The COVID-19 pandemic has captured the world’s attention. This crisis, unprecedented in modern times, continues to ravage countries across the world, and will likely continue to do so for many months. Undoubtedly, these are troubling times. Across our planet, people are confined to their homes, and economies have screeched to a halt. The human cost of lost loved ones and sad farewells is incalculable. The long-term consequences of this pandemic, on our societies and our economies, are appearing increasingly awful. Perhaps the gravest assessment of the current situation was given by French President Emmanuel Macron when he declared that “We are at war.” 

Now, cooperation and solidarity are more important than ever. Whether within our families, our communities or even across continents, we need to stick together. Unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the message. Leaders in countries such as the US and Iran have sought to exploit the crisis to further their own agendas or shift blame away from themselves. Meanwhile, anti-Chinese sentiment and racism have ballooned across the world in recent months. Ultimately, however, I believe and hope the COVID-19 crisis must bring us closer together. Despite the isolationist and nativist trends sweeping much of the world in recent years, the COVID-19 crisis reminds us that our differences are trivial. Ultimately we are all human, we are all susceptible to this virus, and we can only win this battle if we cooperate. Science diplomacy will be a defining factor in combating the spread and impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. 

In that spirit, it has been encouraging to see international cooperation increase in recent weeks. Countries are beginning to pool their resources and knowledge, which will help immeasurably in the fight against SARS-CoV-2 . Specifically, China has sought to become a leader in the fight against COVID-19 and is using its early experience in slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to help other countries tackle outbreaks. The Chinese strategy can be described as both idealist and pragmatist, as it both senses an opportunity to increase its reputation as a scientific power, and has genuine desires to limit the global consequences of the spread of SARS-CoV-2. 

 

The Chinese Model

Despite early criticism of its handling of the crisis, which included censoring those trying to raise awareness about the virus, China was decisive in implementing strict quarantines and locking down most of the country. At a huge economic cost, China has now virtually stopped the spread of the virus and has begun slowly lifting the strict measures put in place over one month ago. On March 19, China announced it had seen no new community transmissions for the first time since the outbreak was detected. Whereas Xi Jingping and the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) leadership’s response to the outbreak initially seemed weak, their response now appears to be a remarkable success. 

After initially failing to control the spread of the virus, many other nations have now adopted similar policies to those adopted in China. A loosely defined “Chinese model,” characterised by tight government control of people’s movement and the lockdown of the economy, is now being adopted or discussed in most countries across the world. The Council on Foreign Relations think tank suggests that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has turned from a “home-made disaster to [a] global mega-opportunity.” Having arrested the local spread of the virus in China (assuming there will be no further outbreaks as quarantines are lifted), China is now providing scientific, financial and resource support to countries tackling their own outbreaks. 

 

China to the Rescue?

Whereas only weeks ago China was the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO announced this week that the epicentre has shifted to Europe. At the same time, China has sought to position itself as a leader in the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and assist countries across the globe. The New York Times has stated that China “is mounting a humanitarian aid blitz in countries struggling with their own outbreaks.”

Italy, where deaths will surpass those in China in the next few days, has received extensive assistance from China. In addition to respiratory masks and diagnostic equipment, last week China sent a team of medical experts to Italy. The seven-member team includes an expert from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and two respiratory disease specialists from Sichuan University’s West China Hospital. Additional Chinese experts have travelled to Italy in recent days. 

Also last week, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Chinese leader Xi Jingping spoke on the phone about Sino-Italian cooperation and the emergence of a “Silk Road of health” (健康丝绸之路). Xinhua News reported Conte as stating that “the Chinese government has taken resolute measures to effectively control the epidemic, which has greatly encouraged and provided reference for Italy and other countries, adding that Italy congratulates China on the achievement.”

Additionally, the director of the French health authority has thanked Chinese authorities for providing France with over one million masks, in addition to other diagnostic equipment, in recent days. China has also sent over 1.8 million masks to Spain. Closer to home, China has delivered thousands of diagnostic tests to the Philippines, whilst medical equipment has also been provided to Iran, Iraq, Belgium, and the US amongst others. 

