Belt and Road After COVID-19: On Health Silk Road, Soft Power, and Beyond

Written by Angelo Abil Wijaya | Edited by Caesar Leonardo

Tell a Belt and Road enthusiast that China is shifting its attention swiftly to a “Health Silk Road” right after it managed to flatten the curve of COVID-19 case, and they won’t be much in shock.

In the past several weeks, we have seen China sending medical supplies to countries that are also hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. China donated coronavirus testing kits, deployed medical personnels, sent ventilators and masks to various countries including Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Italy, and France. China also pledged to send help to other countries like the Philippines, Spain, and Indonesia.

In the context of the assistance to combat the pandemic, the Chinese President Xi Jinping told the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that China hopes to establish a “Health Silk Road” as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And as reported by The Guardian, the Chinese President Xi Jinping told the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez that “the two countries should step up cooperation and exchanges after the outbreak”.

The Guardian also writes that “China has positioned itself as a leader and benefactor in public health, building the kind of soft power Beijing needs at a time of intensifying US-China rivalry and scrutiny of Chinese influence around the world”.

The newspaper cited experts’ opinion that “while these humanitarian efforts are real, they have political ends that deserve attention”.

German Marshall Fund’s Noah Barkin echoed the opinion by saying that “there is nothing wrong with China helping European and other countries, especially now that it has gained the upper hand in containing the coronavirus at home. But it is also clear that [Beijing] sees its aid as a propaganda tool”.

The Health Silk Road and Soft Power

China’s assistance to foreign countries is not without reason. China needs to bounce back after the country and its mega-project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are hit — arguably severely — by the pandemic.

By establishing the so-called Health Silk Road, China can at least achieve two ends. First, resuming domestic production that has come to a halt during the pandemic — hence bringing back to life its domestic economy. The medical supplies that are sent to foreign countries as part of the assistance package — that are produced domestically in China — could help China in resuming domestic production, bringing people back to the workforce, and reviving its economy from the short-lived dormancy due to the pandemic lockdown.

Second, building the image as a trusted partner on the international stage. As stated in The Guardian’s article, China’s assistance comes in times of heating US-China rivalry. With the US shutting travel from Europe and putting America First approach during this pandemic, China is doing the complete opposite — sending help and reaching out to partners.

Possible Challenges to the Health Silk Road

While it is clear that COVID-19 slows down BRI projects around the world, the pandemic will not kill BRI — BRI will outlive COVID-19. And when China wakes up from this pandemic, we could expect a stronger China, if China managed to boost public trust internationally through the Health Silk Road. In this regard, we should expect China to pour money through the Health Silk Road. A drawback, however, would be challenges coming from critics, saying that “Coronavirus dept trap is coming”. This first challenge could be exacerbated by the reluctance of countries — or even possibly those coming from the public — to make or continue investment projects that are not considered vital and more important than dealing with COVID-19 and the revival of the economy after COVID-19.

The second challenge however, could possibly come from China’s domestic sphere. Scientists and policymakers have warned that there could be a second wave of COVID-19 strike in China — as researchers continuously study the possibility of re-infection to people who once were contracted with COVID-19. A second COVID wave would make policymakers in China busy domestically, as what we saw in January -March 2020.

International Relations scholars have also warned of the third possible challenge; which is the possibility that China would want to rebuild its domestic economy first by investing domestically before continuing its “going out” policy — which remains to be seen, despite the fact that we have seen Chinese government’s initiative to push the BRI through the Health Silk Road.

What we know — for now

China has been praised for its effort to help other countries — despite setbacks from countries rejecting its assistance with various reasons. Even critics and skeptics noted that “China’s humanitarian efforts are real” and that “there is nothing wrong with China helping other countries”.

But whether or not China lives up to its vision as a trusted partner in international stage will be determined by how China behaves — and to some extent to prove; that China is doing this for a greater good of all nations.

China needs to address international concerns by action — by ensuring that the assistance it gives answers the needs of the recipients, by ensuring that what critics dubbed “Coronavirus debt trap” is never materialized, and by ensuring that even its soft power approach is not based on an ill intention.

For if China does not live up to other countries’ expectations, China’s future — with its BRI altogether — will be in jeopardy.

SABRI UGM is an overseas chapter to SABRI Tsinghua University established in Universitas Gadjah Mada (Yogyakarta, Indonesia).