America’s Global Abdication

China seeks to assume a flawed leadership despite its role in coronavirus’s escape

I recently attended a webinar on Southeast Asian responses to the Covid-19 put on by the Singapore-based risk firm Vriens and Partners that ended when the moderator asked representatives of nine countries what offers of help they had received from US officials. Not a single participant could name any response from the US.

In the meantime, China has gone from the target of global outrage over its attempts to cover up the emergence of Covid-19 to mounting intensive efforts to stop it – not without scars – while the United States has completely abdicated almost any role. It is the most recent and most dramatic demonstration of Washington’s loss of global soft-power leadership.

That loss of leadership is coupled with the Trump administration’s America-first antagonism to long-standing treaties like NATO and its alliances in the Asia-Pacific. A half-hearted offer of help to North Korea and Iran has been turned down by both countries.

Instead, on April 8, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared at a Coronavirus Task Force meeting in Washington, DC to announce that the State Department had worked to repatriate more than 50,000 United States citizens back to their homes from more than 90 countries on more than 490 flights.

“This worldwide scale of our repatriation efforts is without parallel in our lifetime,” Pompeo said. “We are coordinating with foreign governments, militaries, airport authorities, medical units, transportation companies, hotels, you name it.”

Coordinating getting Americans back behind US borders. While protecting US citizens, it has also meant closing consular services so that Americans with foreign dependents such as wives or children have been unable to get US visas so they either had to split up their families or stay behind to face the virus. It has also largely brought US diplomacy to a stop.

In the meantime, it is China that has been delivering aid, some of it defective, which blunts the effort, to dozens of countries while the United States, which used to routinely deliver tons of relief supplies to stricken nations, supply medical teams and launch US Navy fleets to help, is no longer a factor.

China’s attempt to demonstrate soft power in the crisis – a bid to salvage its reputation – is a relatively new phenomenon, and despite its calculated generosity it is hitting rough spots. Taiwan’s recovery, in the midst of China’s bullying the rebellious island, was hardly flattering for Beijing. It is not having much success in erasing the fact that the virus originated in China and that it was China’s mishandling of the situation that allowed it to escape, causing tens of thousands of deaths, nor that as much as 40 percent of its test kits are defective.

But traditionally it has been Beijing that sulked on the sidelines as the west dug into its resources and pockets to help even countries that were at odds, pouring out aid for typhoons, earthquakes and other disasters, a phenomenon called disaster diplomacy.  

Beijing, for instance, was nowhere to be seen among the donors of US$6.5 billion in aid after the disastrous Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami in 2004, which took 228,000 lives and left millions homeless. The US donated US$134 million and provided military relief while other western nations moved into the vacuum as well.  China’s aid to the Philippines in the wake of the 2013 Haiyan /Yolanda typhoon, which took more than 6,300 lives, was weeks late and gave the appearance of being grudging while the US 7th Fleet was sending a carrier-led task force and millions of dollars in supplies.

The story of China’s disgraceful attempt to hide the virus is well known. It began on December 8, when workers at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market fell sick. It was not until 23 days later, on December 31, that authorities notified the World Health Organization of suspected viral pneumonia, but insisted there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Eight people were reprimanded by police for “spreading rumors” about the disease. Doctors were ordered to keep quiet about the virus and two were jailed. One of those doctors died of the coronavirus and has been hailed as a hero amid considerable domestic anger.

Today, more than 1.8 million global infections and 100,000 deaths later from a pandemic that originated on Chinese soil, China has sought aggressively to reverse the opprobrium that is generated by its cover-up attempt.

A 15-page study, The fight against Covid-19: China’s Shifting Narrative and Southeast Asia by Lye Liang Fook at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusuf Ishak Institute, tells the story. By March 31 China had pivoted dramatically, sending medical teams to the United Kingdom, Cambodia, Serbia, Italy, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Philippines and Laos. It had distributed more than 23 million surgical masks, millions of pairs of sanitary gloves, protective gowns, face shields, test kits and a vast trove of other surgical gear. 

In all, according to the ISEAS study, China delivered aid, cash, medical teams and/or, supplies to 29 countries including, via the Jack Ma Foundation, a million face masks and 500,000 test kits to a United States that was woefully unprepared to fight the virus, as shown by the fact that, with 560,000 cases of infection and 22,100 deaths by April 13, it leads the world in both categories. China has now slipped down to seventh, if its statistics can be trusted, with 81,000 infections and 3,300-plus deaths.  There is considerable distrust of those statistics amid concern that there could be a second wave.

From its initial attempts to cover up the origins of the virus, China shifted to an acknowledgment that it originated from Wuhan. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was shuttered and cleaned up. The government was also quick to deny that the coronavirus had leaked from a biological facility at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a rumor that had originated in the United States, and highlighted a statement from leading foreign medical experts carried by the authoritative medical journal Lancet that strongly condemned conspiracy theories and affirmed the overwhelming conclusion by medical experts that the coronavirus originated from wildlife. China, for its part, attempted to generate a counter-rumor that the virus had been brought to China by visiting US military personnel.

According to the ISEAS study, “China further asserted that its close communication and its sharing of information with the World Health Organization and other countries and regions, had helped them to better respond to the global pandemic. China was now saying that its efforts had “bought precious time for the world” and went on to assert that “China is a reliable and helpful partner to other countries fighting the coronavirus,” a variation on China’s “vision of a shared future where countries, apart from engaging in mutually beneficial initiatives, need to band together to face common threats.”

China is no paragon in this affair, and it has long proven itself inept diplomatically. Its trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure initiative has beggared the treasuries of several nations including Pakistan and Sri Lanka while proving to be of far more benefit to China than to the countries participating in it. The millions it has poured into rehabilitating its reputation have been flawed at best and self-serving. But given the Trump administration’s bristling antagonism to the rest of the world, it is sadly likely any “vision of a shared future” is not going to emanate from Washington, DC until the government changes.  The administration remains solipsistic, eager to blame China for the outbreak but far behind and utterly inept in its efforts to conquer the virus on its own soil.