By leveraging the BRI infrastructure for its health outreach, China has the power to negate its besmirched 'Wuhan virus' status. However, it must first iron out its supply chain lacunae and avoid overburdening debt-ridden countries
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, is a 'win-win’ for China as it fulfils the country’s commercial-diplomatic goals, while also promoting greater interconnectivity across Asia, Middle East, Africa, and Europe that further facilitates trade. Though its primary purpose is an economic push, it has taken on another role as well. In the wake of the pandemic, the BRI is being played out as a ‘Health Silk Road.’
China consolidated its plans for the Health Silk Road in 2015 when it set targets for influencing international health governance and providing medical aid. In 2017, this was taken a step further when the country signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the World Health Organisation to cooperate in advancing the global health initiative. But the BRI health proposal goes beyond just signing papers; China has also played an important role in providing overseas development assistance, according to a 2014 The Lancet analysis. For instance, China dispatched roughly 1,200 healthcare workers to Africa during the Ebola epidemic. It also developed biosafety infrastructure and provided free treatment, while cooperating with various multilateral groups.
Now, with China’s plummeting reputation due to widespread accusations of its complicity in allowing the deadly COVID 19 virus to spread beyond its boundaries, the Health Silk Road has re-emerged to project China as a responsible world power striving to address the global health crisis. Over the last few months, China claims to have sent millions of surgical masks, PPE kits, and dozens of medical teams to over 130 countries and international organisations. Chinese embassies, as well as BRI companies like Huawei, have provided aid to Greece, Malaysia, and the Philippines. More importantly, China’s move is part of its ‘mask diplomacy’, aiming to promote its image as a responsible global hegemon while distancing itself from its responsibilities regarding the spread of the virus. Till now, China has deflected the blame on countries suffering heavily from the pandemic, calling their own faulty policy actions as the cause for their inability to control the virus. Not surprisingly, such statements have further caused rancour amongst the most affected countries.
BUMPS ON THE ROAD
The Health Silk Road leverages the BRI corridors and ports to transport medical supplies to participating countries. But as the pandemic led to isolationist policies and the banning of construction workers and BRI material from China, the initiative's scope for interconnectivity has reduced. In addition, supply chain disruptions have affected various projects. This has stalled the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Bangladesh’s Payra Coal Power Plant, and Cambodia’s Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, among others.
Although China’s GDP has grown by 3.2 per cent since its 6.8 per cent fall in the first few months of the pandemic, declining retail sales and consumer demand have negatively affected its economy. This might also challenge China’s capacity to advance its economic and health targets abroad, as it may be caught up with addressing its own internal affairs. Moreover, countries that are relying on Chinese financial institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for loans for the project might fall into debt. The pandemic can have serious ramifications on countries unable to service loans for the projects, especially as several BRI agreements (such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor pact) are considered “opaque and clouded in secrecy”. Depending on the terms of the contracts, countries with limited resources post-pandemic will likely be further wary of the potential benefits and limitations of participating in BRI projects.
Finally, China’s diplomatic tensions and territorial disputes can prevent the long-term success of the BRI and Health Silk Road. Its aggressive moves amongst the Southeast Asian countries around the South China Sea – such as the deployment of an oil-drilling platform in a Vietnam-claimed economic zone in 2014 – have led to hostility in the region. China’s claim over Taiwan has also not helped it to win the outright support of its BRI partner nations. Additionally, China’s recent border standoff with India has increased tensions between the two countries, with the potential to destabilise the region in case both giants clash.
WHICH WAY IS RIGHT?
So is the Health Silk Road’s progression likely to cause more benefits or harm to the international community? If China can find methods to address its various challenges and continue providing genuine assistance to struggling countries during the pandemic, it might benefit from redeeming its “Wuhan virus” status and become a global health leader. It has the opportunity to leverage its ongoing BRI projects to include digital health facilities such as quarantine surveillance and contact-tracing apps. Since China has publicised its cooperation with international institutions such as the WHO – particularly at a time when Donald Trump is cutting ties with such multilateral agreements accusing them of dancing to the tune of China – the Health Silk Road can pave the path for China’s soft power.
However, it is unlikely that China will proceed unchallenged. India, for instance, has been attempting to counter China’s Health Silk Road strategies by providing medicines and protective gears to neighbouring countries. The US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has also recently launched a Health and Prosperity Initiative, that they claim will be more transparent and long-lasting than China’s projects. Ultimately, China’s territorial disputes, the trade war with the U.S., and scepticism over the veracity of its BRI contracts could also stall or end some projects. Since the pandemic has strained the resources of countries worldwide, developing countries will become increasingly wary of falling into debt due to expensive loans from Chinese banks. But nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly rendered China’s Health and Digital Silk Road projects further relevant and even necessary. Through continued cooperation with international institutions, the BRI can help the world recover.
- While COVID-19 has led to criticism over China’s lack of transparency during the initial stage of rising cases, it has also provided China with an opportunity to redeem its reputation by remodelling its Belt and Road Initiative to focus on recovering the costs of the pandemic, through the Health Silk Road.
- The long-term success of China’s initiatives would depend on its ability to address challenges such as fair loan repayment policies for debt-ridden countries, territorial disputes, and the availability of resources to continue projects post the pandemic.
- The world would recognise the utility of the 'Health Silk Road' only if it makes a material difference to the health care systems of developing countries, and is unlikely to be impressed by mere optics. Since China has been working the longest on creating a COVID-19 vaccine, it could win the world over if it makes available such a vaccine in large numbers to countries along its BRI corridors and rid the world of this deadly virus.