In response to the global outbreak of COVID-19, China moved quickly to produce and export PPE, ventilators, and medical supplies around the world. Throughout 2021, they partnered with developing economies to improve vaccine manufacturing capacity and utilized vaccine diplomacy to extend their influence.
However, the United States has far outpaced China in global health leadership. While China has played a significant role in global pandemic response, the U.S. has donated the most vaccines for worldwide distribution. The U.S. alone accounts for 40 percent of total vaccine doses committed for donation.
China’s “Vaccine Diplomacy”
Not only has China fallen behind the U.S. in the quantity of vaccines delivered, but they’ve also been scrutinized for the quality of their vaccines. Two doses of Chinese vaccines, which are produced by Sinopharm and Sinovac, may provide relatively lower protection against Omicron than those produced using mRNA technology.
China’s vaccine donations have also been directly linked to foreign policy interests, rather than the recipient country’s medical needs. Aid has often come with strings attached, such as requesting recipient countries provide public displays of gratitude.
Some have questioned the effectiveness of China’s vaccine diplomacy, but the real impact of the pandemic on China’s global influence may be the economic impact of actions taken to prevent the spread of the virus.
China’s Economy in Response to the Pandemic
China’s strict virus containment measures coupled with the shutdown of economies in countries critical to China’s economic recovery led to major limitations on their growth.
In 2021, as the rest of the world began loosening their COVID restrictions and restarting their economies, countries clamored for China’s goods. Exports surged to a record high, and China expanded growth by 8.1%.
Economic Risks on the Horizon for 2022
However, new risks to the Chinese economy, notably the Omicron variant, could spell trouble for China’s economy in 2022. Small surges in infections prompted stringent lockdowns in the country’s largest industrial cities, grinding supply chains to a halt. Added concerns over debt and a real estate bust point to a slowdown in China’s rapid recovery.
Weakened Chinese production poses a major setback for businesses hoping to unclog supply chain bottlenecks that have plagued the global economic recovery.
A Roadblock to the Belt and Road Initiative
With the world shut down and nations shut off from each other, the coronavirus initially “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.
The greatest impact on the Belt and Road Initiative may have been the result of restrictions on travel and the movement of goods, although others have highlighted the economic impact on countries that have signed on to the Initiative. Many countries announced they were postponing, cancelling or reviewing Chinese-funded projects, including Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Tanzania.
Belt and Road Initiative Reframed
Amid speculation that COVID-19 might be the “the nail in the coffin for the BRI,” the pandemic created opportunities for China to reconsider and refocus the initiative on public health, green technology, and digital services.
In October 2021, the Second Belt and Road Initiative was announced, with renewable energy at the focal point of China’s future infrastructure projects across Eurasia.
The pandemic also allowed Beijing to advance their “Health Silk Road” in the Middle East and North Africa, using mask and vaccine diplomacy to generate commercial gains and market access for Chinese firms along the BRI.
China’s economic stability and growth through the pandemic cemented its status as a global economic cornerstone with much of the world relying on China’s products for their own economic recoveries. However, as it faces waning momentum to its own domestic economy and its Belt and Road Initiative, the rest of the world must consider whether China can be relied upon as a key engine of growth and supply.
Last updated April 2022