China’s Mask Diplomacy: Attempts to expand its influence in Europe 

| Yadhu Krishna Raj and Dr. Karamala Areesh Kumar

The Rise of China

Aggressive China emerged as an economic superpower in the post-Soviet world order. Communist China liberalized its economy without altering its political system. It started expanding its influence in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America through its economic imperialism. The formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS), Russia-India-China (RIC), and Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) contributed to the rise of China in the global level. China is also successful in spreading its sphere of influence through its soft-power diplomacy. It initiated Ping-Pong diplomacy, Panda diplomacy, Stadium diplomacy and Loan diplomacy to strengthen its power across the globe.

Covid-19 Impact

However, since the beginning of 2020, the entire world has encountered the supreme catastrophe created by the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Pandemic was originated in China in March 2020, spread from China to Europe, America and to other parts of the world. All the states across the globe faced lock-downs, economic crisis, shortage of resources and human loss. Most European and Western countries blamed China for spreading the virus. However, the Chinese leadership strictly defended the suspicious opprobrium made by the West and other states through its Vaccine and Mask diplomacy.

China’s Mask Diplomacy

According to Stanford Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, China accounts for 40 per cent of the total imports and exports of the face shields, nearly producing half of the world’s total mask production, gloves, goggles, and medicinal garments etc. The prominent Horizon Advisory stated that China accelerated the production of medical and pharmaceuticals production and the supply. It eventually devised China as an ambassador for goodwill.

Italy being the epicenter in Europe, suffered a gigantic loss. In a quick response, China extended mammoth aid to all paramount European nations in the initial stage. Indeed, it was a kick-off to mask diplomacy, showcasing how it established as a turning point for China. Beijing being the lodestone, supplied tons of medical equipment and medical adepts to these countries confronting the contagious virus. Italy, Spain, Iran, Serbia, Turkey, Canada, The Netherlands, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia etc., are some principal states which received medical equipment from China. 

China accounts for 40 per cent of the total imports and exports of the face shields, nearly producing half of the world's total mask production, gloves, goggles, and medicinal garments etc. 

Similarly, China extended their medical support to Croatia. Beijing exported 12.5 tons of medical equipment to Zagreb. Additionally, China proffered $467 million in medical equipment to Spain, a million face masks and testing kits to Bratislava (Slovakia). It also extended its support to Hungary by providing them with 86 ventilators, Indonesia by supplying 17 tons of medical equipment and Czech with 150,000 testing kits. 

Role of Media

The delegates and diplomats from China extensively employed social media platforms to disseminate the state’s generosity, predominantly through Twitter. Chinese Diplomat Zhao Lijian said China is making efforts to reciprocate the goodwill they received earlier during a pandemic, act on international humanitarianism and implement the vision of a community with a shared future for humankind.

The lion share of the Chinese media has enhanced and augmented the glory of the state by employing the new idea of the Health Silk Road. Since March, tweets praising China’s actions have increased substantially. In the beginning, the media exclusively earmarked the efforts taken for the mass production of masks (for domestic consumption) and other medical equipment. The shipments which carried medical equipment also bolstered the Chinese foreign policy, and the media succored it by gaining the eyes and ears of the masses. 

Response of the West

According to most western countries, leaders, academicians and analysts, Beijing is trying to seize the West’s public attention, annexing the market as the West confronts harsh economic backlash due to the pandemic. 

The medical aid from Huawei to Canada and USA shows the agenda of China to have a clout on the foreign policy of these nations. Earlier Huawei had a plan to establish a 5G network in Canada but the Government proscribed the actions as it posed a life and death threat to the national security. In addition to this, the company, as well as the CFO Meng Wanzhou, are confronting severe criminal charges including corporate espionage, fraudulent acts, embezzlement etc. However, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau firmly said donations from these firms would not affect the policies and views of the country to any degree.        

“China started this crisis. But now, they are selling medical equipment, testing kits, and masks and emerging as some heroes that will save us all. China is not saving us by selling bad quality equipment”

Lídia Pereira, a Portuguese member of the European Parliament

Adding to this, several states withheld the equipment from China, citing malfunction and poor quality. Czech reported that more than 80% of the mask costs around 600,000 dollars were shoddy. Spain also bewailed that most of the medical equipment they imported exposed less than 30% of them functioned properly, whereas the Chinese Government assured that more than 80% worked as intended. The Philippines also encountered similar failures. They argued that the medical equipment from China is less than 40% functioning, thus unveiling the dark side of the Chinese generosity.  

Lídia Pereira, a Portuguese member of the European Parliament, commented- “China started this crisis. But now, they are selling medical equipment, testing kits, and masks and emerging as some heroes that will save us all. China is not saving us by selling bad quality equipment”. 

Conclusion

From all these examples, we can comprehend that the Chinese Government and media have vigorously tried to celebrate the export of medical equipment from China and downplay the imports from the West. However, many scholars perceived and coined this strategy of ‘Mask Diplomacy’ as a sham, where they consider China to be playing a devil’s advocate. The strategic plan of Beijing, so-called mask diplomacy, can only be regarded as a partial success.

(Authors Information: Yadhu Krishna Raj is a research scholar, Department of Political Science, St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Bangalore. Dr. Karamala Areesh Kumar teaches International Relations and World Politics at PG and Research Centre, St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Bangalore)

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