Vice President of Region Lombardy Fabrizio Sala, right, salutes with his forearm medics and paramedics from China upon arrival at the Malpensa airport of Milan, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Some 37 between doctors and paramedics were sent along with some 20 tons of equipment, and will be deployed to different hospitals in Italy's most affected area. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Two million surgical masks, more than 200,000 advanced masks, 500,000 coronavirus testing kits and 17 tonnes of medical supplies.

That’s the kind of massive support that’s heading for Europe as it battles the worst pandemic in recent history — with the global death toll soaring past 13,500 on Sunday.

But this groundswell of supplies for Europe is not from the World Health Organisation or aid agencies, but from China — which until a few weeks back was overwhelmed by the coronavirus epidemic that began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, accepting donations of masks and other medical aid from nearly 80 nations and 10 international organisations.

Now, with new daily domestic cases dwindling into zero or single digits, China is mounting a diplomatic charm offensive to help shape the global response to the pandemic, even as the rest of the world struggles to get the virus under control.

Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to send more medical experts to Italy — the current epicentre of the global outbreak, where the total number of cases have crossed 53,000.

Playing the Good Samaritan

That the same day, China sent 100,000 rapid diagnostic tests to the Philippines. It flew gloves and protective clothing to Liberia and more than 10 flights carrying millions of masks and other supplies to the Czech Republic.

In Serbia, its president pleaded for assistance not from the country’s neighbours in Europe — which restricted the export of needed medical equipment — but from China.

And in Sri Lanka, China extended a $500 million loan to help Sri Lanka combat the virus.

From Japan to Iraq and Spain to Peru, China has stepped in with pledges of humanitarian assistance in the form of supplies or medical expertise — and the result is an aid blitz that has provided China the opportunity to reposition itself as a responsible global leader at a moment of unprecedented crisis.

“We’re grateful for China’s support … We need each other’s support in times of need,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, tweeted in response to Beijing’s initiatives for Europe.

Building global cooperation

China has scrambled experts and equipment to Italy, and Xi was quoted as telling Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in a phone call last week that Beijing is ready to work with Rome to contribute to international cooperation on epidemic control and to the building of a “Health Silk Road”.

That latter concept is familiar to Italy, which last year became the first western European country to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The massive programme seeks to expand trade by building ports, roads and other transportation projects in a 21st century version of the fabled Silk Road.

Chu Yin, a professor of public administration at the University of International Relations in Beijing, told the New York Times that this was not merely about China’s burgeoning influence in global geopolitics. “If people really expect a big boost of China’s influence through the aid, it will be difficult,” he said. “Let’s just take the aid as doing a good deed, and it would help China’s economy if the epidemic situation in these countries is contained.”

“The underlying message is very clear: world leaders have to put petty political differences aside and work together on this one. This requires leadership but also from an understanding that we are all in this together. Put people before politics or profits,” Dr Unni Karunakara, Assistant Professor at Yale School of Public Health and former International President of Medicine Sans Frontiers, told Gulf News on Sunday.

Filling the void for Europe

As Europe becomes the epicentre of coronavirus, the US — and in some cases the EU — seem be turning away from helping individual states. Serbia and Estonia are cases in point, where the apparent EU indifference has coincided with Beijing stepping up its outreach to individual governments there. “It’s great that China has this availability and that it is currently in a position to offer this kind of help,” said Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. Aid is much needed, she said, but in supplying it, China is also exercising its soft power.

In doing so, China has stepped into a role that the West once dominated in times of natural disaster or public health emergency, and one that US President Donald Trump has increasingly given up in his “America First” retreat from global engagement. “The West is definitely more weak at this point in time, especially with the more isolationist strategy which the US has embarked on. If the global economy takes a huge hit due to coronavirus, the story might look different. The one who has the muscles will have the right to show leadership and will be asked to do so. This might be provide a historic opportunity for China. At this stage even the West might be willing to cede some historic positions to save the stability of the global economy,” Tomas Brunegard, Executive Chairman at the Gothenburg-based EuroAcademy and President of World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, told Gulf News on Sunday.

Tomas Brunegard

Using deep pockets

As it has done in the past, the Chinese state is using its extensive tools and deep pockets to build partnerships around the world, relying on trade, investments and, in this case, an advantageous position as the world’s largest maker of medicines and protective masks. “This could be the first major global crisis in decades without meaningful US leadership and with significant Chinese leadership,” Rush Doshi, director of the China Strategy Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told news agencies. He noted that only a few years ago the US led the fight against Ebola.

Now, the global failures in confronting the pandemic from Europe to the US have given the Chinese leadership a platform to prove that its model works — and potentially gain some lasting geopolitical currency. “I don’t know and now I don’t care,” Michele Geraci, a former undersecretary in the Italian economic development ministry, said when asked by reporters if the assistance reflected China’s geopolitical ambitions as much as humanitarian concerns. He said the urgent issue was to provide aid to save lives, something that Italy’s allies in the European Union had been unable or unwilling to do. “If somebody is worried China is doing too much, the gap is open to other countries,” he said. “This is what other countries should do.”

Help for WHO

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic blasted the European Union and praised China for offering help when he announced a state of emergency to combat the outbreak. His country wants to join the EU, but his government has moved closer to Russia and China in a see-saw battle for influence. “I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping and I believe in China’s help,” Vucic said. “European solidarity,” he said, was just a fairy tale.

China has given $20 million to the World Health Organisation for COVID-19 efforts. While the EU and the US have made larger pledges to combat the disease, they are now preoccupied by the crisis at home. The Chinese “are winning points,” said Theresa Fallon, the founder of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels. “Serbia thinks that China is their saviour.”

Reciprocating assistance

Six weeks ago, Chinese authorities were trying to quell anger at home. Now the criticism is raining down on governments from Tehran to Washington, DC. A visiting Chinese Red Cross official chastised Italy for letting so many people stroll the streets of Milan. “Right now we need to stop all economic activity, and we need to stop the mobility of people,’’ said Executive Chairman Sun Shuopeng.

At one level, China is also reciprocating assistance it received. Nearly 80 countries sent supplies to China, some on charter flights they sent to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan. “It is China’s traditional virtue to repay goodwill with greater kindness,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, citing an ancient Confucian saying: “You throw a peach to me, and I give you a white jade for friendship.”

—With inputs from agencies