Riding the COVID Storm: How One Virus Changed the World and How China Navigated the Waters

February 28, 2022
About the author:
Tom Fowdy, Independent Political Affairs Commentator


In the past two years, the political alignment of the world has changed drastically for a number of reasons. But at the front and center of it all stands a new consensus: the reality of geopolitical competition and rivalry between the West and China, which ended a roughly 50 years or so epoch of engagement that commenced with Richard Nixon’s shock visit to Beijing in 1972 and ended with the Trump administration’s new China agenda marked by Mike Pompeo’s speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in July 2020. Whilst the Trump administration had been gradually pursuing such a path since 2018, it would be the events of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic which would ultimately serve to shift the tectonics of global politics: a gamechanger that comprehensively re-wrote opinions in both the East and West.
(Source: www.who.int)
How COVID-19 Changed the World
At the beginning of 2020, when a handful of COVID-19 cases were reported in the city of Wuhan, few knew what lied ahead. Yet, it came during a time whereby the intention of political and media elites was to promote hostility to China. Whilst diseases are a natural phenomenon, the dramatic revelations of the severity of the virus, combined with the shock lockdown of all Hubei province, seemingly provided a golden opportunity to orchestrate a narrative against China. In that month, politicization of the pandemic would begin. The state’s response to it was quickly weaponized by the mainstream media as a structural failure of China’s political system and ideology, something that could not happen in the superior and transparent West. As one BBC correspondent wrote, the outbreak constituted an “epic political disaster” of China’s system.
Of course, these assumptions were based on orientalist differentiations. The idea and belief that because of Western superiority, both culturally and ideologically, “these kinds of things could not happen to us” proved to be a damning mistake. As China overcame the crisis in Wuhan with life returning to normal, COVID-19 infections would, owing to the often-invisible way the virus can spread asymptomatically, be reported in Western countries and provoke large-scale national outbreaks. The initial anti-China narrative shattered. As Beijing then shifted to a position of supporting countries in Europe with medical equipment and supplies, it triggered insecurity amongst some in the West who, having set the stage for a Chinese failure that never occurred, now faced a moment of perceived triumph. 
This led to the formulation of a new narrative, with enormous geopolitical consequences. Playing on xenophobic thinking, which has throughout history scapegoated foreigners and deemed cultures “inferior” for pandemics, the Trump administration, now facing massive economic losses and unpopular policies in the run-up to an election, responded by unleashing a full-scale campaign seeking to scapegoat China for the pandemic. Coining the term “China virus,” the U.S. accused China of a full-scale coverup and lying about their numbers. This was soon used to reset the paradigm of U.S.-China relations to an even more aggressive tone, one which has been frequently compared to that of a “Cold War.”
From herein, the pandemic had ultimately descended into a geopolitical and ideological struggle, as well as a propaganda war. On China’s side, despite the hostility which had been provoked against it in various countries, Beijing would be emboldened by the course of events, seeing the pandemic as a vindication of its own system’s strengths. China’s swift overcoming of the pandemic, combined with a catastrophe in the West of which would see over 900,000 people died in the United States (as of February 2022), was seen as part of a wider narrative pertaining to its own rise against that of the decline of the West. Adding to the events of the global financial crisis in 2008 and the consequences of destructive wars in the Middle East, China was confident of its own place in the world.
Whilst Western countries were in a state of chaos, China championed its own stability. The economic results at the end of that year would be a further vindication. Whilst Western countries suffered significant slumps in Gross Domestic Product and were forced to spend trillions to recover, China managed to cling on to a reduced GDP growth of 2.1%. Although the U.S. would later bounce back, the consequences of 2020 and 2021 would see the economic gap between the two countries close drastically. This also further polarized public opinion between that of the West. As Western countries grew in disapproval and hostility towards China, the Chinese public likewise hardened in their support of the system and their attitudes towards Western liberal democracy. 
These factors nonetheless served to crystallize the new geopolitical context as a state of competition between China and the West. The United States subsequently increased pressure on other countries to reset their relations with China, including ones who were not willing to do so previously. For example, the United Kingdom was not an accomplice to the United States on China prior to COVID-19, and Boris Johnson resisted pressure to ban Huawei from the UK’s 5G networks earlier that year. But as US pressure escalated and anti-China sentiment grew within his own party, he subsequently U-turned. Similar changes in attitudes would occur within Europe, whilst India’s ultra-Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi would also weaponize the pandemic in order to pivot a shift in his foreign policy towards the United States, igniting a border conflict with China and attempting to market the country as an alternative to manufacturing for China. 
