Last fall, I co-authored an article on soft power that examined the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the international scene under the guise of an “America First” doctrine. That was well before COVID-19 was part of our daily vernacular, much less a threat to our way of life. And while the United States has been disengaging from the international stage for the last few years, this pandemic has brought into sharp relief just how much we have ceded global leadership.

China’s Growing Soft Power

For the last decade, foreign direct investments have been the shiniest tool in China’s soft power arsenal in the global proxy war for power and influence. Since 2013, China has adopted a global strategy called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that involves infrastructure development and investments throughout Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. China is expected to spend over a trillion dollars on foreign infrastructure and other development projects by 2027 — more than the cost of the Marshall Plan.

What makes BRI investments so attractive is that, unlike other foreign aid, they seemingly come with no strings attached. The United States has historically conditioned aid and security assistance on human rights and democratic practices. The European Union, for instance, ties sought after economic association agreements to reform commitments. But, make no mistake, China gets a return on its investments.

The BRI has been summed up as debt-trap diplomacy. BRI projects are built through low interest loans that, when local countries are unable to repay, China uses to gain a foothold. In Sri Lanka, in exchange for forgiving $13 billion in investment debt, China secured a long-term lease on a strategically significant port that it intends to turn into a military base. Today, BRI debt exceeds 20 percent of GDP in some countries.

Pro-Chinese propaganda seems to follow closely behind the arrival of infrastructure projects. In Zambia, where China has invested heavily in the copper mining industry, murder charges were dropped against two Chinese managers who opened fire on protesting employees, spurring claims of undue political influence. In Sierra Leone, Chinese nationals campaigned alongside the ruling party’s presidential candidate in full party uniform. Some countries have begun pushing back. In 2018, the Malaysian prime minister ran — and won — on a platform opposing $22 billion in planned Chinese investments.

China’s ambitions are not limited to the developing world. Since 2016, China has been deploying the “16+1 Initiative” in post-Soviet countries with a billion-euro injection. In March 2019, Italy became the first G7 country to join the BRI. Already, these investments are translating into influence. Just a few examples: Hungary, Greece, and Croatia all caved to pressure on an EU resolution regarding the South China Sea, a key strategic asset to China. The Czech Republic’s oldest university was embroiled in a scandal involving a corporate sponsor seeking to limit academic criticism of China. Other examples of attempted — and often successful — leverage abound.

The U.S. and Europe have been sounding the alarm about these predatory lending practices. Last year, the EU established a framework to screen foreign investments, with a particular focus on Chinese technology companies. The U.S. has sought to dissuade African nations from accepting Chinese investments, calling China’s efforts “treasury-run empire build.” But countries like South Africa and Uganda have been reluctant to turn away more cost-effective Chinese options.

Ironically, the BRI’s expanding reach comes at the very time when the U.S. has been pulling back from the world, not least with its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Asia and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

China’s Response to the COVID-19 Crisis

Though the extent to which China covered up the virus’s spread remains to be fully investigated, some are already arguing that China’s initial bungled response to the pandemic will be a “disaster” for the BRI. However, the crisis has also opened the door to new avenue of influence.

In recent weeks, China has engaged in so-called “coronavirus diplomacy,” sending an onslaught of medical equipment and aid to countries across the globe. Italy, the first European country to join the BRI, was an early recipient of doctors and equipment – the shipment was covered with a Chinese flag that read “the friendship road knows no borders.” The Netherlands got 800,000 masks, the Philippines and Pakistan got hundreds of thousands of test kits, Iran and Iraq received medical teams, Sri Lanka received a $500 million loan to fight the virus, and the list goes on. In Africa in particular, where China already has deep ties, it has conducted what is being described as a “donation blitz.” “There is a desperate need for the medical protective equipment and gear to support public health workers in Africa and China’s donations fill a part of that need at a time when not many other people have been stepping up to help,” explains Eric Olander, managing editor of The China Africa Project.

And it is not just the government leading those efforts. Powerful private actors have been active as well, just as they were in the BRI. In March, Jack Ma of Alibaba donated 500,000 test kits, 1,000 ventilators, and 1 million masks to the U.S. and 1 million test kits and 600,000 masks to Africa. In April, Ma distributed 500 ventilators and 200,000 personal protective equipment to Ethiopia.

On the one hand, this aid is part of China’s efforts to deflect some of the blame for its poor initial handling of the crisis. On the other hand, some are rightly speculating about the influence that will come with this aid. China’s president reportedly lauded the building of a “Health Silk Road” on a call with Italy’s prime minister. Serbia’s president welcomed Chinese aid from “brother and friend” Xi Jinping, while simultaneously attacking EU solidarity as a “fairy tale.” A doctors’ association in Nigeria has rejected a plan to invite Chinese medical teams out of fear that they would take charge of the fight against the virus. The EU’s foreign policy chief recently fired a warning shot at what he termed China’s “politics of generosity,” calling on EU countries to stand ready for a “struggle for influence” in a “global battle of narratives.” It is no coincidence that the recipients of aid from China closely track BRI recipients.

China’s efforts have been in stark contrast to the American response. While China seeks to position itself as the global leader in the fight against the virus, the U.S. administration’s squandering of early opportunities to mitigate the crisis has not only prevented the U.S. from playing the role it typically would — leading the international response and providing aid to other countries. But the U.S. is now the one asking for help from South Korea and even China itself. The administration cannot even shepherd a nominal resolution about the virus through the United Nations and has threatened to pull funding from the WHO. Meanwhile, China has pledged $20 million to the WHO for pandemic efforts.


There is no arguing that the U.S. government has shrunk from its global responsibilities in this pandemic, leaving a vacuum of leadership for others to fill. China’s prominent relief efforts in recent weeks will only cement its leverage in regions where it already had a strong foothold before the crisis. Western allies have long warned about the pernicious aspects of Chinese investments. It is hard to imagine that countries desperate for medical help will heed those warnings now. As one Italian official told the New York Times: “If somebody is worried China is doing too much, the gap is open to other countries.”

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of her employer.

Image: Airport staff unload medical supplies brought by Chinese medical team on arrival at Yangon International Airport in Yangon on April 8, 2020 to aid Myanmar in its effort to combat the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Photo by Sai Aung Main / AFP via Getty Images