Copenhagen – As Japan enters a state of emergency and confronts the human and economic costs of the coronavirus crisis, China is working hard to promote itself as the global leader in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Providing medical assistance from Europe to Africa, many see Beijing filling the global leadership vacuum left in Washington’s absence and possibly wielding new influence in a post-coronavirus world.
But China is failing to recast itself as a global champion. Rather than building new soft power, the pandemic is reinforcing China’s frayed relations with the European Union, India, and others it needs to persuade of its global leadership. Laying bare the limits of Beijing’s influence, the pandemic points towards a future where neither China nor the United States leads, but cooperation between a diverse group of countries, particularly middle powers like Japan, is necessary to tackle global challenges.
After receiving donations and buying medical supplies and equipment from abroad to slow the spread of the virus at home earlier this year, the Chinese government recently eased export restrictions and is donating and selling stockpiles of surgical masks, ventilators, and other protective equipment overseas. This reciprocal assistance fostered new goodwill between China and the world. The donations of masks and other supplies between Japan and China even propelled some to argue that so-called mask diplomacy will reverse generations of torn relations between the East Asian neighbors.
Optimism is welcome during these dark and chaotic days, but this is wishful thinking. Japan-China relations have warmed in recent years. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing in 2018 marked the first between Japanese and Chinese leaders in seven years. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plans to return the favor this year were scuttled by the coronavirus outbreak. Along with the now postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, these represented important opportunities to normalize relations.
But returning to the normal track in Japan-China relations is hardly reassuring. Since the 1980s, the relationship has followed an almost cyclical pattern of warm and cool ties, with the troughs only deepening as grievances over past wars are left unsettled and territorial issues unresolved. During his first tenure as prime minister, Abe traveled to China in 2006, a visit many observers hailed as a new warming of relations, but within a few years tensions sparked again due to territorial issue in the East China Sea.
Despite the goodwill of mask diplomacy last month, in the weeks to follow, a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese destroyer in the East China Sea. Days later, another collision took place as the Chinese coast guard reportedly rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat near disputed territory in the South China Sea. Before that, Chinese fishing boats also struck a Taiwanese Coast Guard patrol vessel.
These three incidents, occurring over the span of a few weeks, appear far from coincidental. If China is looking to build its soft power, this is hardly a way to show it.
China’s territorial issues across Asia’s waterways will not go away in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Security tensions and mistrust will remain.
A similar trend is seen in China’s relations with the European Union. Beijing initially won praise for its medical assistance to Europe. This particularly came from euroskeptics, such as Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio and Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic, who both hailed Beijing’s rapid response as the EU stood flatfooted in the early days of the outbreak. Vucic even kissed a Chinese flag upon the arrival of medical donations in Belgrade.
But it took just over a week for China’s soft power in Europe bid to unravel. China’s immediate medical assistance offered those critical of the European Union a moment in the spotlight, but it did little to win Beijing many new friends. This is largely because while donating and selling medical supplies, Chinese diplomats and state media have promoted conspiracy theories that the US military is responsible for spreading the pandemic, and that Italy is possibly the origin of the virus.
The disinformation pushed European Union foreign minister Josep Borrell to warn that a ‘battle of narratives’ is underway with China and Russia, which have attempted to discredit the regional body’s own assistance to stricken European countries. Last year, the regional body designated Beijing as a partner but also a ‘systemic rival’. China’s behavior confirmed this line of thinking.
Neither is China mending its torn relations with India. Now struggling to contain the coronavirus, Indian thinkers are in no mood to hail China as a global champion. Samir Saran, the director of Observer Research Foundation, a leading Indian think tank, wrote a searing critique of Beijing’s response to the initial coronavirus outbreak. He placed blame directly at the feet of the ruling Chinese Communist Party for unleashing “a prolonged public health emergency” with “paralysing and fearful” consequences for the global economy. His take underlining the fundamental competitiveness that exists between the regional rivals over disputed borders and Beijing’s influence in South Asia.
There is no doubt that China is assisting the world in taking on the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is not experiencing a global soft power victory by attracting new partners to its side. What the pandemic response has demonstrated is that many countries are stepping up to help one another. Japan was one of many countries gifting masks and supplies to China. India is leading cooperation efforts with its South Asian neighbors.
The European Union was slow to react, but today Germany, France, and others are outpacing support from China to Italy, Serbia and other European countries. Sharing best practices across borders, South Korea has reached out to the United States and France on how it flattened the growth curve of the coronavirus. Taiwan is donating 10 million masks to Europe and the U.S., multiple times larger than China’s assistance.
As Japan confronts the coronavirus at home, it must not neglect its international role when the pandemic is overcome. The economic fallout of the coronavirus will empower voices in Japan and other middle powers calling for protective trade policies and isolation from a weak and chaotic global economy. But Tokyo has a critical role to play in reenergizing international cooperation in the post-coronavirus world.
Japan has already managed to help resuscitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership after American abandoned the trade deal under President Donald Trump. Tokyo should continue to find new members, from the European Union to emerging economies in Southeast Asia.
Fostering new trade will be central in helping rebuild the shattered global economy. Japan’s effort to develop new defense and security cooperation with India also represents a vital partnership in ensuring China does not dominate Asia’s waterways in the future.
The U.S. has failed to lead international efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic. But this is not China’s time. Beijing’s refusal to admit its mistakes in not halting the virus early on and self-defeating propaganda ensure that despite its medical assistance it will not emerge from the coronavirus crisis as a global champion.
Patchwork humanitarianism and economic rebuilding led by Japan and the world’s middle powers may not be perfect. It is not the superpower-led grand coalition that many might hope for. But it is there, and if encouraged and invested in, over time it may just stitch global society back together.
Luke Patey is senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and author of the forthcoming book “How China Loses: The Pushback against Chinese Global Ambitions”
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