(Source: www.hidropolitikakademi.org)
The New Geopolitical Environment and China’s Response
This new geopolitical environment, perhaps to the disappointment of some, would sustain the legitimacy to outlive the Trump administration and be embraced by the new President Joe Biden. Controversial decisions such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration of “genocide” in Xinjiang were designed as a means to consolidating their legacy, both at home and abroad. By this point in time, COVID was hardly a contributing factor, although conspiracy theories such as “The Lab Leak Theory” would continue to be politicized against the country accordingly as part of a 2021 campaign on the origins of the virus. Biden has since that time sought to consolidate a more multilateral approach to dealing with China, which has only made it harder for China to engage with Western countries diplomatically. The weaponization of the Xinjiang issue to undermine China’s Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI) with the European Union is one such example of this.
This poses the question of how China has responded to this shifting context as a country still ultimately needs to complete its own development in a more uncertain environment. Firstly, China has modified its foreign policy objectives in multiple areas. Whilst it has at large tried to avoid confrontation with the West, as economic and trade relations at large continued as normal, it has nonetheless placed a larger priority on consolidating ties with countries outside of the American sphere of influence to sharpen its geopolitical clout. Some examples of this include the declaration of strategic partnerships with Iran, Cuba, Russia, and Argentina, whilst also inviting Syria, Nicaragua, and Eritrea to join the Belt and Road Initiative. As engagement with the U.S. has waned, Beijing has been less willing to accede to US demands to cooperate on countries which it deems enemies and instead has shifted towards more explicitly supporting these countries. 
China’s swift handling of the pandemic and establishment of vaccines has also allowed it to pursue another diplomatic counteroffensive in this domain. In what is dubbed “vaccine diplomacy” by the Western media, China has been able to use the distribution and exporting of vaccines to build ties with other countries. According to data from Bridge Consulting, as of February 2022, China has sold over 1.69 billion doses of vaccines and donated in addition 184 million. These have largely been focused on countries in the “Global South” and the proportion of donations appears to correlate with countries that China deems of strategic importance, such as Pakistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar. 
In addition to this, in a world where the word “decoupling” has frequently been thrown around, China has nonetheless sought to protect its economic development, which remains the most important domestic priority, by aiming to further and urgently deepen its economic integration with the world as a whole, including countries allied with the U.S., aiming to reduce the leverage America has to curb its economic development and role in the global economy. This policy has been advantageous as the U.S. continues to advocate an “America First” attitude to global commerce, shunning free trade agreements. In doing so, China has sought to consolidate new markets whilst also using its own enormous domestic market to strategically make concessions. Whilst CAI with the EU was undermined, China was nonetheless successful in helping complete the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega trade deal between China, ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. 
In addition, China has also applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). In conjunction with this, the beginning of 2022 would see China open free trade talks with the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which consists of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as deals with Ecuador and Papua New Guinea. Throughout the year, this pattern is likely to continue. Although the Western media sometimes like to describe China as “isolated” owing to disapproval from the West, this is of course misleading. Instead, China is likely to keep doubling down on its relationships with countries in South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa under the rhetoric of securing mutual, or “win-win” development. This has arguably been a key factor of the Belt and Road Initiative all along.
Challenges Ahead
Despite this, certain challenges remain as China is moving forwards. These include the growing tensions ignited by the U.S. over certain flashpoints, such as Taiwan. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration in Taipei has, since the COVID-19 pandemic, sought to use anti-China sentiment across the world to create an opening for itself and create political space to pursue an agenda of shifting the status quo in cross-strait relations away from reunification, using itself as a wedge issue to undermine China’s relations with certain countries and blocs. The “Taiwan Representative Office” row with Lithuania and the EU is one such example, whilst the issue is also provoking military tensions. 
This poses the question of how China deals with the growing politicization of issues such as Taiwan whilst avoiding a resort to an outright crisis. Likewise, how Beijing diplomatically handles certain U.S.-orchestrated blocs against it, such as AUKUS, or the “Quad” (Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.) will also be critical. In addition, beyond simple questions of trade, China also finds itself in a race to develop critical technologies, such as semiconductors, which the U.S. is striving to increasingly embargo from it through tools such as the entity list. This comes in tandem with the U.S. aggressively onshoring semiconductor capabilities and asserting greater global control over the supply chain, which will undoubtedly be used as geopolitical leverage. This makes China’s success ever more pivotal. 
Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new geopolitical environment, which, stemming from the politicization of a single virus, has manifested itself into the form of a multifaceted geopolitical struggle encompassing trade, economics, investment, technology, and military—a comprehensive reset of the West’s relationship with China. Beijing has shown some strategic shrewdness in how to respond to this in its foreign policy, showing itself as a capable actor. Although China has been confident, the scale of challenges it faces is many, making it a far from easy or guaranteed game. The negativity of the media of course also underestimates China’s resolve, which makes 2022, having commenced with the endless drama and controversy over the Winter Olympics, a crucial and interesting year.
This article is from the February issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the February issue, please click here:
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