How China's 'Health Silk Road' Quickly Backfired
Well, that didn't quite work out as planned.
China was the first Covid-19 hot spot and is likewise the first country moving towards recovery, and Beijing is attempting to turn this head start into a strategic advantage. While the Western world has its head down, preoccupied with their own battles against the pandemic, China is making key geopolitical moves around the world.
Dubbed “pandemic diplomacy,” China has attempted to step into a global leadership role in the fight against SARS-Cov-2 by providing medical supplies, test kits, and doctors to Iran, Italy, Spain, Poland, Serbia, Cambodia, Pakistan, Armenia… Many of the nations receiving Chinese assistance also happen to be key Belt and Road countries, prompting Chinese President Xi Jinping to refer to these moves as the construction of a new “Health Silk Road.”
The research, manufacture, and distribution of medicine and medical products is a core pillar of Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan, through which the country attempts to climb the world’s manufacturing value chain. This has resulted in the building of entire new cities devoted solely to the medical industry and China taking over production of 97% of the antibiotics and 80% of the active medicinal ingredients in the world.
Beyond promoting what has become a key economic sector, China has not held back on the soft power opportunities inherent to these Covid-19 medical supply shipments. On the boxes of the 60,000 test kits sent to Armenia were printed the words, “May our friendship [be] higher than the Mountain Ararat and longer than Yangtze River" and tacky promotional videos were blasted out to the masses via China’s state media:
Basically, the strategy is similar to one that we’ve seen China employ up and down the Silk Road: when a country gets knocked down China steps in to offer a friendly hand. Of course, there are strings attached. When China assisted Greece with their troubles during the 2008 financial crisis they came out of it with Piraeus Port. When Sri Lanka struggled to get Western funding for their big infrastructure projects China stepped in with big loans which contributed towards the destabilization of the local economy and the eventual selling off of Hambantota Port to a state-owned Chinese firm. When former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak got into trouble with the 1MDB scandal China helped cover up evidence of financial irregularities by artificially inflating the costs of Belt and Road projects so the excess could help conceal the missing funds — an agreement which resulted in Chinese companies being offered big stakes in railway and pipeline projects and permission for the Chinese navy to use two Malaysian ports. There is a glaring give and take that comes to many forms of Chinese assistance, with Beijing often doing a little more of the latter.
More from On The New Silk Road: China Responds to Covid-19 Pandemic With The ‘Health Silk Road’.
When it comes to China’s “pandemic diplomacy,” we don’t need to look any further than Serbia to see its desired results. After being denied protective equipment by the EU, who banned medical exports since Covid-19 took hold, Serbia very publicly pivoted to China, with President Aleksandar Vučić proclaiming that "European solidarity does not exist" and “Only China can help us in this situation,” while repeatedly referring to Xi Jinping as a “brother.” Beijing rapidly responded with five million masks and a team of doctors.
Frans-Paul van der Putten of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in the Netherlands explained that China donating medical equipment to Europe serves two purposes. First, it contributes to Europe’s ability to overcome the crisis, which is vital as the EU is one of China’s biggest trade partners. Secondly, it helps Beijing to strengthen ties with European counties which improves their international image.
“This is a way for China to show European countries that it is a dependable partner during times of crisis, and that the United States is not necessarily Europe’s only main partner to address common problems,” van der Putten continued.
James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy, adds that through providing such medical supplies China obtains more “credibility and willingness to exert power there in the future, in terms of people being more reluctant to speak out and speak against China, better trade conditions in the future — they are breaking people away from the US.”
“China's donations should be welcomed,” Jonathan Hillman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies added, “but I don't think anyone is going to forget where the virus originated and that it spread because Chinese authorities tried to cover it up.”
Suspicion of the strings attached to China’s Covid-19 assistance becomes even more warranted when it came out that they contributed a mere 3% towards the WHO’s $675 million Covid-19 fundraiser. China is the second richest country on the planet, and this move came off about as classy as a tycoon not tipping in a hometown diner.
“Some of this is about contrasts and the absence of US leadership,” Hillman added. “China's recent efforts wouldn't appear so remarkable if the US had a better strategy in place, domestically and internationally. Beijing sees Washington faltering, and it is trying to take advantage of that opportunity.”
And then there was a plot twist.
Many of the test kits, masks, and other supplies that China sent out as aid or sold to countries being ravaged by Covid-19 were faulty, potentially dangerous, and overtly unusable. The rapid test kits that China sent to Turkey were only 30 to 35 percent accurate, and were subsequently rejected by the government. Spain had to withdraw 9,000 faulty Chinese test kits from use, the Czech Republic found that 80% of the 150,000 tests they purchased from China didn’t work, and Ukraine and the Philippines experienced the same fate. Slovakia purchased 1.2 million test kits from China for $16 million only to find that they were unable to properly detect Covid-19.
“We have a ton and no use for them,” said Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic. “[They should] just be thrown straight into the Danube.”
Meanwhile, the Netherlands had to recall 600,000 made-in-China “N95 masks” because they were defective — they didn’t fit properly and provided less than half the required safety level even if they did. This was particularly harrowing as half of the 1.3 million masks that China shipped them had already been deployed to doctors who used them in the field treating patients.
Far from being the strategic moves that would further tie the fortunes of the world in with that of Beijing and allow the latter to ascend the stage as a global leader, it has instead further instilled doubts as to whether China can be a trusted partner with life-saving medical equipment in the worst of times, economic development in the best of times, or anything at all for that matter. The fallout from this will have a drastic impact on the future of the Belt and Road in key markets around the world.
But is this a curtain call for the Health Silk Road? Don’t count on it.