The political effects of the current COVID pandemic have been seen in multiple areas of global relations. The case of China’s foreign policy with African recipients has been one such notable area, with the Africa-China relationship already demonstrating some significant shifts because of the COVID crisis. What needs to be emphasised is how the importance of African partners has been further entrenched during the pandemic.
Despite the common assumption that African states are beholden to China’s whims, the COVID pandemic has instead led to China becoming more reliant upon gaining and maintaining the support of African recipient governments and regimes. The COVID pandemic has led to an international backlash aimed at its initial response and subsequent failings in global policy, alongside its more recent abrasive rhetoric versus other states. This means that African regimes and governments now have a more valuable role to play in China’s continuing global outreach than before the pandemic, receiving greater aid and assistance from China in exchange for this support.
‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy and Africa-China relations.
What should be highlighted first are the developments in Chinese foreign policy prior to the pandemic, namely the emergence of Chinese ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy. Named after a Chinese-produced series of films that emphasised the country’s dominating global presence, this form of diplomacy has resulted in China taking an aggressive approach to resolving foreign disputes, alongside imparting political pressure on non-Western regimes and governments to adopt China’s policy positions and politically isolate its rivals.
This has resulted in rhetorical threats and economic isolation of Somaliland when it refused to engage with China and instead initiated relations with Taiwan, alongside Chinese diplomats reacting angrily to those who criticise China’s actions abroad, or who support China’s ‘enemies’, such as Hong Kong protestors. Much of this rhetoric has come from central Party figures themselves, such as China’s ambassadors, who have been endorsed by Xi himself. Xi has encouraged Chinese politicians to exert more effort in defending China against foreign ‘misinformation’ about China’s ambitions.
These efforts led to some significant changes in Africa-China relations prior to the pandemic. African regimes and governments have increasingly been drawn into supporting one of two-sides, in a situation some media outlets are calling a ‘new Cold War’. Threats such as the withholding of Chinese loans and aid have been made under this new rhetoric, if African recipients are unwilling to support China, and cease relations with China’s ‘opponents’, such as Taiwan.
COVID as a game changer?
But while this fiercer Chinese foreign policy may indicate that China has become a stronger, more independent power, capable of directing the actions of recipient states through threats, this has not been the case during the COVID pandemic. Rather, China has had to increasingly rely upon its existing relations with African regimes and governments to maintain its prominent role in global affairs.
For one, China has faced a harsher international environment that has required the diplomatic assistance and shielding of African states to weather. The COVID pandemic has resulted in China facing global campaigns to discredit both its initial response to the COVID pandemic, and its selective support to certain states worldwide. U.S. President Donald Trump verbally attacked China for poorly managing the initial spread of COVID, dubbing it the ‘Chinese virus’ numerous times during press conferences.
China’s diplomats attempted to counter these claims, proposing instead that the virus was created in a US lab and then planted by American military operatives in China, claims which resulted in international ridicule.
China was also widely criticised by the U.S. for allegedly hoarding medical equipment during the early stages of the virus, and then selling faulty equipment to other countries. Accusations from the international community that China mishandled the virus during its initial outbreak- and that it deliberately misled the World Health Organisation about the scale of the outbreak- were also angrily reacted to, with Chinese envoys threatening to withhold assistance from those who criticised China.
Africa’s importance for China
These diplomatic attacks have increased the importance of African regimes and governments with existing relations to China to Beijing’s soft power goals. To gain favour with African states, China embarked on a programme of what has been termed ‘mask diplomacy’ across the continent.
As part of this push, China provided substantial amounts of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to African states dealing with the virus. Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa airport acted as a continental hub for Chinese equipment to be delivered across Africa. Whilst the bulk of this support came from private Chinese donors, such as entrepreneur Jack Ma, Chinese official media quickly sought to highlight how this support was just the latest effort on China’s part to support and strengthen its partnerships with African states. China also offered African countries priority access to China’s COVID vaccine, currently in development.
In addition, China has argued that its process of extreme lockdowns and curtailing of human rights has controlled the virus more effectively than the processes democratic countries have taken. Pointing to the anti-mask protests across Europe and the US, Chinese figures have argued that stringent authoritarian measures were needed to prevent these destabilising aspects of the pandemic, and that African regime leaders should emulate China’s approach to control the virus more effectively.
Further issues regarding COVID, such as Trump’s failure to control the level of US cases and outlandish suggestions of bleach injections as a cure have been utilised by Chinese media outlets and government figures to further emphasise Western inability to control the virus and provide strong leadership, and China’s concurrent capability at managing pandemic-inspired unrest. China’s role in providing useful treatments and vaccines to African countries has often been cited as part of this international propaganda.
These actions highlight an important point about the limits of Chinese dominance with regards to its African relationships – despite its foreign policy bluster. The increasing rhetorical attacks on China and the perceived weaknesses that the COVID pandemic has brought about have damaged China’s position in global politics.
African regimes and governments have proved to be important diplomatic stalwarts that China has been able to fall back upon, despite considerable criticism of the mistreatment of African migrants in Guangzhou. It has been described elsewhere how engagement with African states plays an important role in China’s ambitions to expand its influence on the global stage. Most obviously, African states routinely support China’s ambitions in the UN, and shield China from accusations of human rights violations from democratic states and multinational organisations, such as the EU.
This need for African support has only increased during the COVID pandemic, and it is this that explains the charm offensive designed to capture African support. Little wonder, then, that China has placed growing emphasis on its position as a vital partner that can help African states to combat the pandemic with a level of support beyond that which Western states could provide.
Solidifying the relationship?
To solidify this relationship, China has emphasised how its model of controlling the pandemic – and thereby controlling potentially unruly populations – could be emulated by authoritarian African governments. Whilst African states are vital in supplying China with diplomatic support and deflecting international criticism, China has the capabilities to support authoritarian African regimes in maintaining regime stability and enacting ever greater repression.
The effects of China’s showcasing of its COVID response and authoritarian practices, and encouraging policy emulation in recipient African regimes, is yet unclear. What has been established in this article is that the COVID pandemic has highlighted new dimensions of the Africa-China partnership. New vulnerabilities in China’s global discourse and actions exacerbated by the pandemic have highlighted and emphasised the important role that African regimes and governments in supporting China in international relations, within what is very much a two-way relationship.
Daniel Munday is a PhD student in the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on Ethiopian government engagement with the non-Western autocracies of Russia and China.