The CCP embarked on a campaign to counter criticism of its shortcomings in dealing with the virus, widely viewed as the side-effects of Xi’s strongman politics, and instead highlight its contributions to the global pandemic fight and its role as a “responsible major power” on the international stage. “We would like to share China's best practices with other countries, but we will not turn it into any kind of geopolitical weapon or tool,” Hua Chunying, Foreign Ministry spokesperson noted. “China would like to contribute our experience and ideas to global public health security and governance, which is something we should do as a responsible major country.”
Clearly, the CCP intends to use the context of Covid-19 to implement further Xi’s major-power diplomacy. China is harnessing its economic capabilities by producing medical equipment such as protective gear and virus tests and supplying them to both developed and developing countries facing shortages. These efforts, however, initially backfired when many items in initial shipments proved faulty or of low quality.
China is also seeking to expand its political influence by propagating the narrative that China is contributing to global public health. At the same time, the CCP is stepping up its sharp criticism of the US – its response to the pandemic and its attempts to blame China for its predicament. Supported by conservative media, Washington officials including President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have pushed the narrative that the “Chinese virus” originated in a Wuhan lab. Beijing officials reacted by pushing an equally tenuous tale about the virus being brought to Wuhan by US military personnel.
The blame game is set to continue for some months, given that Trump’s pandemic response performance has become the main issue of the presidential election in November. Beijing is continuing to fight back with its own rhetoric. Said spokesperson Hua on May 7: “We urge the US to stop spreading disinformation and misleading the international community. It should reflect on its own problems and work hard to bring its own epidemic situation under control. It is high time that it gave up the blame-dumping trick.”
While Trump, according to polls, continues to confound Americans and the world with his erratic handling of the pandemic, Xi has been engaging in “friendship expansion” through “telephone diplomacy”. According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Xi held telephone meetings with other heads of state or government and UN officials 12 times in February, 11 times in March and 16 times in April.
In the short term, as part of his major-power diplomacy, Xi will launch a campaign aimed at portraying China not as a rule breaker but as a supporter of the international order – reminiscent of his attention-grabbing speech at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2017 on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration. The CCP is keenly aware that China’s development has relied heavily on the existing rules and values-based global system established by Western democratic capitalist countries, particularly the US. Rather than seek to overturn the system, the CCP will endorse globalization and multilateralism to convince the international community that it can be a major power and a leader on global issues at a time when the US looks increasingly inward and may even be retreating, especially if Trump wins re-election.
Xi’s major-power diplomacy will see China increasingly take advantage of the pandemic to try to engage in standard-setting and rulemaking for global governance. “China’s signature strength, efficiency and speed in this fight has been widely acclaimed,” Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Zhao Lijian declared at a press conference on March 5. “China set a new standard for the global efforts against the epidemic.” As former US diplomat Kurt Campbell and China scholar Rush Doshi have argued, “Beijing understands that if it is seen as leading, and Washington is seen as unable or unwilling to do so, this perception could fundamentally alter the United States’ position in global politics and the contest for leadership in the twenty-first century.”
Covid-19 provides a useful and convenient context for the CCP to pursue major-power diplomacy and increase its credibility both internally and externally. Will it succeed?