The rapid global spread of the COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

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.

  • Walter Russell Mead at the Hudson Institute warned, “Aid donations plus propaganda about the supposed superiority of China’s governance model will find sympathetic ears in many countries, especially if the U.S. and its allies are AWOL.”
  • Ely Ratner, former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, cautioned, “I worry now we’re at risk of another decisive moment for U.S.-China competition.”

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.”

  • • China’s economy contracted by 6.8% in the first quarter of 2020, the first time since it began publishing economic growth records in 1992.

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.

  • Work has stopped along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and projects across Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Malaysia are stuck in holding patterns.

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.

  • Countries like Nigeria or Myanmar, CFR reports, may be less able to put in place the widespread testing, quarantining, and extensive social distancing that contained the disease in China, South Korea, and Singapore.
  • They are also likely to experience their own economic impacts from the pandemic that may constrain their ability to service Belt and Road related debt later.

Written by John Glenn

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