President Xi Jinping has launched an unprecedented charm offensive during the past six days.
International dialing codes have been dug out as the general secretary of the ruling Communist Party outlines China’s disease-control diplomacy.
On Wednesday, he called German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic and closer cooperation between the two nations.
“China is willing to share prevention, control and treatment experience with Germany, strengthen cooperation in vaccine and drug research and development, and contribute to global public health and safety,” he told Merkel, the state-run Chinese media reported.
The grande dame of the European Union appeared to concur with those sentiments. “Germany thanks China for its timely and valuable help and hopes to carry out scientific research cooperation with China in the areas of vaccine and drug research, so as to set an example of solidarity,” she said.
It was a similar story with other world leaders. On Tuesday, Xi chatted with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Polish President Andrzej Duda.
Twenty-four hours earlier, he gave French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi a buzz after a fireside-style chat with King Felipe VI of Spain on Saturday.
Yet while Xi was promoting these high-profile, high-five conflabs, United States President Donald Trump seemed at times incapable of providing global leadership.
“As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by US mistakes, filling the vacuum to position itself as the global leader in pandemic response,” Kurt M Campbell, the chairman and CEO of the advisory consultancy Asia Group, and Rush Doshi, the director of the Brookings Institution’s China Strategy Initiative, said.
“It is working to tout its own system, provide material assistance to other countries, and even organize other governments. The sheer chutzpah of China’s move is hard to overstate,” they wrote in Foreign Affairs, which is published by the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank based in New York.
Even the “special relationship” between Xi and Trump appears to be yesterday’s news. They both turned up for the Group of 20 video conference on Thursday and chatted hours later. But the so-called “bromance” has faded in the past few months despite the political platitudes.
After the emergency G20 summit, world leaders pledged to pump “US$5 trillion into the global economy” to combat the fallout from the virus outbreak. Yet considering the magnitude of the challenge facing the planet, it was all rather low key and lacking in focus.
It was not always like this.
“When the world faced a crisis, the United States and China would set aside their differences and work together to fashion a coordinated response,” Ryan Hass, of the John L Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, said last week.
“That is no longer the case. The spread of the coronavirus has held a mirror up to the bilateral relationship and the image that has emerged is ugly. Now, leaders in both countries are consumed by arguments over where the virus emerged and who is to blame for its spread, rather than on what must be done, collectively, to stop it,” he continued.
“China hawks in the United States seized the opportunity presented by the spread of the coronavirus to tarnish the Chinese government’s image. In fairness, Chinese authorities brought much of the criticism upon themselves with their appallingly slow, non-transparent initial response, as well as their delay in responding to requests from the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to send experts to Wuhan,” Hass wrote on the Washington-based think tank’s website.
But then, an 18-month trade war between Beijing and Washington, as well as a technological ‘arms’ race, have soured relations between the world’s two leading economies.
In January, a phase one deal was signed off. Yet even before the ink was dry, cracks were starting to appear in this latest incarnation of détente. The on-going Huawei 5G row has only added to a rift that is starting to resemble a chasm in Sino-American diplomacy.
“In the short term, I am pessimistic about US-China relations. The United States and China have dealt with a number of crises over the past decades. In each case, leaders of the two nations were able to shelve domestic political exigencies to find common ground upon which to base their nations’ futures,” John L Holden, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and head of the China practice for McLarty Associates, said earlier this month.
“But today we seem to have entered unchartered waters, as the Covid-19 pandemic both highlight the need for Sino-American cooperation and, at the same time, reveals the two countries’ inability to do so. There are many reasons for this, among which is the relentless deterioration of relations in the past several years,” he added.
So much for Xi’s charm offensive.