China, the centre of the Covid-19 outbreak, could find a silver lining from the crisis. Over the past few years, Beijing has made inroads to developing nations in Africa, Latin America, and even the Middle East. Beijing engendered good will towards China by investing in economic initiatives, infrastructure, and cultural centers abroad. Although the novel coronavirus has given some nations reason to rethink the ethics of China and the Communist Party of President Xi Jinping, cash-strapped states that depend on it for support will have few options in fighting virus outbreaks, as Azeem Ibrahim wrote for Foreign Policy.
Soft Power is the New Military
Beijing has widened its sphere of influence not by military might as nations once did decades ago, but with soft power—money. In exchange, Beijing not only spreads its image across the globe, but it also wields leverage over states that have become indebted to it. Covid-19 has left many nations, developed states included, hurting for supplies. Shortages of gloves, masks, essential items like toilet paper, and life-sustaining ventilators have caught them off-guard.
Moreover, as the world shut down, so did economies in practically every state. Few industries have managed to carry on as normal and governments have been forced to make drastic decisions to keep their states afloat. Do they cut spending? Raise taxes? Print more money? All of the above?
China is a unique position to help states that have lagged behind in resources, money, and power. Xi welcomes them with open arms as an opportunity to help one another. In China, they find a willing creditor that is slowly collecting states like pieces in a board game.
To witness the efficiency of its soft power, look no further than its relationship with Saudi Arabia. The nation with the two holiest mosques in Islam, indeed the birthplace of the world’s third largest religion, licked Beijing’s boots when Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) promoted a partnership between them. Not only did MbS praise China’s promises to invest in his kingdom, but he even defended Xi’s genocide of one million Uighur Muslims.
Money buys power, this has always been the case, but few states have wielded it like China. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic that China itself had the power to stop at the onset, Beijing can curry more favors with the underdeveloped nations that depend on it. Where does economic dependency on China lead?
Look no further than Sri Lanka which has surrendered its Hambantota port in 2017 to satisfy debts to Beijing. The state was so devastated by civil war that only China would make a deal with it. Perhaps it new Sri Lanka would default and then it could pick up some cheap real estate.
Other states are at similar risk: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Maldives, Djibouti, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Montenegro were pegged by Quartz as likely suckers for China’s debt trap scheme.
China is keen not only to expand its soft power influence of states across the globe, but also to turn that power into military might as it makes a play for the high seas. Right now, it continues to encroach on the South China Sea, highly-contested waters, but soon it could make a play for the Indian Ocean by leveraging indebted nations along Africa’s coast or the Middle East.
What Can the West Do in Response?
Western States, the US in particular, could adopt another policy like the Marshall Plan, which provided economic recovery to post-World War II Europe. It could do this, Azeem argues, through debt restructuring initiatives. Simply put, developing states that find themselves crippled by Covid-19 and unable to satisfy their obligations to Beijing could seek relief through the US and its allies instead. It would be Washington turning the tables on China, becoming the new, dominant soft-power player.
As Azeem notes, this idea would most certainly require another president in America, and considering that the coronavirus has no end in sight, it could very well be up to a different leader to pick up the pieces. Trump’s “America First” policy does not include bailing out impoverished states that he once referred to as “shithole countries.”
The West cannot afford to rest any longer on China. Before Covid-19, major concerns included Brexit, North Korea’s nuclear follies, US sanctions on Iran, ISIS, and a US-China trade war. Amid all this, while the West was distracted, China made plays around the globe to seize power and, in some cases, land and military bases.
Covid-19 presents an opportunity for both China and the West to step up and be global players. Beijing has proven itself time and time again, that it will be there when states have no alternatives. Now, America and her allies have a global economic and health pandemic that could be the right opportunity to show the international community that they don’t have to sell their souls to the devil to stay alive.