Since the end of March, China has opened a new front in its global diplomacy. The Covid-19 virus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, from where it rapidly spread around the world. Initial cover-ups about the extent of the virus by the People’s Republic of China and Beijing’s crackdown on whistleblowers played a role in the slow international reaction, and Donald Trump has dubbed Covid-19 the “Chinese virus”.
But now that indigenous coronavirus infections appear to have dropped in China and its economy shows signs of recovering, Xi Jinping is turning a propaganda disaster into a political opportunity by offering humanitarian aid to Italy, the hardest hit country in Europe, and to other European states from Spain to Serbia and even Ukraine. His vigorous pandemic diplomacy is a skilful piece of improvisation, seeking to reframe his country’s role in the corona affair at a time of Euro-Atlantic disunion. But it should also be understood in the larger context of Chinese foreign policy, as nothing less than the new “Health Silk Road”.
Italy is currently the epicentre of the pandemic in Europe. Its death toll from Covid-19 has overtaken China’s. Given the other EU states’ initial focus on themselves, Rome has felt abandoned. The sudden surge of generosity from far-distant China – in the form of tens of thousands of ventilators, masks, medicines and protective gear – has therefore come at a perfect time.
Not only is Italy desperate for such deliveries, it is also politically vulnerable. China’s state news agency Xinhua made no secret of Beijing’s real intentions, proclaiming: “When handshakes are no longer encouraged in Europe, China’s helping hand could make a difference” – a barbed allusion to the EU’s apparent lack of solidarity with Italy.
China’s generosity is, of course, calculated. And it fits into China’s long-term global Belt and Road Initiative, first unveiled in 2013. This vision of the future is rooted in China’s imperial past, evoking the ancient Silk Road that connected Asia and Europe from around 200 BC, indeed for some centuries linking the Middle Kingdom with the Roman empire. Xi’s grand design for the first half of this century – tying together Eurasian and African countries via land (Belt) and sea (Road) routes – reflects China’s long-term ambition for economic and political leadership.
In March 2019, when Italy became the first G7 country to officially join China’s “New Silk Road”, Rome was loudly criticised by the large EU states. They feared Beijing could drive a wedge between EU members. Twelve months on, these concerns have become more acute. On 16 March 2020 Xi assured Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte over the phone that “China is ready to work with Italy to contribute to international cooperation on epidemic control and to the building of a Health Silk Road”. That same week the Chinese leader made similar offers to several other leaders in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
When the coronavirus crisis is eventually over, European and global politics will have transformed. Can the bonds between Rome and Brussels be restored, or will the crisis precipitate a general weakening of the EU? Has Trump’s America First approach to Covid-19 further undermined Washington’s position as global leader? Will Italy look more to China, less to the EU and the US? Will that be true for other countries as well?
This is a grave moment for the EU. During the Balkans crisis in 1991 Jacques Poos, then president of the European Council, claimed that this was the “hour of Europe”. But this bold assertion came to nothing as the EU failed to enact a unified European foreign policy and prevent the bloody implosion of Yugoslavia.
This is also a crucial moment for the transatlantic community, because EU inertia and Trumpist isolationism have left a vacuum that China’s unilateral internationalism seeks to fill.
Europeans should not be surprised if the new Health Silk Road from China to Rome is named after Marco Polo. After returning from China around 700 years ago, the Venetian merchant’s travel notes were published as the Book of the Marvels of the World. It offered Europeans a first glimpse into the unknown: Asia. In this vein, Henry Kissinger in 1971 called his first secret diplomatic mission to the “other” – to communist China – “Polo 1”. Now the direction of travel has been reversed.
It has often been asked what the international system will look like after this severe global health crisis and the unprecedented global recession that is bound to follow. Will it be through China’s “Silk Roads” that Beijing will subtly try to remap the world? When China began its economic reform under Deng Xiaoping over four decades ago, his motto was: “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.” Xi feels that China’s time has come. He is now ready to seize every opportunity to pursue his grand design of rewriting the world order in Chinese characters.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special