Last updated April 30, 2020
As Italy struggled with its skyrocketing coronavirus cases in March, the Chinese embassy in Rome tweeted two drawings, one showing Italy helping China after an earthquake, another showing China helping Italy, saying “You may have forgotten, but we will remember forever. Now it’s up to us to help you.”
An airplane arrived from China with masks and ventilators bearing “Forza Italia” stickers with small Chinese and Italian flags – while similar planes with medical supplies landed in the Czech Republic, Spain, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Iran, and Iraq. In Ethiopia, the Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundations donated of over 1.5 million laboratory diagnostic test kits for coronavirus intended for African Union countries.
While medical supplies were urgently needed, political observers on the right and the left reacted with concern that China is stepping into a global leadership role that the United States has traditionally played when we are focused on combating the virus at home.
Eurasia Group updated its top risks for 2020: having highlighted the risk of technological and economic decoupling between the United States and China, they warned that “the coronavirus has dramatically accelerated and extended this trend to the manufacturing and services sectors.”
Too Soon? The success of China’s humanitarian COVID-19 efforts has been called into question, as Chinese medical equipment sent to the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Spain and Turkey turned out to be defective. Airplanes sent from Canada to pick up medical supplies were forced to return home empty. China’s messages of solidarity have also been counter-balanced by increasing signs that China has launched a covert campaign of disinformation about the pandemic.
The real impact on China’s global influence may come from the economic impact of actions taken to prevent the spread of the disease – especially the shutdown of economies in other countries around the world that are critical to China’s economic recovery and to its global influence.
2020 was the year that Chinese leadership planned to celebrate the doubling of its economy over a single decade, but as Yukon Huang at the Carnegie Endowment noted, the coronavirus has “obliterated those forecasts.”
Not only have Chinese supply chains been disrupted and will likely be slow to recover, Huang argued that China’s economic growth depends on the West and will require an unlikely revival of U.S. and European demand when their economies are reeling.
The coronavirus has also “all but halted the Belt and Road Initiative in its tracks,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations, because its projects often rely on Chinese rather than local materials and supplies. Chinese workers can no longer travel to overseas projects, and factories are cut off from the Chinese imports they need to keep running.
While this may be temporary, an even greater impact from coronavirus could still be ahead. As Masood Ahmed wrote, “It is now only a question of when, not if, the COVID-19 pandemic will exact its human and economic toll on the poor and developing countries of South Asia, Africa, and Latin America,” including many countries that participate in Belt and Road projects.
Although the number of reported coronavirus cases may be low, the global pattern suggests this may be the result of a lack of testing, and the next phase of the epidemic is likely to hit the developing world even harder because of weaker health systems.
Written by John Glenn