Back in Europe, Chinese epidemiologists have been briefing European experts on how China has managed the virus – including diagnosis, treatment, its pathological features, as well as information disclosure and government controls. This is another example of China’s growing reputation in COVID-19 related matters. 

 

A Win for Chinese Science Diplomacy?

By playing an increasingly important role in combating the global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it could be argued that China is improving its global reputation. The New York Times has suggested that the pandemic is helping China reposition itself as a responsible global leader through effective science diplomacy. Science diplomacy is an emerging field of foreign policy analysis that looks at how science and technology can form the basis of cooperation between countries, and can help countries to advance their interests. Science diplomacy operates at multiple levels, including academic and research institutions, intergovernmental bodies such as the WHO, UNESCO or the IPCC, and governments themselves. For a more systematic introduction to the concept of science diplomacy, head to this article by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. 

In the current context, the COVID-19 pandemic calls for closer cooperation between countries, including science diplomacy. China, whether consciously or subconsciously, senses an opportunity to effectively practice science diplomacy, and further its global influence by becoming a science and technology power.

Whilst a more systematic analysis can occur at a later date,  there are a number of points that can be made now. First, China sees the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to legitimise its political model. China’s authoritarian one-party system proved largely effective in limiting the spread of the virus once the government decided to take drastic action, even though their early responses were heavily criticised for covering up the true extent of the virus’s spread. In contrast with the mix-and-match responses of European and other developed states, China’s approach of strict quarantines and government control appears to have been the most effective response so far. 

Additionally, the dysfunction of government responses in countries like the US and UK has helped the CPC leadership frame the narrative around coronavirus to benefit Chinese interests. Howard French, an American sinologist, has argued that “China has been rewriting the narrative of the outbreak from a scandal, one of Chinese government coverup and mismanagement, to a story of triumph, of Chinese strength and generosity, or even superiority of its governing system.” Regardless of the validity of China’s claims, its narrative thus far appears to be cutting through. 

Second, China sees the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen its bilateral relations. The same Xinhua article mentioned earlier said that, “on behalf of the Italian government and people, Conte expressed his heartfelt thanks to the Chinese side, and said he believes that after the epidemic, the relationship between Italy and China will be stronger.” With the assistance of its media mouthpiece Xinhua, it is clear that the Chinese government senses an opportunity to build goodwill with European and other nations. Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic, with only a touch of hyperbole, said in recent days that “European solidarity does not exist” and that “I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help.”

Finally, China hopes its “model” to combat SARS-CoV-2 will improve its global standing as a science and technology power. As a testament to this ambition, Xi Jingping and Chinese leadership published an article this week on “providing strong sci-tech support for winning war against COVID-19.” The full Chinese-language version can be found here. In the article, Xi outlines the success of the “Chinese model” in stopping the exponential spread of the virus. Xi also makes direct appeals to science diplomacy, and calls for “strengthening international cooperation in scientific research” and “communication and exchange with the World Health Organization.” This discourse is important and shows the ambition of the Chinese government to play a leading role in pandemic prevention and response in the future.

In the midst of an unfolding global human tragedy, China has thus far played an increasingly central role in combating the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus worldwide. China also senses an opportunity to increase its reputation as a scientific and technological power, and strengthen bilateral relationships. But, much of what has been presented here represents a narrative China would like to express, namely, one in which it is a global leader in the fight against the pandemic, and where it can deflect criticism for the virus having originated in Hubei province.

Where the COVID-19 pandemic will go from here is difficult to say. What is certain, however, is that countries and communities must work together if we are to stop its spread and save lives. All countries have a role to play in this fight, whether large or small. China has shown itself to be up for the fight at home, and whether it can now increasingly seek to involve itself in the fight abroad is a question still up for debate. To what extent it will change the global narrative, and what long-term consequences this will have, only time can tell.