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 7, 2021

“Mask” or “Vaccine Diplomacy.” As countries around the world began to vaccinate their citizens, China has been quick to share their vaccines with poorer countries – while the United States and other wealthy countries that purchased the vast majority of vaccine supplies said they would use them for their own citizens first (although President Biden and allies in Asia recently announced plans to donate 1 billion vaccine doses in the region by 2023).

  • As of April 2, China had produced nearly 250 million vaccine doses, sending nearly half of them — 118 million — to 49 countries around the world.

China also joined COVAX, the global initiative to ensure an equitable distribution of a vaccine, last October before the United States did (although the United States has since become its largest contributor). President Xi said, “We will fulfill our commitments, offer help and support to other developing countries, and work hard to make vaccines a public good that citizens of all countries can use and can afford.”

  • Egypt ordered millions of vaccine doses from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V program, but the first to arrive in January were from China.

Walter Russell Mead at the Hudson Institute warned at the outbreak of the pandemic, “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.”

  • When Italy was struggling with skyrocketing coronavirus cases, 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.”

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 – 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 “obliterated those forecasts.” Yet China was the only major economy to grow in 2020, even if at its slowest annual rate since 1976 with even faster rates in 2021 and 2022.

  • While China’s economy contracted in the first quarter of 2020 for the first time since 1992, its economy recovered to grow 2.3% by the end of the year and is projected to grow 8% in 2021.

Initially, the coronavirus “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.

  • In June 2020, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimated that 50-60 percent of its projects under the Belt and Road Initiative had been either “seriously” or “somewhat affected” by the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

  • CFR reports that countries like Nigeria or Myanmar that are part of Belt and Road are likely to experience their own economic impacts from the pandemic that may constrain their ability to service Belt and Road related debt later.

While speculated that COVID-19 might be the “the nail in the coffin for the BRI,” the Chinese have said the pandemic has created opportunities to reconsider and refocus the initiative on public health, green technology, and digital services.

This has led to musings about a potential “Health Silk Road” that would enable China to lead the world in vaccine production and distribution, as well as a Digital Silk Road, and Green Silk Road that might be even more attractive to partner countries in a post-pandemic world.

Compiled by John Glenn

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