As Spain and Italy began reeling from rapidly rising coronavirus infections and outbreaks grew in other countries last month, China stepped in with testing kits, protective gear and other medical aid critical for fighting the disease.
Several European countries, desperate for help, welcomed the aid, even though some of it turned out to be faulty.
China manufactures much of the world’s medical protective gear. That equipment, as well as testing kits and the experience its doctors have had in fighting COVID-19, is desperately appreciated by countries facing their own medical crises, Robert Daly, a China analyst at the Wilson Center, said.
China's positive public diplomacy based on public goods, especially in the developing or less developed world, is probably going to accrue to China's soft power benefit, Daly said.
U.S. President Donald Trump, asked this week by VOA about the Chinese assistance, said he welcomed it.
“We have 151 countries right now that are under siege by the virus,” he told reporters Wednesday. “And if China can help them, I'm all for it. I'm for all of us helping everybody.”
But the outreach is also seen as a key part of Beijing’s plan to avoid blame for a pandemic whose origins in China remain unexplained, and where many continue to doubt the official health and economic figures released by the government.
In recent weeks, Chinese officials have promoted a false narrative that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to China.
Beijing’s accusations, and China’s lack of transparency about the outbreak, may be starting to carry a political cost with countries now struggling with a health and economic disaster.
Dan Runde, a China analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the foreign aid cannot make up for Beijing’s baseless accusations, the outbreak’s murky origins and the government’s continuing unwillingness to explain how bad it has gotten at home.
“China is an arsonist who's now trying to turn around and put out the fire that it started. And do we really want them to get the credit for that?” Runde said.
China said the outbreak began in a seafood market in Wuhan, probably when the virus jumped from an infected bat to a human. However, there has not been conclusive evidence that the virus came from the market. As the outbreak grew, China detained whistleblowers, censored media coverage and then publicly changed the criteria numerous times for who qualified as infected, hindering researchers who were trying to model how the outbreak could behave in their own countries.
Chinese censorship, US inaction
Even critics of the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak say that it’s difficult to blame Beijing for the lack of preparation by other countries as weeks went by while the virus made its way around the world.
“China did cover up in a characteristically paranoid way,” analyst Daly said. “We know that it is spreading disinformation, propaganda, and locking up critics. All true.
“However, the critique of the Trump administration implies that had China been perfectly transparent, the United States would have been perfectly strategic in its response. And we know that not to be true.”
The president maintains his administration took the threat seriously, but opposition Democrats have been particularly critical, pointing to how Trump downplayed the virus’ threat for weeks and at times called it a “hoax” before reversing his position and recommending people stay at home.
Critics say that shows the U.S. administration’s response also has been politically driven — publicly shaming China, calling the coronavirus the "Wuhan virus" in an attempt to shift blame away from Washington’s initially slow response.
Even though the U.S. is providing millions of dollars in aid to fight the deadly coronavirus worldwide, the White House is signaling that some protective equipment should not be sent abroad in order to prioritize the fight at home that is now the biggest in the world.
The Trump administration’s focus on the needs of the United States fits well within the policies that the president ran on when he won the 2016 election.
“For the most part, the coronavirus has only exacerbated and accelerated a trend that had been well in place before,” Daly said.