China’s Cynical ‘Pandemic Diplomacy’

Beijing targets strategic nations, regions with vaccine access but it comes with strings attached, unanswered questions
September 18, 2020 Updated: September 23, 2020

Commentary

Is China leveraging its pandemic in new ways? It appears that Beijing is taking a page out of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) debt-trap strategy and applying it to countries victimized by the CCP virus (novel coronavirus).

It’s viral pandemic diplomacy at its finest.

Another Debt Trap?

China’s BRI strategy has been to loan poorer nations money that they can’t pay back. China then collects on the debt by taking ownership of ports and parking its navy there, and perhaps build a sprawling military base on the nations’ soil, whether it’s wanted or not.

Could Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy be just as simple?

Could the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have hatched the idea to initiate a global pandemic and then sell or even give the vaccine to the poorer countries it wishes to exploit or dominate militarily?

For those nations that can’t afford the billion-dollar price tag, you offer to loan them the money for the vaccine that you know they can’t repay.

Then, when the poor countries default on the debt, China ends up owning infrastructure, utilities, or farmland in the host countries.

To paraphrase “The Godfather,” it sounds a lot like, “an offer they can’t refuse.”

Strategic Vaccine Offers

This latest twist in the CCP’s power calculus is, in many cases, aimed at countries aligned with the United States or of strategic importance to China, or both.

A big target, for example, is Latin American and Caribbean nations. According to the Mexican foreign affairs ministry, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi conducted a virtual meeting with Latin American and Caribbean national leaders. In that meeting, China offered a $1 billion loan for access to its vaccine. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador publicly thanked China after the loan and for other medical supplies that China has sent Mexico.

Undoubtedly, China plans to leverage this assistance for future expansion plans in America’s geopolitical backyard and gain further influence at the expense of the United States. And it’s no coincidence that neighboring Mexico would be a target.

What could Mexico offer in return? The opportunity for China to open factories in Mexico?

That would certainly nullify some of effectiveness of the tariffs against China, wouldn’t it? We’ll have to wait and see.

On the other hand, it should be to no one’s surprise that Beijing is also pushing its pandemic diplomacy much closer to home.

Indonesia, for instance, which has challenged China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea for years, now is singing a different tune. It wants and needs a vaccine to the CCP virus, and knows that the CCP has a vaccine. Or, at least, the Indonesian government believes Beijing’s claim that it has one.

In either case, a personal phone call between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Indonesian President Joko Widodo has resulted in a promise by China to get the vaccine to Indonesia. What is uncertain is what Indonesia promised in return.

Perhaps one of the most important countries from a strategic point of view is the Philippines. That nation is located in the South China Sea and will be key to China’s military dominance in the region. In fact, it’s quite plausible that Beijing will eventually come to rule over it one way or another.

As in Latin America and the Caribbean, the target of China’s pandemic policy with the Philippines is the U.S.-Philippines strategic relationship. Its proximity to China allows U.S. naval and ground forces a key staging area from which to counter Chinese military moves. From that perspective, China sees a major opportunity to end that threat.

That’s because even though the U.S.–Philippine alliance goes back to 1951, the relationship has become much more tenuous over the past two decades. The closure of U.S. military bases in the late 1990s was followed up with a subsequent Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The VFA replaced the former military treaties and lightened the Philippines’ commitment to their alliance with the United States.

Duterte Having Second Thoughts?

Then, in February, President Philippine Rodrigo Duterte notified Washington that it was terminating the VFA with the United States within 180 days. It’s likely that Duterte’s aim was to cut ties with Washington and move closer to Beijing. Undoubtedly, he saw a potential payoff in doing so, even if it’s at the expense of his country’s national security and sovereignty.

At the same time, it gave him room to negotiate with the United States as well as with China. Apparently, however, Duterte has realized that a closer relationship with Beijing comes with risks. China’s militarization of the South China Sea, its treatment of Hong Kong, and growing belligerence toward Taiwan may have given the Philippine president second thoughts.

That may explain why, in June, Duterte suspended—at least temporarily—the termination of the VFA with the United States.

Giving the Devil His Due?

There are several outcomes that remain to be seen from China’s pandemic diplomacy, however.

To begin with, what political or military considerations will China manage to extract from the nations it has vaccinated? In what way will they threaten the United States? What potential U.S. response could there be?

Perhaps just as critical, how will it be determined that China’s vaccine is effective or if it is safe?

And, given China’s record, why would the leaders in all of these countries trust China for a vaccine that, somehow, they have suddenly developed?

Furthermore, why would any leader trust the Chinese regime after it deceived the world about the existence of the pathogen to begin with, denied the source of it, and its human transmissibility?

Are these leaders living in denial? Or are they facing reality?

Is their willingness to believe China’s claim to have a vaccine to the virus an acknowledgment of the likelihood that whoever created the virus would best know how to cure it?

Give the Devil his due.

James R. Gorrie is the author of “The China Crisis” (Wiley, 2013) and writes on his blog, TheBananaRepublican.com. He is based in Southern California.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.