Chinese President Xi Jinping (5-L, back) attending the G20 Extraordinary Virtual Leaders' Summit on COVID-19 via video link in Beijing, capital of China, 26 March 2020 (issued 27 March 2020). Leaders of the Group of 20 vowed to inject five trillion US dollar to minimize the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the world's economy. EPA/XINHUA/PANG XINGLEI

Opinion – Covid-19 and the politics of diplomacy

The ways in which China has been responding to the outbreak of Covid-19 have shown how a rising East Asian power shows its diplomatic finesse in dealing with other countries affected by the virus, especially the United States.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, President Xi Jinping has been reaching out to the leaders of different countries in the world,  emphasizing the need for all countries to be united in tackling the disease, sharing the Chinese experiences, and providing Chinese logistical supplies to those countries affected by Coronavirus. Winning the hearts and minds of countries affected by Covid-19 has become a linchpin of the Chinese foreign policy.

Interestingly, Japan was one of the first East Asian states that offered logistical supplies, notably masks, to China. The rapid Japanese response to the outbreak of Covid-19 earned a lot of praise from many Chinese netizens. Suddenly, the Sino-Japanese relations turned warmer than ever before at the societal level.

On the other hand, during the outbreak of Covid-19 in South Korea in early March, the Japanese government imposed a 14-day quarantine on South Koreans who travelled to Japan from highly affected areas. The South Korean government protested. This incident showed that foreign relations in East Asia could be affected due to state responses to Covid-19.

In mid-March, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijuan, used Twitter to claim that the origin of Covid-19 came from the US rather than from China. His remarks appeared to echo some mainland media reports claiming that a few US soldiers who participated in the International Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019 were allegedly the virus-carriers.

There was and is no evidence to support this claim. But Zhao’s remarks appeared to alienate the US leaders. US President Donald Trump quickly used the term “Chinese virus” to refer to Covid-19, intentionally emphasizing the place of origin where Coronavirus broke out.

However, President Trump has recently refrained from using the term and added that he and President Xi Jinping are friends. But Trump continues to criticize China for a cover-up in reporting the figures of those citizens infected by Covid-19. He complained publicly that the World Health Organization was in “biased” in favour of China.

On March 24, President Trump modified his remarks on Covid-19, saying that it is “very important we totally protect” Asian Americans, who are “amazing people.” Clearly, Trump’s earlier reference to the “Chinese virus” offended not only many Chinese in the world but also the Asian American voters, many of whom may see the President’s remarks as having “racial” implications.

If President Donald Trump wants to be re-elected in the upcoming US presidential election, his remarks on Covid-19 need to be far more moderate than what he did earlier. In particular, some Chinese-Americans complain that they have encountered discrimination due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus.

Zhao Lijuan’s remarks were not necessarily shared by his colleagues in the Chinese Foreign Ministry. On March 22, the Chinese Ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, denounced all those speculations on the origin of Covid-19. He added that the origin of the virus is the task of scientists, and that neither diplomats nor journalists should speculate on this matter. Cui’s comments clearly distanced himself from Zhao’s blunt remark. 

Objectively speaking, when Zhao made his personal comment on the origin of Covid-19, he might neglect any unintended consequence on the image of many overseas Chinese in Western countries, for the overseas Chinese could be unfairly stigmatized and easily victimized by the outbreak of Coronavirus.

On March 26, during a video conference with other Group of 20 leaders, President Xi called for strong international cooperation to combat Covid-19 and to stop a global economic recession. He urged unity and solidarity in three areas, including the consolidation of international efforts at stopping the virus, backing up the economy in the world, and appealing to the US to stop its “hostile” move against China. 

President Xi also urged unity among countries in the world to contain Covid-19 and he called for the need to conduct joint research, such as the production of vaccines. He remarked: “At the most different moment in China, many members of the international community are offering China with help and support. We will remember and cherish this friendship forever.” Clearly, China under President Xi is trying its best to conduct a united front among countries in the world to fight against Covid-19.

President Xi called for the G20 countries to stabilize their supply chains that have been undermined by the virus. Although China has already resumed industrial production in provinces and cities, the process remains slow and its economic performance is destined to be curbed in 2020.

At the same time, some countries that have relied on China’s supply chains may learn a lesson from the outbreak of Covid-19, trying to diversify their production lines in the future. As such, Covid-19 may have serious economic impacts on China in the long run.

The Chinese President also made an indirect criticism of the US policy when he said that countries should eliminate tariffs and trade barriers, and that they should facilitate trade and global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. China is adopting a liberal approach in its foreign policy while maintaining an authoritarian style of controlling Covid-19 domestically.

President Trump’s reactions to the G20 meeting was positive, saying that it was “terrific.” But he keeps on complaining about China’s openness to the number of those mainland Chinese citizens infected with the virus. His comments illustrate fundamental ideological differences between China and the US.

China views the US as self-protective economically and hegemonic politically. The US sees China as non-transparent in its response to Covid-19, as Trump expressed his “disappointment” about China’s failure to control the spread of Covid-19.  Vice President Mike Pence also keeps using the term “Wuhan virus” to refer to Covid-19. 

While the G20 meeting at least came up with a joint statement emphasizing whatever action the countries should take to minimize the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19, the G7 meeting in mid-March revealed ideological differences among the countries concerned. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, used the term “Wuhan virus” to refer to Covid-19. Some G7 countries, such as the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada, did not want to use such a loaded term. 

The outbreak and the ongoing spread of Covid-19 have highlighted the diplomatic and ideological tug-of-war between China and the US. Amid the Sino-US trade war, another war on the origin of Covid-19 has been waged.

Yet, the high-level US politics of blaming China on the origin of Covid-19 appears to lack some countries’ support. Ultimately, China’s united front work to win the hearts and minds of other countries in the world on how to contain and stop Covid-19 appears to be far more pragmatic and effective.

MNA political commentator