The COVID-19 outbreak has taken the world by storm, leading to a near-total standstill in international trade, travel, and global political interactions. Since early March, the epicenter of the outbreak has rapidly and conspicuously shifted from China – which alleges that it has attained control over the outbreak domestically – to Europe. A majority of countries in the top 10 (in number of cases), as of the date of writing, are in Europe, as opposed to Asia. With over 60,000 cases, Italy has now overtaken China in the total number of deaths; Spain, Germany, and France trail closely behind.
In response, China has been offering aid to European partners. More than 10 flights containing millions of masks will be heading to the Czech Republic this week; Chinese leader Xi Jinping has pledged medical supplies and resources for countries ranging from Serbia – whose president called Xi his “brother and friend” – to Italy. China’s wealthiest man, Jack Ma, promised 2 million masks to be distributed across European countries, including Spain, Italy, Belgium, and France. Even China’s much-maligned flagship tech company, Huawei, has offered to donate significant volumes of personal protection equipment to Ireland.
Among the ongoing outbreak’s many repercussions have been a massive realignment and a series of prominent shocks to international relations. Yet China’s foreign policy has been distinctly intriguing – particularly in relation to its pursuit of mask diplomacy, a term that can be employed to describe its particular style of soft (e.g. cultural, symbolic, and discursive) and sharp (e.g. dispatched medical delegations, scientific research teams) power projection within Europe. Its deployment of a healthy combination of medical supplies – like face masks and sanitizers – and financial aid has enabled Beijing to strike the strategic bliss point of currying the favors and winning hearts and minds of one-half of a divided Europe, while politically sidelining the other half. It is perhaps unsurprising that the former group generally constitutes countries that have struggled to gain from the European Union under a “dual-track” Europe, whereas the latter largely features traditional powerhouse states – such as the dominant Germany and France, as well as post-Brexit Britain.
What are the core features of China’s mask diplomacy?
First, this mode of diplomacy is marked by a great emphasis on the distribution and supply of contextually important resources (e.g. medical aid, equipment, and supplies) as a means of securing mass and elite buy-in. Mass donation of masks and supplies to ailing hospitals and local charities are pivotal in rehabilitating China’s historically maligned and recently ignominious image in particular areas. For example, while tensions are rising in Italy over China’s Belt and Road Initiative (particularly in relation to its potential displacement of the north as Italy’s economic lynchpin), China’s provision of much-needed support, even as Europe collectively fails to rally around one of its largest economies, could be pivotal in winning the hearts and minds of many traumatized Italians. Furthermore, China’s provision of financial aid and securing of relatively stable medical supply lines show the advantages of central governmental planning. The West can dismiss such actions as “political manipulation,” but through tactical delivery of instrumental support China is able to court the favor of skeptics while consolidating the credibility and presence of pro-China factions within European nation-states.
More symbolically and academically, perhaps, China’s particular framing of its actions as synonymous with its attempts to “rise to the challenges of global leadership” and “provide relief to siblings and friends” contrasts sharply against the European Union’s delayed, inert bureaucratism and the United States’ repeated gaffes signifying its isolationism. The optics of seemingly buying out a German company to provide exclusive research to Americans does not aid the United States in winning friends as a general PR tactic. In general, Beijing’s self-framing as the pragmatic, action-driven counterpart has been crucial in establishing alliance with China as a viable alternative to the seemingly lackluster membership benefits of the European Union.
In stark juxtaposition, countries that have rebuked China’s offers have been deliberately left out of China’s political imaginary. Xi Jinping did not call the leaders of France, Germany, Serbia, and Spain out of benign good will. While Xi acknowledged France and Germany, given their strategic prominence and hegemonic positions within the EU, he tactically opted to engage Spain and Serbia – the former as an economically and medically ailing nation within the EU, and the latter as a country outside the EU, which has continually remained on the periphery of the pan-European association. China’s relatively cold treatment of states that have historically maintained distance from it reflects the overarching political fiction that has guided Chinese foreign affairs for decades – qinshu youbie, make sure to distinguish between friend and foe. The symbolic show of force doubles as a warning not only to those who rebuke China’s offerings, but also to those who have persistently sought to isolate the country – only to now find themselves on the receiving end of the stick.
China takes very seriously the securing of domestic and popular support among targeted entry points in Europe. From opening up more regions to Chinese investment to expanding China’s ideological and political mega-projects; from transforming Europe into an environment more amenable to Chinese tech conglomerates (although perhaps not Huawei specifically) to forging a significant geopolitical “buffer zone” between the receding transatlantic alliance and Russia — these are objectives that require a substantial volume of backing or tacit endorsement from European civil society.
The second feature of China’s mask diplomacy is its emphasis upon establishing long-term dependence relations and patronage networks. As a part of the country’s “Go Out Strategy,” China has come under significant criticisms for its alleged “debt trap diplomacy.” The argument goes that China deliberately lures countries into its international projects and loans with seemingly lucrative, short-term returns, but in fact entraps these states in persistent and sovereignty-constricting loan arrangements. As pointed out by sinologists and writers – chiefly Parag Khanna – this conception of Chinese diplomacy is both empirically flawed and interpretively naïve. I suggest here that the real “debt” – to the extent that it exists – rests with the sense of moral and psychosocial debt and holistic, stealthily maintained dependence relations that characterize China’s interactions with these states.
