The coronavirus outbreak has raised concerns about the negative effects of the Chinese regime’s economic and political influence worldwide, an expert said.
Since the emergence of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, last December, the coronavirus has spread to 115 countries and regions, with a total infection count of around 118,000 cases, of which around 32 percent are outside of China.
For some affected countries that are economically dependent on China, their ability to respond effectively to the outbreak has been impaired by concerns over not wanting to antagonize the Chinese regime, Daniel Kliman, senior fellow and director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security, said.
“China’s economic statecraft promotes putting some countries on the horns of a dilemma in terms of how they deal with this virus,” Kliman said at a panel discussion at the National Press Club in Washington on March 9.
South Korea’s handling of the outbreak exemplified this dilemma, Kliman noted. China is the country’s largest trading partner.
“The South Korean government has really struggled to both address coronavirus domestically while not trying to antagonize China out of fear of economic retribution,” Kliman said. “And this has caused political blowback against the current administration in South Korea.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been harshly criticized by opposition politicians and health experts in South Korea over what they say is his mishandling of the crisis by not closing its border with China during the “golden time” window to limit the spread in the country. Moon has declined to issue a full travel ban on travelers from China, and instead issued a limited travel ban on visitors from Hubei Province, the region which houses the coronavirus epicenter, on Feb. 4—five days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a global health emergency.
The country now has more than 7,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, with the largest outbreak clusters coming from members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a Christian religious sect based in the city of Daegu.
Kliman also said the regime’s infrastructure investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has played a role in undermining governance in partner countries, especially in developing countries, which may then make it harder for those countries to contain the coronavirus in the future.
The BRI, which seeks to link the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa through a network of railways, ports, and roads, has been used by the regime to further its geopolitical influence. The policy has been criticized for facilitating corruption in developing countries, as well as putting developing countries into a “debt trap,” as they struggle to pay back hefty Chinese loans.
“Chinese practices [in relation to BRI] sometimes weaken governance, especially in the developing world, where you see potential for corruption, co-optation of local elites, a loss of kind of transparency,” Kliman said.
“Better governance, more transparency tends to help countries and governments combat epidemics, and so to the extent that you see a weakening of governance where China is operating in developing countries this may make it harder not only to detect but also to combat coronavirus going forward.”
Co-opting International Organizations
The outbreak, Kliman said, has also cast a spotlight on the regime’s influence at the WHO, which has been criticized for its initial handling of the crisis.
Kliman said the global response to the outbreak highlighted the “real-world impact of China’s co-optation of international organizations, that the World Health Organization, which China today heavily influences, was fairly slow to address coronavirus.”
“Initially, I would say, it played down the scope and need for a forceful response.”
The WHO has stopped short of declaring coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, although many observers have disagreed with this assessment, saying the global transmission of the disease fits this classification.
“My own take would be that there is some kind of political calculation in it, that the WHO has been slow to kind of label at a pandemic—and part out of concerns [that the] Chinese Communist Party in Beijing would see this as detrimental to China’s image,” Kliman said.