Covid-19 and the China Challenge: Interrogating the Domestic-International Nexus in Beijing’s Coronavirus Response

Author: Ho, Benjamin Tze Ern1

Published in National Security Journal, 16 July 2021

DOI: 10.36878/nsj20210716.01

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Abstract

This article considers China’s political manoeuvers between February and October 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to devastate many parts of the world. It argues that the pandemic has exacerbated geopolitical tensions between China, the United States and the West. Consequently, Chinese policy-makers perceive the existence of a broad Western front which seeks to contain its global ambitions, as well as to de-legitimise the rule of the Chinese government domestically. In response, the Chinese government has attempted to shore up its territorial claims while embarking on a global diplomatic offensive to cast itself as a responsible power and at the same time call into question the West’s ability to practice global leadership. Taken together, these narratives have emboldened China to attempt and seize the moral high ground while at the same time undermine Western criticism that it was an un-cooperative and opportunistic power that had taken advantage of the pandemic to pursue its own selfish agenda.

Keywords: Covid-19, China, Beijing, Coronavirus, Coronavirus response, international politics, Asia-Pacific


Introduction

The outbreak of a mysterious virus affecting thousands of Chinese citizens in Wuhan in December 2019 initially received little global attention. On 23 January 2020, the Chinese government imposed a lockdown on the city in order to quarantine the epicenter of what became later known as the Covid-19 disease. Coming on the eve of its annual Spring festival, the significance of the lockdown was not lost on many Chinese citizens in that the Chinese government was prepared to take measures, no matter how drastic, to prevent the broader spread of the disease. In contrast, life continued throughout this period as per normal in many parts of the West, the general consensus was that this was a virus that would be largely contained within East Asia.

Writing now a year on (June 2021), the global picture has changed drastically. With over a 170 million people affected and more than three and a half million dead, the devastation to the global economy (the IMF projected global growth in 2020 to be -4.9 per cent) has led to questions and concerns over the state of international governance, particularly on the relevance of the global international order and the ostensible primacy of Western leadership, led by the United States. While these questions are not novel and have been posed by many scholars in the past1, the Covid-19 pandemic has generated renewed debate over the ability of Western governments to lead their own countries through crisis, let alone the rest of the world. Given that China was one of the first few countries to control the outbreak (despite its early bumbling), the political message that the Chinese government sought to narrate and project in the months that followed was all too clear: China was undoubtedly better than the West (particularly the United States) in its response to the pandemic and therefore it deserves a greater say in and share of the rules of international order.2

During the same period (December 2019 to June 2021), Chinese military presence in the South China Sea also increased and became more belligerent, even as many Western leaders and officials such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assertively criticised China over a number of issues.3 In April 2020, a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the Paracel Islands, which China and Vietnam both claim as theirs. Shortly after, a Malaysian oil exploration project had its operations disrupted off the coast of Borneo by a Chinese marine survey vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, which was also accompanied by Chinese naval and coast guard forces. Shortly afterwards, on 20 July, the People’s Liberation Army Navy conducted exercises in the South China Sea which also involved the China Coast Guard.4 Taken together, this article argues that China’s actions over territorial matters are conceptualised and oriented towards the goal of entrenching Beijing’s political presence and influence in the South China Sea. Indeed the ability to dominate territory (be it land or sea) allows Beijing to subsequently negotiate (should it need to) from a position of strength, reducing the likelihood that it would have to concede existing territory in the future.

From the above, the article highlights two key objectives that lie behind the Chinese government actions. In the case of its Covid response, it seeks to seize the moral high ground while at the same time, undermine criticisms from countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Australia that it was an unco-operative and opportunistic power that had taken advantage of the pandemic to pursue its own selfish agenda. All these are primarily trained at a domestic audience which had expressed criticism towards the Chinese government in the early days of the Covid outbreak.5 In the case of its territorial forays, the goal is primarily an international one as China seeks to dissuade any attempts by Southeast Asian states to challenge its regional primacy while at the same time, keeping the United States on the backfoot in having to respond to Beijing’s challenge (rather than being afforded the initiative to challenge it).

The following article will examine this interplay of domestic-international factors which provide important clues as to how China sees itself in relation to the world, and what it envisages its future role to be. To do so, this article peruses the theoretical insights proffered by Robert Jervis in understanding how great powers operate and how they relate to Beijing’s actions in the course of the coronavirus pandemic, both domestically and internationally.6 It will then go on to examine how China’s diplomatic narrative has continually focused on three themes: (i) a responsible China, (ii) a self-sacrificial China, and (iii) a superior China. Internationally, China also seeks to call into question Western political norms and values as being normative for other states while promoting Chinese behaviour and values as being comparatively more suitable for international emulation. In light of all these, in the years to come, it is argued that we are likely to witness China wanting an even greater say in international affairs, a hardening of its resolve to stronger claims of international influence, and to significantly resist Western attempts to challenge it domestically. The article will conclude with some implications for policy-makers, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, in seeking to address China’s challenge to international politics in an era of Covid-19 and beyond.

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1 Benjamin Ho is Assistant Professor at the China Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore. His research focus includes the study of China’s international relations, with an emphasis on Chinese political worldview and exceptionalism thinking. He can be contacted at isteho@ntu.edu.sg