Through offering emergency relief at critical junctures such as natural disasters and public health crises, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, China gains unrivaled and significant access to the critical infrastructure within the states that open themselves up to China, as well as the opportunity to foster sentiments of gratitude and tit-for-tat reciprocity among mid-level, rising bureaucrats (e.g. mayors and provincial leaders). More importantly, perhaps, by enabling regular and steady importing of Chinese technology and supplies, Chinese technocrats could effectively expand the market shares of nascent industries like biotechnology and medical equipment, indirectly boosting the revenue of state-owned enterprises or pivotal components of its Made in China 2025 strategy.
Another corollary under this is China’s rising civil society’s influence – both domestically and internationally. Up until a decade or so ago, the international consensus was that China lacked a mature civil society. Is nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were heavily restricted and infiltrated by state bureaucrats and lower-level clientelistic interests; its intelligentsia did not play a substantial role in shaping the often filtered public discursive space. Yet with the rise of business conglomerates in regions such as the West Triangle Economic Zone and the multinational, high-end technological firms in the Greater Bay Area, these corporate entities have served as proxies for the country’s civil society – with limited state blessing – to forge connections of their own with counterparts abroad. In the COVID-19 outbreak, the official approach of projecting and disseminating aid internationally has been organically complemented by private actors seeking to “match” the state – whether this be out of savvy corporate incentives or genuine philanthropic good will.
Concurrently, those who are keen to brand China’s mask diplomacy as particularly conniving or problematic should come to terms with the fact that such tactics are part and parcel of contemporary foreign policy. The 1948 Marshall Plan saw the United States dump over $15 billion in western Europe in an attempt to ensure the containment of the Russian threat. The EU played a pivotal role in coordinating the international response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Singapore sought to export its medical health expertise in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS Outbreak. Bright-eyed commentators could characterize all of this – as well as China’s active outreach efforts – as propelled by the mercy and merry spirits of national leaders. They would be well mistaken. As the range and complexity of global challenges increases, so, too, will the frequency of catastrophes. How countries step up to, or shy away from, leading ad hoc transnational responsive regimes will be a pivotal test of their diplomatic and foreign policy competence.
Finally, an unmistakably critical dimension of China’s mask diplomacy is its moralizing discursive undertones. The Chinese regime has come under significant fire since the early stages of the outbreak, particularly among liberal Western media outlets – but also among many disillusioned voices within the country. Its European game plan serves as a critical image rehabilitation project. This has been pursued in three distinct ways. First, China has been ramping up its criticisms of American disengagement and abdication of global leadership – particularly in terms of its repeated refusal to heed the advice of the WHO, or to provide aid towards its European counterparts. Second, Beijing highlights China’s willingness to come to the rescue – indeed, large volumes of China-allied media have spun its offering of foreign aid as a sign of the country’s readiness to become a global leader in at least some critical spheres (such as global health cooperation). Third, China is reframing the high-pressure and staunch domestic measures adopted in cracking down on the outbreak as grounded upon the interests of the global political community. Irrespective of whether these statements are in fact true, such rhetoric has been pivotal in diffusing the strength of the acerbic attacks launched by the regime’s foremost critics.
We cannot understand China’s mask diplomacy without being cognizant of its broader strategy of entrenching its influence and presence in prominent multinational institutions. Chinese nationals hold four out of the 15 heads of specialized agencies at the United Nations (the FAO, the ICAO, the ITU, and the UNIDO). While the United States remains a frontrunner in terms of representation among senior UN officials (with 23 U.S. nationals serving among 202 senior officials) and China is only in the early stages of ascendancy, it is unquestionable that at an age of increased American isolationism and inward-looking nativism, China is seeking to fill the gaps at the top of multinational institutions. The country’s leadership views increased presence at the table of global institutions as pivotal to its consolidation of regional hegemony within Asia, as well as being ideologically and symbolically resonant with Xi’s China Dream.
Understanding China’s mask diplomacy requires more than two opposite and unnuanced positions. One take – embraced by ardent propagandists and spin-doctors seeking to workshop China’s efforts into a pyrrhic PR victory – construes the diplomacy efforts as a sign of China’s benevolence and willingness to step up to global leadership. On the other hand, avid cynics toward the Chinese regime have jumped on the opportunity to portray the Chinese administration as unabashedly opportunistic and detrimental in its securing of medical supplies.
Neither interpretation is correct. China’s mask diplomacy is best understood as a rather successful emulation and adaptation of long-standing diplomatic best practices, which – coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak – have lent the battered regime a seeming chance at global redemption. Whether or not China’s medical aid masks something deeper, only time will tell.
Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar-Elect from Hong Kong (2020), and a current MPhil in Politics Candidate at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. They previously graduated with a First Class Honours BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, from Pembroke College, Oxford as a Kwok Scholar. They are the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review, Founding Secretary of Citizen Action Design Lab, Founding Fellow of Governance Partners Yangon, and a frequent contributor to TIME, South China Morning Post, Times Higher Education, Asia Times, Fortune, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal,.