While the world has barely braved the first wave of Wuhan virus pandemic that has swept almost every nation. China has begun propagating its malice—not by using military brute force or hijacking of major international bodies but by using Soft Diplomacy. The methodical approach to madness that China has inculcated has the capability to change the entire geopolitical setup as we understand. The authoritarian regime has hopped on the propaganda locomotive to steer its agenda of being the victim and the messiah of people in these trying times. The diplomatic charm offensive strategy, the crisis-profiteering model can be used interchangeably as synonyms for the Public Republic of China.
The soft-diplomatic push Beijing has levied in its service is the hallmark of modern China. Xi Jinping inadvertently recognizes that the United States or any other potential opposing superpower country have their backs against the wall and therefore it is the opportune time to make strategic and economic inroads. China is markedly making hay while the virus spreads.
China is on the prowl looking for a candidate nation to fix the blame for the COVID-19 pandemic. There is an age-old adage, When you cannot convince somebody, confuse them. Something the Chinese have taken to their hearts as their current strategy revolves around sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of the international audience and convincing its people about the “foreign origin” of the novel coronavirus.
Crisis management was one of the lectures taught in the PR class of our colleges. Taking a leaf out of it–China and its mouthpiece Global Times is providing us with real-life textbook PR skills to mitigate the disaster. China is trying to project as the saviour of the world, and a pioneer in handling epidemics. The Communist regime has also come up with a book which claims that the Chinese leadership led by Xi Jinping heroically defeated the virus.
The Chinese communist party (CCP) mounted a huge propaganda campaign about the medical aid and teams sent to Italy in March to help fight the Wuhan virus. State-media (read: Global Times) and prominent Chinese political figures worked tirelessly to depict China as Italy’s saviour. President Xi Jinping very cunningly announced a new “Health Silk Road” with Italy in a phone call with the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. A move that, many observers and opposition leaders fear, might hand over the Healthcare system’s wireless network to Chinese companies.
The micro-blogging site Twitter was filled with thousands of posts celebrating Chinese solidarity with the Italians. But there was a major discrepancy in the entire rendezvous–nearly half of the tweets (46,3%) published between March 11 and 23 with the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (Go China, go Italy, ed.) and more than one third (37,1%) of those with the hashtag #grazieCina (thank you China, ed.) came from bots, a research study has found.
Figures regarding the Chinese embassy’s Twitter account engagement and the tweets greeting the solidarity mission showed a well-thought information operation. Some bot accounts had an average of 91 tweets per day thereby making it clear how desperate Beijing is to change the narrative.
The medical kits fiasco is relatively fresh in the minds of readers. Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, The Philippines, and Ukraine are some of the many countries that have returned the faulty test kits of China in bulk numbers. The Medical diplomacy—a subpart of its larger Soft diplomacy scheme is seemingly failing courtesy of the greed of Chinese companies. The factories of China are in overdrive—unscrupulous factories are being allowed to export sub-standard medical equipment to earn billions all in the guise of goodwill ambassador.
There is a common thread in China’s approach to the pandemic. As infection rates decrease within Mainland China and rise in the pandemic’s new hotbeds like Italy, Spain, New York, etc. the Chinese government and even big tech companies like Huawei are reaching out with aid. But signs that this soft-power push would lead to diplomatic gains are giving way to indications of a brewing backlash.
Anyway, you got to hand it to Chinese for their coherence in making the best out of any situation, even if the odds are stacked against you. They pretty much resemble the Australian cricket team of the late ’90s and early 2000’s who never ceded an inch, albeit Chinese are one fickle bunch and their actions bring gloom all around.
What follows China’s soft diplomacy is the ghastly “debt-trap diplomacy” which will leave the unsuspecting little nations in much more disarray than the Wuhan virus could ever possibly do. China smoothly encroaches upon a country’s sovereignty by feeding it with high-interest rate loans, which upon failing to return opens the door for the communist party to take over.
Look no forward than our southern neighbour—Sri Lanka. The tiny island country has already been done bad by China. Beijing is becoming adept at translating outstanding debts into foreign assets—the most barefaced example being the Hambantota port project in Sri Lanka.
Despite every feasibility study showing that the project was not viable and after traditional lenders such as India and the World Bank turned it down, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa approached China, which was more than happy to greenlight every request. When the port project failed as expected and Colombo could not service its debt, Beijing enthusiastically took control of the port under a 99-year lease, along with 150,000 acres of land around it.
Now in the semblance of helping Sri Lanka get over the tottering waters of COVID-19 pandemic, China has offered a dirty 500 million loan to the island nation.
Instead of offering a loan to Sri Lanka, China could have offered an aid especially considering the fact that China is the reason why the world collectively has come to a standstill to fight the Wuhan virus. Sri Lanka is not best placed when it comes to its debts, besides what happens when the grace period is over? Is it another Hambantota port in the making?
Djibouti, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Montenegro are some of the few countries that endanger losing sovereign control over their boundaries, as they all owe more than 45 per cent of their gross domestic products to Beijing over the blasphemous Belt and Road projects.
These developing nations and their preexisting exposure to debt can put them in a real fix when forced to make choices between the lives of their citizens and becoming even more vulnerable to vile creditors like China. Weakened by corona impact, these nations will look for more loans, and China being the evil-Samaritan it is would use this an opportunity to further push them in its Debt trap.
China is ostracizing the pandemic to its benefits. The entire COVID-19 situation could have been handled with some gravitas, the gravitas a country proclaiming itself as a superpower should project. However, the CCP instead of arresting the slide let the virus disease snowball into a big pandemic that seems nearly impossible to contain at the moment.
Once the dust settles and we sit down to gauge the losses, the invoice-receipts should all be made in the name of China. The immediate social, political, and economic consequences will be with us for at least the next two years and that is the best-case scenario.