to downplay or sidestep an escalation of tensions.
Chinese diplomacy has incorporated technology towards this effect. According to an investigative piece of journalism from Italian media outlet Formiche, online bots played a major role in sharing hashtags and content supported by the Chinese government during the pandemic. The report revealed that 46.3% of tweets that included the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia, which translates to “come on China and Italy,” were generated programmatically. This adds greater complexity to the debate over the credibility of social media content, blurring the line between information and propaganda.
Although China has trended towards a more vocal and aggressive foreign policy stance for many years, COVID-19 joins the growing list of sensitive subjects for Beijing. Recent displays of “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” often revolve around China’s narrative of COVID-19, especially China’s role. However, the strategy has alienated many and inflamed anti-Chinese sentiment across the globe.
Global Reception of post-COVID Chinese Diplomacy
Leaders in Beijing have achieved mixed results from their attempts to use COVID-19 to advance their geopolitical agenda. To some degree, the Chinese have filled an international leadership gap left decisively wider by Trump’s “America First” policies. Yet China’s recent audacity has exacerbated diplomatic distrust, defensiveness, and resentment. Post-World War II powers, such as the United States and United Kingdom, are just now realizing the ramifications of China’s rapid economic development and its effect on Beijing’s foreign policy. Michael Pillsbury, the director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute, described China’s rapid and unchallenged rise: “It’s easy to win a race when you’re the only one who knows it has begun.”
The European Commission’s outlook on China describes it simultaneously as a partner, competitor, and systemic rival. In the United States, a “tough on China” stance is one of the few Trump administration policies that resonates across the aisle. As Beijing seeks to expand its influence abroad, the United States has exited multilateral treaties, withdrawn future funding commitments from the World Health Organization, and embraced a parochial foreign policy to the detriment of its former international commitments. As Americans fumble with the simplest of public health measures such as mask-wearing, the Chinese government and business community employed masks to pursue their diplomatic and strategic ends.
Has this strategy worked? According to research by the PEW Research Center and the European Council on Foreign Relations, China’s response to the virus has polarized public perceptions of it, with a prominent unfavorable bias. In the United States, skepticism towards China has soared, hitting an all-time high since PEW began tracking this sentiment in 2005. Across Europe, 48% of respondents said their view of China had worsened since the outbreak of the pandemic, with Denmark and France holding the highest proportion of increasingly negative views.
In contrast, Italy is an outlier amongst the European dataset. 25% of Italians believe that China was their country’s greatest ally during the pandemic. This may be a result of China’s exports/donations, or it may be a product of China’s media blitz.
This anti-Chinese sentiment has extended beyond debate about geopolitics and into people’s personal lives. Incidents of violence against Asians at home and in the Asian diaspora have become more common. These incidents then become part of the Chinese propaganda feedback loop, reinforcing Chinese media outlets’ propensity to frame the prevailing conflict in terms of a bifurcated world order.
Looking Towards the Future
America’s national failure to contain the virus lends credence to the abilities and merit of a state-directed semi-capitalist system such as China’s. It also diminishes America’s ability to promote democracy and capitalism abroad, and echoes the Cold War, where the capitalists and communists fought to secure ideological footholds by turning developing nations such as Vietnam into ideological battlefields. In other words, the Americans not only let this crisis go to waste, but also allowed it to snowball into a catastrophe.
One wildcard still on the table is the 2020 election. Even though the “tough on China” stance is one of the few ideas that can rally support on from both parties, a Joe Biden presidency would drastically change the tone of American interaction with China. China appears to prefer working with a Biden administration, given that his administration would be far more predictable than the volatile Trump administration. However, it is possible that Chinese Wolf Warrior diplomacy is self-defeating because it advantages Trump’s re-election campaign.
Chinese diplomats have only reaffirmed Americans suspicions about China and reemphasized the prudence of Trump and Pence’s “tough on China” politics. The Biden campaign shied away from the China issue at the Democratic National Convention, mentioning China only once in Joe Biden’s presidential nomination acceptance speech, arguably the most important speech of his campaign thus far. On the other hand, Mike Pence, speaking on Fox & Friends the morning after Joe Biden’s speech, lambasted the presidential hopeful for overlooking “the economic and strategic challenge we face with China.” In the short-term, Beijing is likely to hold its ground and wait for the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. One can hope that the spirit of multilateral cooperation in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime crisis will overcome short-sighted nationalist squabbling, but it appears that both the US and China are committed to their current suboptimal strategies.
 Young China Watchers, Panel Discussion (June 20, 2020), Testing the World: Assessing China’s COVID-19 Diplomacy
 Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America As the Global Superpower
Austin Peters is a graduate of Indiana University and has studied Chinese for six years, including stints at Beijing Normal University and Nanjing University. He currently works for LAIBA Beverages, a growth-stage bottled cocktail company based in Shanghai, China. In January 2021, he will be joining the Strategy & Operations group at Deloitte Consulting.
The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of The Carter Center or its associates.