European Union Policy Studies

China’s Bid at International Leadership

Beijing Steps-up Soft Power Amid Global Coronavirus Crisis

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By Toni-Anne Barry

China’s pursuit of superpower status is ever more evident as President Xi takes on the role of international leader in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak. The country is actively conducting medical supply drops to heavily impacted countries and coordinating global scientific efforts to curb the spread of the virus. According to Chinese officials, the country has donated ten of millions of pieces of medical equipment including masks, ventilators, and rapid response COVID-19 test kits to dozens of countries, particularly in Europe and Africa. Even as cases wane in Wuhan, where the first outbreaks of the virus were recorded, President Xi continues to voice China’s commitment to aiding global response efforts. 

This kind of crisis response is not unusual in itself. The international community has come to the aid of its neighbors to provide resources, information, and organizational assistance during crisis times. Normally, however, the U.S. is the driving force behind such initiatives. The response to the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, for instance, was largely spearheaded by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to combat the virus within the U.S. and globally. The U.S. deployed CDC officials around the world to assist global prevention efforts and provided substantial resources to countries in need. Today, it appears Beijing is answering the call to action instead of Washington. 

President Xi’s efforts to bolster its economy have made China a substantial competitor to the U.S. on production, trade, and finance, but the expanding reach of its soft power threatens the long-standing hegemony of the U.S. in international relations. The current shift in U.S. policy towards isolationism shows an increased prioritization of domestic needs over those of the international community, leading to a gap in global leadership and influence. As the U.S. did not proactively take up the mantle to head prevention efforts, this left a need for a clear and reliable direction. Even the European Union (EU), the U.S.’s main ally and transatlantic counterpart, failed to step up to the needs of European countries and the world. Many EU member states sought help directly from China and Russia to import supplies after assistance did not come quickly enough from the EU or neighboring countries. Italy, in particular, reached out to other member states for personal protective equipment (PPE) as the number of cases started to skyrocket in mid-March but when no help arrived, they were forced to look outside Europe for badly needed aid. This has quickly shown that international and even European solidarity is struggling. It is very possible that China will continue to capitalize on this void to further its goal of replacing the U.S. as the preeminent global superpower.

Attempts to bolster the country’s international standing are not new. The crescendo towards a more prominent global leadership role builds upon years of effort to increase China’s reputation with world leaders and international organizations. Most notably, China has been keenly focused on boosting its credibility within the United Nations. It continues to increase its financial contributions to the organization, becoming its second-largest contributor following only the U.S. In recent years, China managed to secure 4 leadership positions on key UN agencies and established itself as a major proponent of the UN’s sustainability goals, signaling that it is committed to international development and cooperation. Years of human rights violations, infringements on international agreements, and security concerns, however, continue to impede Chinese efforts in earning the complete trust and respect of other nations. By taking on the role of crisis mitigator and leader of multi-lateral coordination in the wake of Coronavirus, China could finally secure needed credibility that it has lacked for decades, but its rocky history makes it easy for confidence in China’s socio-political intentions to falter.

Attempts to win over the international community through its response to Coronavirus could be quickly undermined by China’s own mistakes at the beginning stages of the crisis. Recent reports indicate that warnings out of Wuhan not only could have been issued months prior than they were, but that much of the information provided by China was incomplete. Several Chinese doctors have stated that the government tried to silence their attempts to raise awareness of the growing threat to reduce the public perception of the scope and severity of the outbreak. Shared concerns from world leaders that China released manipulated information to reduce the scope and severity of the situation in Wuhan call into question whether China’s political goals are fueled by any goodwill toward the international community at all. 

Even China’s international aid is starting to receive intense backlash as its support to Italy has taken a turn for the worse. Praise for its humanitarian assistance to the hard struck country has turned into sharp criticism for forcing Italy to buy back supplies it donated to Wuhan in the early weeks of the outbreak now that Italy is in need. China’s PR campaign to paint itself as the savior during the crisis is starting to crack as more nuanced information finally starts to come out of China and the countries it aided. 

Continued blunders of this magnitude could signal that China is not ready to step into the role of global superpower, at least not in the way the world is used to. While China’s influence and power are increasing around the world, it still lacks benevolence that the world desires from a global leader. Before it can compete with the likes of the U.S. and other Western leaders for superpower status China must focus on bolstering its legitimacy and trustworthiness. As it stands, China may not be the superpower that the international community wants or needs.

Toni-Anne Barry is a graduate student in the 2019-2020 EUPS program. She graduated from The Catholic University of America in 2018 with a major in Politics and American Government and a minor in Italian Studies. 

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Published: Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Last Updated: Thursday, April 23, 2020

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