The COVID-19 outbreak could have decimated China’s reputation. Here’s why it didn’t.
The pandemic threatened to take a sledgehammer to China’s international ascent, but some deft diplomacy turned a threat into an opportunity for Beijing to emerge stronger and more influential.
For decades, the nation has been on a charm offensive — pouring in development aid and trying to win friends around the world. Since the Cold War, China has funded sports infrastructure in Africa, sent doctors and teachers abroad and provided preferential loans to developing economies. Beijing has formalised its foreign aid strategies in several official documents, as recently as 2021.
A country’s public diplomacy aims to reach foreign populations and shape their attitudes towards their nation, generating support for their politics — the same can be said for Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party. Considered the origin country of COVID-19, China faced a lot of global media criticism for its alleged role in igniting the pandemic — with some media outlets and public figures initially dubbing COVID-19 a “Wuhan virus”.
In this terrain, China had to conduct its diplomatic relations with great care and turn negatives into positives. China’s foreign policy manoeuvring came with a sense of urgency during the pandemic.
Pandemic-era foreign aid revealed several core goals: providing conditions and space for international co-operation, presenting China as a successful, responsible and dedicated nation (especially in assisting developing economies) and providing — mostly economic — mutual benefits.
Official statements from China’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs parrot similar language, tying vaccine diplomacy with foreign aid. In such statements, China is showcased as an advocate of international co-operation and solidarity, a responsible international actor and provider to the developing world.
Giving away vaccines is a gambit that brought the soft power benefits of being positioned as a responsible actor, whatever the financial opportunity cost.
China’s pandemic-related foreign policy began with sending protective medical equipment. There is evidence that Chinese assistance was twofold. In the beginning it was sent to countries that had earlier offered China help during the outbreak of COVID-19 — there was a narrative provided by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressing gratitude to those countries by returning the favour. Beijing was also offering help to those who asked for it with the condition of not recognising Taiwan as a sovereign entity. This ‘mask diplomacy’ morphed into ‘vaccine diplomacy’ later in the pandemic as China developed its own brand of vaccines.
While using health as a tool to strengthen national interests within foreign countries has been accelerated during the pandemic, it’s not new. Vaccine diplomacy can be traced as far back as 1798 when the first smallpox vaccination was discovered. But it has since gained momentum to become a persuasive strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beijing’s vaccine exportation was less about altruism than it was about power — not only were many COVID-19 jabs sold, but those donated were to strategic nations, building a narrative that positioned China in a good light.
China’s jabs have mostly targeted Asia-Pacific countries, followed by African and Latin American nations. The geographical distribution suggests which regions are perceived as strategically important to Beijing, with the possibility of strengthening their influence.
Whichever country is providing COVID-19 vaccines, be it China, Japan or somewhere else, benefits often extend beyond the goodwill of the donor. The obvious outcome is that the donor is helping global health and health security, which benefits all. But there’s also a positive effect on how the nation is perceived. Such as how strong they are viewed, their ability to set agendas, the power to influence mainstream discussions and their national image.
The pandemic provided favourable conditions for vaccines to be used in this way. European states and the United States were accused of buying much bigger amounts of vaccines than needed, which left developing economies with a shortage of doses. China had an opening to swoop in and fill the vacuum, providing its vaccines and assistance to countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
China was already the leading manufacturer of COVID-19 vaccines at the start of 2021. By the start of March that year, they had produced almost 170 million doses. But their vaccine diplomacy started early — as far back as July 2020, with the first agreements signed with selected partner countries, many of whom were lower-to-middle-income states. In December 2020, Egypt was one of the first countries to receive Chinese vaccines produced by the state-owned pharmaceutical company Sinopharm. By October 2022, China had sold 1.84 billion doses and donated 325 million to its international partners, according to the newest available data provided by Bridge, a consulting company.
By influencing countries, China used the pandemic to fortify itself ahead of the next confrontation with the West with both foreign aid and ‘vaccine diplomacy’, generating favourable conditions for winning friends.
Anna Kobierecka is an assistant professor at the Faculty of International and Political Studies, University of Lodz. Her main research field is focused on public diplomacy and nation branding.
The author discloses no conflict of interest.