China in the post COVID-19 Times: External Challenges

The World Bank released a report titled “Global Economic Prospects” last month which notes that the global economy is in its deepest recession since Second World War due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the short term, according to the report, global economic outlook is bleak and nearly all major economies are expected to record negative growth. As far as China is concerned, the report observes that it will see the “lowest growth rate in more than four decades…decelerate sharply, from 6.1 percent in 2019 to 1 percent in 2020” but can be expected to “rebound in 2021, reaching 6.9 percent, partly reflecting a projected recovery in global demand. ”After nearly two quarters of 2020, China is the first major economy to recover from the pandemic recording 3.2 per cent growth in the second quarter of 2020” with predictions that China’s “growth could rebound to around 5 per cent on year in the second half [of 2020].”

Surely, these are good signs of recovery and China appears to have escaped recession; but the COVID-19 pandemic has hit China in numerous ways and dented its reputation as an emerging global power. It faces external challenges that span a wide spectrum of issues such as its credibility, poor diplomacy and weak public relations, and mistrust particularly among the ASEAN countries.

First, China’s credibility has nosedived to its lowest on account of non-sharing of details of the origins of the Corona virus. It is well known that the virus originated in Wuhan, China in December 2019, but this information has with held and made public only in January 2020. During this time, China allowed international travel in and out of Wuhan which became the sources of the pandemic in Europe and later into the US.

China is also accused of misleading and influencing the World Health Organisation (WHO) which undermined the organisation integrity and the US announced its decision to withdraw from its membership. Also, Washington did not hesitate to openly blame China for the Corona virus disease and asked it to own up to the lapses at the Wuhan laboratory. This prompted President Donald Trump’s tweet characterizing the Corona virus as the “Chinese virus” and in return he received a rebuke from Beijing warning him against “stigmatisation of China.”

China’s mishandling of the pandemic has led to several lawsuits filed in US courts against the Chinese government. States and individuals want to label the pandemic as a crime against humanity, have sought reparations from the Chinese government for its supposed culpability in socio-economic losses, and impressed upon the US government to impose COVID-19 related sanctions.

Second, the pandemic also witnessed aggressive posturing by Chinese diplomats who attracted an unpleasant label called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. This battle was played out on social media using Twitter to glorify Chinese initiatives to contain the epidemic at home, showcase the medical aid it provided to the needy countries, both rich and poor, and at the same time silence the US criticism of China’s handling of the pandemic and its global spread. As many as 115 Twitter accounts belonging to Chinese diplomats, embassies and consulates have been identified to engage in “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy and these were ramped up by Chinese state-run media outlets.

Closely associated is the issue of Chinese ‘mask diplomacy’. China offered material (medical aid, equipment, and supplies) and human-technical support (doctors) to many countries particularly EU member states. The framing of its support through slogans such as “rise to the challenges of global leadership” and “provide relief to siblings and friends” invited reproach after the quality of the materials were found sub-standard for which many countries had paid huge sums to acquire these from Chinese factory outlets.

Third, the ‘Wolf Diplomacy” has quickly spilled into the geopolitical domain and was catalytic in further accentuating the ongoing US-China tensions over trade, involvement of Huawei and ZTE technology giants in stealing US technology for China and several other contentious issues between the two sides. The Huawei issue has crossed over into Europe and the British government characterizedthe company as a “high-risk vendor” and decided an “irreversible path” of eliminating companies such as Huawei in British 5G infrastructure. Although the EU Member states are still deliberating and are yet to make up their mind to ban Huawei, the US has dispatched its national security adviser for talks with his counterparts in France, Germany, Italy and Britain, among other issues, the 5G network.

Fourth, COVID-19 has sharpened geostrategic friction between the US and China which have unfolded in to military tensions. This is a perfect recipe for South China Sea turning into flashpoint. In the absence of any crisis management mechanisms, a potential military conflict between China and the United States is highly possible. A Chinese expert at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Hainan Island dismissed any hope of “decoupling” between the two powers, and cautioned that if the present trends in hostility continue, then the “South China Sea issue could become the tipping point that leads to a [military] clash.” Furthermore, if China gets involved in a maritime clash with any of the rival claimants, the US will see it as an “excuse to step in, and that could trigger a direct military conflict between China and the US”; however, “as long as the rival claimants can exercise restraint and don’t take sides between China and the US” the risk of conflict can be controlled.

Fifth, China’s ambivalence and delay tactics over finalizing a mutually acceptable Code of Conduct for South China Sea has eroded all the trust it had accrued from ASEAN Member States through economic engagement and building infrastructure under the Belt Road Initiative. There is now widespread disappointment and anger in Southeast Asia over Chinese aggressive posturing in South China Sea which has now spilled on land. In a recent incident, Indonesian students demonstrated against the arrival of Chinese workers on the island of Sulawesi.

Finally, the external challenges to China in the post-COVID-19 period stemmed from China's long-standing behavior. If China does not change its approach in foreign relations, fails to show its responsibility and effectiveness in dealing with international and regional issues, its reputation will be increasingly reduced and witness a free fall.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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