Commentary |
21 October 2020

China’s pandemic success and vaccine diplomacy are no guarantee of a better Indo-Pacific reputation

Originally published in South China Morning Post.

Alyssa Leng
Alyssa Leng
  • Countries that have handled the pandemic well at home have generally seen such competence rewarded with improved standing abroad
  • China is the lone exception, proving that having your house in order does not guarantee a pat on the back internationally

“China will continue to work as a builder of global peace, a contributor to global development and a defender of international order,” President Xi Jinping said at the UN General Assembly last month.

Experts across the Indo-Pacific are not so convinced, though. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen China’s global reputation sour despite getting the virus under control domestically, in stark contrast to the kudos other countries have received for similar success.

In newly released Lowy Institute research, an international group of diplomats, policymakers, analysts and health experts were asked how well they thought 26 economies had handled the pandemic. They were then asked what impact the same economies’ domestic handling of the virus had on their international reputations.

The results showed that competence at home was noticed abroad. The reputations of Taiwan, New Zealand and Vietnam in particular improved as a result of their Covid-19 response.

Others did not fare so well. The United States and Russia, judged as having struggled to contain the virus, saw their reputations overseas deteriorate the most of all those surveyed. Meanwhile, those thought to have handled the pandemic fairly effectively saw virtually no change in their international standing.

China was the only nation to buck this trend. Despite surveyed experts rating its domestic response to the pandemic as above average, gains did not materialise in its reputation abroad.

Instead, China’s international standing deteriorated. Its initial management of the pandemic fed into pre-existing concerns internationally about the dangers of authoritarianism. The suppression of information and drastic restrictions on personal freedom appeared particularly shocking from abroad. US President Donald Trump dubbing the pandemic the “China virus” and suggesting the virus was created in a lab added even more fuel to the fire.

Salvaging its reputation overseas was always going to be difficult for Beijing. Its strident “wolf warrior” diplomacy and ongoing disputes with the US and others over TikTok and Huawei saw China’s international stature fall even before Covid-19 emerged. Sending swathes of doctors, masks and medical equipment across the world did little to offset broader concerns on China’s rise.

However, a happy marriage of Chinese vaccine diplomacy and pragmatism from developing countries may yet save China’s waning reputation. Countries including Malaysia and Indonesia have already signed up for a Chinese-made vaccine. Beijing has also promised that its coronavirus vaccine will be a “global public good” and has signed up to the UN-backed Covax initiative to distribute vaccines to poorer countries.

In this move, China stands in stark contrast with the US. The traditional superpower has instead doubled down on its “America first” strategy, declining to join Covax and prioritising its own population first.

The pandemic’s implications extend far beyond China, though. As countries are forced to interact in new ways, domestic competence against the virus and recognition for it will become increasingly important in the international sphere.

Nations in good domestic shape will not only be first in line for arrangements such as travel bubbles, they will have first-mover advantages in directly shaping these mechanisms. As countries turn towards economic recovery against the backdrop of a deep global recession, any head start will be invaluable.

For countries hit hard by the pandemic, pragmatism will rule. Whoever the supplier is, medical supplies and cheap vaccines will be in hot demand around the world for the foreseeable future. Assuming that the US remains preoccupied with its own health, the gravitational pull towards China for affordable assistance will be hard to resist when countries need help now.

The pandemic has upended life at high speed, but the basic rules of the international game have not changed. Credibility abroad is still a function of what countries do at home. As China has found, though, having your house in order doesn’t guarantee a pat on the back internationally.

Alyssa Leng is a research associate at the Lowy Institute’s Asian Power and Diplomacy Program and a principal researcher on the 2020 Asia Power Index, released on October 19. This piece is drawn from the Covid-19 indicator in the index