As the world observes America’s Suez Crisis, Beijing strives to take its place.
The British Empire’s end date is something of a disputed one for many amateur historians. The relinquishment of Hong Kong in 1991 and the end of the British Raj in South Asia in 1947 are often cited as the legal and territorial bases for the end of the Empire but, in spirit, it is the Suez Crisis in 1956 which truly stripped Britain of its superpower status; redefining it merely as one of many strong European states instead of the global leader and decision maker it once was. Today we find ourselves witness to a new Suez Crisis. As the United States is seemingly absent without leave in co-ordinating an international response to the virus, China leaps to the aid of a multitude of countries – from Italy to Ethiopia – in an unprecedented engagement with the international community as the West deals with its own massive outbreaks.
There are many parallels with the Trump administration’s current mismanagement of coronavirus. Buoyed by a vocal and committed minority of voters, the President has pursued a course which has brought the US a huge amount of international and diplomatic pressure – but this time, it’s different. America’s position in the global order is under threat. The Ebola outbreak in 2014 saw a huge American-led international response and a UN Resolution backed with cash passed within a month. In contrast, there is no international response at all to the coronavirus. The Trump administration – bound by the nuances of American politics and by its ever clearer “America First” agenda – has floundered in response to the pandemic and, as states continue to take diametrically opposed stances on lockdowns, China has eagerly seized the moment.
Even though SARS-CoV-2 originated in China, it has sought to portray itself as the world’s saviour in this hour of need; a capable, strong alternative to an increasingly out of touch Washington. China is well known to tightly control information, from its imprisonment and indoctrination of the Uyghurs to its clampdown on Hong Kong. Most readers of this article will be aware that China has fabricated its case and death statistics – it is painfully apparent when you compare them to more transparent countries such as Italy – but there are questions about their actions that go beyond the staple lack of transparency we have all come to expect from the Communist Party. While Wuhan was quarantined and internal travel within China banned, Chinese officials complained about foreign bans, and actively encouraged foreign travel. While traffic between Chinese cities was suppressed below 10%, the party cried racism in response to the Trump administration’s travel ban and criticised other governments for following suit.
Many of its other measures have had a mixed reception. Medical aid dispatched to most of Europe has been rejected either partially or outright due to concerns over safety. Even in Turkey, who have themselves sent faulty gowns to us, there have been concerns about Chinese equipment. In Africa, countries that, by their own admission, are desperate for supply of any kind see Chinese aid with suspicion. The contrasts between this and the kind of genuine humanitarian assistance which was supplied to tackle Ebola are clear; Chinese help is rarely in good faith and comes with strings attached.
Elsewhere however, Beijing has made progress. China has successfully coerced the European Union into censoring its own reports on Chinese disinformation. Italy, which in 2019 opted into China’s famous Belt and Road Initiative, has become the focal point of Chinese influence and disinformation in Europe. In Italy, prominent media figures and key officials are beginning to recite a suspicious narrative that China is Italy’s closest friend. And as for Germany, France, or Brussels? They are the enemy and have abandoned Italy. Beijing was quick to send aid to Italy – most of it faulty, and even some donated by the Italians themselves during January’s outbreak in Wuhan. Yet, despite these uncomfortable truths Beijing seems to be winning the information war in Europe’s 4th Largest Economy.
This influence over Europe has paid off in spades. As the Trump administration begins to form its own narrative over China’s actions, it is finding itself surprisingly alone. Europe is distracted by predictable arguments over fiscal policy and seems more interested in criticising America’s response to the virus than anything to do with its source nation. Even a Five Eyes Dossier outlining China’s conduct has seen infighting among traditional Western Allies. Take Australia, for example, who initially seemed to support the dossier in question but then walked back, in an attempt to stay somewhat neutral.
That Australia, one of America’s most fastidious allies, is facing this dilemma should give analysts around the world pause. Covid-19 may come to pass as a watershed moment in the Rise of China, a country which will remain in our headlines long after this is over. When we establish our ‘new normal’ – whatever that will be – China’s overshadowing of the United States will be a part it, and we will enter a multipolar world with competing axes of global power, reminiscent of the Cold War. The USSR however, even at its mightiest, was only half as wealthy as the US. Last year Business Insider predicted China would be the world’s largest economy by the end of this year – and that was before the pandemic.
By David Haigh