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Myanmar soldiers unload medical supplies at Yangon International Airport on Friday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Coronavirus: China wants to lead the fight against Covid-19, but can it overcome the mistrust?

  • Beijing has sent medical teams and millions of dollars worth of supplies to help countries tackle the health crisis, but is it just trying to make amends for initially covering it up?
  • ‘They’re trying to make the world forget the big mistake,’ French academic says
With the United States gripped by a domestic struggle with Covid-19, China appears to have stepped into its shoes as a global provider.

Over the past two months, Beijing has sent medical teams to 16 countries, to share their knowledge and expertise with officials and health workers on treating and containing the deadly coronavirus. In most cases, the visits have been in tandem with large shipments of vital supplies, such as test kits and personal protective equipment.

According to its foreign ministry, China has provided medical supplies to more than 125 countries and four international organisations, as well as holding 70 videoconferences with experts from more than 150 countries.

On Thursday, Beijing donated a further US$30 million to the World Health Organisation, after contributing US$20 million in early March. US President Donald Trump announced a freeze on American contributions to the United Nations health agency on April 15.

“China is eager to show that they can play a leading role, or a role that the United States seems unwilling to take on at the moment,” said Ilaria Carrozza, project coordinator at the Peace Research Institute Oslo in the Norwegian capital.

“The message from Beijing could be that China has always been there and will always be there to support countries in need,” she said.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on April 13 that the medical teams were dispatched “at the request of relevant governments” and after “taking into consideration the epidemic situation and needs on the ground”.

“We stand ready to send more medical teams to countries that request such assistance based on their epidemic situation and containment needs,” he said.

A shipment of 20,000 surgical masks, 3,000 N95 masks and 500 protective suits donated by Shanghai arrives in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Photo: Xinhua

Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor from the Department of Asian and International Studies at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at City University of Hong Kong (CityU), said China was filling the void once occupied by the United States.

“[The United States], a country that has played such a critical role in global health has not just simply stepped back, it’s almost collapsed at this point in time,” he said.

The US has reported more than 890,000 coronavirus infections and more than 51,000 deaths from Covid-19. China, where the number of new infections has slowed steadily in recent weeks, has reported close to 84,000 cases and more than 4,600 deaths.

Thomas said that as the initial epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak and the first to bring it under control, China had enjoyed a “first-mover advantage”.

“China is in a position to reap the rewards of a fairly robust response to the virus,” he said.

It is hoped that the Chinese medical teams – sent to Russia, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Pakistan, Cambodia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Myanmar, Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Serbia, Italy and Venezuela – can help other countries do the same.

Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre, a think tank in Washington, said it was clear China had directed its aid effort to where it was needed most.

“Developing countries in Asia do not have the same kind of capability as developed countries do in terms of their medical response,” she said.

But Beijing’s motives were not entirely magnanimous, said Daniel Lynch, a professor with the Department of Asian and International Studies at CityU.

“If [China doesn’t] go out and help other countries stop the epidemic, it’ll come back to China again,” he said.

About half of the countries to which China has sent medical teams are partners in the Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s multibillion-dollar plan to boost trade and infrastructure ties across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Elisa Gambino, a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh who has researched Africa’s role in the belt and road plan, said that by helping nations to tackle Covid-19, Beijing was effectively protecting its long-term interests.

“Contributing to the containment of Covid-19 in vital belt and road countries also protects and secures Chinese companies’ presence and Chinese investment more broadly,” she said.

It also seems clear that China is keen to return the support it was shown by other countries when it was the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

In February, Laos donated US$300,000 to Beijing’s cause, while in March, Cambodia contributed 300,000 face masks and Myanmar sent 200 tonnes of rice.

The Pakistan Senate in early February passed a resolution to “fully support the counter-attack on the coronavirus launched by China”.

“China was in a position that needed support from these friends,” Yun said. “It was criticised by other countries for poor hygiene, poor diet and the Wuhan labs [which some have claimed are the origin of the deadly virus].”

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China’s generosity might also have been driven by guilt, Yun said, especially in the case of Italy, which has reported almost 26,000 deaths from Covid-19, more than any other European country.

That unenviable record was achieved despite Italy being the first to impose a total ban on flights from China, which it did at the end of January, after a Chinese couple in Rome tested positive for the virus.

On February 7, Xinhua reported that Rome had agreed to temporarily resume some flights to allow Chinese citizens stranded in Italy to return home.

“I cannot believe that the Chinese don’t feel a little bit of guilt for what they did when they think about this part of the history and where Italy ended up,” Yun said.

“Italy at least had a point to suspend those flights to begin with.”

Beijing has sent three groups of medical experts to Italy, the first of which arrived on March 12 along with 31 tonnes of medical supplies.

Francoise Nicolas, director of the Centre for Asian Studies of the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, said that while China wanted to be seen as a responsible power, sending aid alone would not change how it is perceived on the world stage.

“They’re trying to make the world forget the initial big mistake [of covering up the outbreak],” she said.

Also, the current trend of Chinese diplomats fervently defending their country against its critics was likely to backfire, Nicolas said.

“Pushing a very aggressive narrative may actually turn out to be totally counterproductive and destroy the potential positive effects that sending medical equipment and teams may have,” she said.

Jonathan Hillman, director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agreed.

“Medical teams and supplies will be appreciated in the short term, but I don’t expect anyone is going to forget the outbreak’s origins,” he said.

“Many of these countries have been willing to temporarily overlook China’s initial attempt to cover up the outbreak because they urgently need all the support they can get.”

Thomas from CityU said that if Beijing wanted to be regarded as a world leader in health matters it would have to show greater transparency.

“If China wants to step up, it’s going to have to open itself up politically, internally to competing narratives within the health area,” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Can China really fill America’s shoes on world stage?