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China Casts Itself as Global Savior While U.S. and EU Focus on Virus at Home

As Western countries battle with their own domestic epidemic, a newly stabilized China seizes a chance to portray itself as the emerging superpower. Will it work?

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Japan.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was emotional as he gave a press conference on the global coronavirus pandemic this week, bluntly naming which countries Serbia could count on for support—and which ones it couldn’t. At the top of the list wasn’t any European country, despite Serbia’s long-standing goal to join the European Union, but China, the country where the new coronavirus originated.

“By now you all understand that great international solidarity does not exist. European solidarity does not exist,” Vucic said. “It was a fairy tale on paper. Today I sent a special letter,” he paused briefly and swallowed audibly, “to the only ones who can help, and that is China.” He then said he had asked Chinese President Xi Jinping “not only as a dear friend, but as a brother” to provide Serbia sorely needed medical supplies denied by the EU. 

Vucic’s words amounted to a stinging rebuke of how the European Union has handled its response to the coronavirus outside its borders. But it also served as a warning sign to Western leaders that China is on the soft power offensive, scrambling to refurbish its image after botching the initial coronavirus response. 

The Chinese government’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak that began in the city of Wuhan—initially trying to cover it up, including detaining doctors who raised early alarm bells—helped lead to the global spread of the pandemic. But now, as cases within its own borders begin to ebb, Beijing is shipping sorely needed medical supplies and doctors worldwide, including to Italy and Iran, two of the countries hit hardest by the virus outside of China. 

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

That has led to a combination of praise, mistrust, and criticism from top Western officials and experts who see China’s pandemic response as reflective of its growing global clout, especially in the face of what critics characterize as stumbling responses by the EU and United States. 

“I commend them for sending supplies to Italy and Iran and impacted areas. … I think that’s a humanitarian effort, but they don’t do anything without the propaganda component,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Foreign Policy in an interview.

“Remember, they covered this up for about two months where they could’ve been containing it better, and now the world is at risk,” he said. “I do think they need to be held accountable and responsible.”

The Chinese government is trying to “establish itself as a global hero that saved many people both in and outside China,” Lee Seong-hyon, the director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, told Foreign Policy. “China’s coming out strong with its PR, sensing, correctly, that this global epidemic is also a great opportunity to burnish China’s soft power credentials with Europe and [others]. On the other hand, America is not investing enough resources to help its traditional allies and friends, and not investing enough in this narrative war.” 

“China is very good at grasping any opportunity to move forward and showing they’re doing the right thing when other countries are distracted,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.

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U.S. officials have sought to keep the spotlight on China’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak as the root cause of the global pandemic—and rebuking Beijing for launching a campaign of misinformation and booting out U.S. journalists from the country. “The Chinese Communist Party didn’t get it right and put countless lives at risk as a result of that,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News in an interview.

After scrambling to contain the outbreak within its own borders for months, China is now beginning to focus outside its own borders. “China is able to put its head back up and look around the world and find these opportunities to give support,” said John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“So, it looks like China’s out there helping the world, whereas the United States is in ‘America First’ mode,” he added.

Besides Serbia, Italy, the nation currently hardest-hit besides China, has seen Chinese gear and experts arrive. Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, has sent test kits and masks to both the United States and African countries.

The narrative war started on Twitter when Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, tried to blame the U.S. military for bringing the virus to Wuhan, a myth that is in stark contrast to the generally accepted story of the virus originating in one of the city’s many wet markets, which sell meat and live animals. This all came in response to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of the controversial phrase “Wuhan virus” to describe the novel coronavirus.

The two sides continue to level accusations at each other. “This is a time where we need a lot more international cooperation, and it is good that China is sharing their expertise. That’s actually the travesty of this narrative war, because it can impede the kind of real cooperation that desperately needs to occur,” Delury said

The U.S. response has exacerbated relations with Europe, already under strain for years under Trump, said Rachel Rizzo, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. 

Trump blindsided his counterparts across the Atlantic when he announced travel restrictions to Europe on March 12. Several current and former officials familiar with the matter say European ambassadors in Washington were given no advance warning of the announcement. It came as the Trump administration quietly tried to acquire a German company developing a vaccine to the virus for exclusive U.S. access, angering European officials. 

“Trust in the U.S. has waned even further in the last couple of weeks, especially after the announcement of the travel restrictions that took European leaders by surprise,” Rizzo said.

Still, no matter how many medical supplies Beijing sends abroad or how much it touts international cooperation, it can’t shake off the blame that it botched the initial handling of the virus, contributing to its global spread. Any goodwill the Chinese have bought “is temporary,” said Rizzo. 

“I think no matter how much China tries to help Europe, or anyone else for that matter, there will be a sense of resentment and anger,” Rizzo said. “I think this will reverberate and could have broad implications for the relationship between China and Europe going forward.”

Some European nations might be more welcoming, though. Serbia has already pivoted toward China for a while now, and Belgrade’s streets are filled with facial recognition cameras created by the Chinese tech giant Huawei.

Cabestan, the Hong Kong Baptist University professor, also said Italy has stood apart from other EU members by embracing China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and that Spain is standing in line to receive Chinese supplies and expertise when the epidemic there reaches a critical mass.

“Sending a team of experts to Italy might get China some new friends. Spain is on the waiting list, so some Southern Europe countries might be more friendly to China. But they are not going to convince Brussels or London,” he said from his office in Hong Kong.

Cabestan is also concerned about Beijing’s ulterior motives for sending experts to Europe. “There’s another thing that shouldn’t be overlooked, the fact that China is in a battle for putting together a vaccine or a drug to treat COVID, and that’s one of the reasons for sending teams outside of China, to see how the virus has evolved, to gather data,” he said.

Morten Soendergaard Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about geopolitics.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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