During the annual session of the UN General Assembly in September 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump blamed China for the spread of coronavirus. Considering that his claims were voiced out not for the first time, Chinese President Xi Jinping in his recorded speech responded by calling to reject the attempts to politicize the pandemic and emphasized that he had “no intention of fighting a new Cold War” [Halaschak, 2020]. Indeed, China has been promoting itself globally as a responsible player during the COVID-19 pandemic, whilst its approach has been built on three pillars: through its humanitarian aid or so-called “mask diplomacy”, through the assertive responses in traditional and social media to defend China’s national interests by its ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomats, and through declaring victory over COVID-19. In that context, it would be interesting to examine China’s international humanitarian aid efforts, including during the ongoing pandemic.
Humanitarian aid is among the core components of China’s foreign policy. Since China is not a member of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, it positions itself as a partner or provider within the South-South cooperation framework, not a donor, by thus distinguishing itself as a developing country that aims to help the developing world. China’s approach towards humanitarian aid is different from traditional donors in decision-making, funding mechanisms, and transmission. In particular, China’s development cooperation is provided in eight different forms, such as infrastructure-based and technical cooperation projects, commodity and emergency humanitarian aid, cooperation on human resources, sending medical teams, volunteers programs, and debt forgiveness, whereas financial assistance is provided through free grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans, often at low rates [Lynch et. al., 2020; Zhang and Ji, 2020]. At the same time, besides its commitment to provide humanitarian assistance, China does not have a public humanitarian policy that is explained by the government’s intention not to distinguish between humanitarian and development assistance, which assumes a division between emergency relief programs and long-term development projects [Lavey, 2020].
China’s aid is managed by the Chinese International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), which was established in 2018 and reports directly to China’s State Council. However, CIDCA is not a single agency that is responsible for aid management, since CIDCA controls planning and designing at the initial stage, and monitoring and evaluation at the final stage. For the implementation of projects, various intra-ministerial collaborative mechanisms are envisaged [Lynch et. al., 2020; Zhang and Ji, 2020]. Chinese aid’s scale and influence has been growing, which serves the political and diplomatic aspirations of China, but its contributions were uneven. Over the last 10 years, China’s annual humanitarian assistance have ranged from $1 million to $129 million. To date, the largest contribution was in 2017, but still the country provided less than 1% of total reported humanitarian funding in the world [Lavey, 2020]. However, COVID-19 has significantly elevated China’s role in the international humanitarian system.
During the pandemic, the Chinese government provided its targeted humanitarian assistance to 89 countries and four international organizations, while the government announced it as “the most intensive and wide-ranging emergency humanitarian operation since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949” [CIDCA, 2020]. Visits of medical expert teams to share the treatment protocols and diagnostic advice, along with providing medical supplies such as masks, protective gowns, testing reagents and other diagnostic and treatment equipment, were part of unprecedented medical assistance of the Chinese government that was dubbed as “mask diplomacy”. By doing so, China hit two birds – restored its international reputation after being a hotbed for the virus and demonstrated its mature and strong stance in the international system.
According to Chinese customs statistics, only between April 1 and 12, 2020, China exported preventive and diagnostic medical materials for over $2 billion, while Chinese companies specializing in medical supplies and logistics donated medical materials to over 100 countries and international organizations. Besides, the Alibaba Foundation and the Jack Ma Foundation provided medical assistance to over 100 countries. Other Chinese technological giants such as Huawei, Oppo, Xiaomi also donated thousands of masks and other medical items to the countries where they operate [Mulakala and Ji, 2020].
For the Central Asian states, which except Turkmenistan have been struggling with coronavirus, China delivered several batches of humanitarian aid that consisted of tons of medical protective equipment, medicines, and other medical supplies. Apart from that, the medical expert team visited the four Central Asian states with registered COVID-19 cases, where they shared their experience in treating the disease. Besides the assistance from the central government, the Central Asian states received medical aid from Chinese provincial authorities and the private charity foundations mentioned above. Overall, China’s humanitarian aid was well received in the recipient countries. Tajikistan could be a showcase of China’s humanitarian aid in the region, since China provided 46.9% of its total aid during the pandemic to this country [Institute of Central Asia Studies, 2020].
It is worth mentioning that at the beginning of the pandemic, the Central Asian states also contributed humanitarian aid to its eastern neighbor, as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan sent medicines, medical masks, and protective equipment to China to help in its fight with coronavirus.
Although China aims to leverage its humanitarian assistance to endorse its image as a globally responsible actor, its aid efforts has met with various reactions. Similar to other countries of the world, the Central Asian states welcomed China’s humanitarian assistance, yet they might also have expected some debt relief from China as confirmed by the relevant request of the Kyrgyz government. Medical assistance itself had twofold interpretations among the public – while approving the large amount of medical assistance provided by China, the population does not seem to be very much satisfied with the quality of these products, since there are negative comments in social media about Chinese medical equipment and test kits.
By and large, China’s foreign policy approach during the pandemic demonstrates how skillfully China uses the coronavirus outbreak for its own interests. While other developed countries have been struggling with the consequences of the pandemic, China continues to follow its global strategy in line with its Belt and Road Initiative vision by using humanitarian aid mechanisms. The Central Asian states that are under the matrix of China’s strategic umbrella, are interested in receiving different forms of China’s aid and in continuing their win-win relationship.
CIDCA (2020). CIDCA outlines China’s anti-virus assistance to international communities. Retrieved from http://en.cidca.gov.cn/2020-03/26/c_465653.htm. Accessed on 25.09.2020.
Halaschak, Zachary (2020). Xi Jinping insists China has ‘no intention’ to fight new Cold War during UN speech after being slammed by Trump. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/xi-jinping-insists-china-has-no-intention-to-fight-new-cold-war-during-un-speech-after-being-slammed-by-trump. Accessed on 25.09.2020.
Institute of Central Asia Studies (2020). China in Central Asia: Unclear Borders, Nervous Neighbors. Retrieved from https://central-asia.institute/kitaj-v-czentralnoj-azii-neyasnye-graniczy-nervnichayushhie-sosedi/. Accessed on 25.09.2020.
Lavey, Johannah (2020). Unpacking China’s overseas aid program. Retrieved from https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/china-and-humanitarian-aid. Accessed on 25.09.2020.
Lynch, Leah, Andersen, Sharon, and Tianyu Zhu (2020). China’s Foreign Aid: A Primer for Recipient Countries, Donors, and Aid Providers. The Center for Global Development, CGD Note. Retrieved from https://www.cgdev.org/publication/chinas-foreign-aid-primer-recipient-countries-donors-and-aid-providers. Accessed on 25.09.2020.
Mulakala, Anthea, and Hongbo Ji (2020). Covid-19 and China’s Soft-Power Ambitions. Retrieved from https://asiafoundation.org/2020/04/29/covid-19-and-chinas-soft-power-ambitions/. Accessed on 25.09.2020.
Zhang, Denghua and Hongbo Ji (2020). The new Chinese aid agency after its first two years. Retrieved from https://devpolicy.org/the-new-chinese-aid-agency-after-its-first-two-years-20200422-2/. Accessed on 25.09.2020.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr.Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow of the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. She was a Fellow of the EUCACIS PhD support programme, Fudan Fellow 2017, a visiting student of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at the University of Cambridge along with being an exchange student at Lanzhou University. Previously, she had worked at the international departments of Narxoz and AlmaU universities on the implementation of the internationalization strategy of th