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Will China's global diplomatic outreach revitalise its flagship Belt and Road Initiative?

Will China's global diplomatic outreach revitalise its flagship Belt and Road Initiative?

President Xi Jinping has pledged to help struggling countries

The skyline of the Beijing's Central Business District rises behind people crossing a street during evening rush hour as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in China, April 15, 2020.

REUTERS/Thomas Peter
By Charles Lavery, Thomson Reuters Projects News

Most people had never heard of a place called Wuhan in the Hubei province of China as global New Year celebrations heralded the beginning of 2020.

In the space of just a few months, there aren't many people left on earth who don't know the name of this Chinese city, or the fact that the global pandemic sweeping the world began there.

COVID-19 has affected almost every single citizen on earth. Economies are tanking, countries are in lockdown and the latest figures show that governments are battling an unseen enemy that has already claimed 319,000 lives globally, with many more predicted to suffer as the second and third waves strike.

The Chinese government, acutely aware of its responsibilities in this outbreak and the global supply chain, has launched a full-scale global aid programme, designed to assist countries struggling to cope.

Aid has been sent to Malaysia, the UK, the Gulf and many others in the form of face masks, ventilators and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).

Chinese doctors and experts have been flown around the world to assist other countries as they battle a pandemic that doesn't look like abating any time soon.

At the other end, questions are being raised on its impact on the multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was initiated by China and has become, in the words of former UN Environment chief Erik Solheim, "the largest investment framework of our time."

While China has partnered with countries across the globe to set up the BRI routes, the outbreak of COVID-19 has potentially locked these countries down, until a vaccine or solution to the global pandemic is found.

Moreover, BRI also faced flak from some quarters due to delays or hesitancy on the part of some BRI aligned countries in implementing lockdowns and stopping flights because they did not want to be seen offending China.

China experts believe the BRI can survive, but some are questioning whether the country's diplomatic outreach will help repair an international image dented by the disease.

Azeem Ibrahim, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College, former director at the Centre for Global Policy in Washington, and a former strategic policy advisor to Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, said: "It can survive, but I think nations, rich and poor, are waking up to the fact that it is costly doing business with Beijing. Poorer nations like Pakistan at the early stages of the crisis were reluctant to shut down flights from Wuhan as they had to demonstrate their faith in China even when other nations were locking down."

Dr Robert Spalding, former Senior Director for Strategy at the USA's National Security Council (NSA), and a former Brigadier General of the United States Air Force, said the programme will survive, but that Beijing has obstacles to overcome.

"I think it will continue to employ an important albeit diminished role in the developing world. China will have a harder time funding this going forward."

COVID-19 has also forced companies and countries to revisit their supply chains, especially those reliant on a single country, as lockdowns to contain the virus brought China's factories to a standstill with cascading impact on global supply chains.

Spalding said: "It (BRI) will be diminished in capacity, as the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is required to focus on the slowing economy and the departure of much manufacturing capacity as countries seek to restore important supply chains."

America, according to Spalding, would be in re-building mode for the next decade.

"If done correctly, then we will see a different country on the world stage. If manufacturing and infrastructure are featured, which I suspect will be, then economic, science and technology development will take off."

On whether China, which has always been the world's banker, can also assume the mantle of the world's social worker to help the poorer countries impacted by COVID-19, the former NSA official said the question is whether China will have the fungible currency needed.

"The Yuan is not convertible and with strict capital controls China will have a hard time getting other nations to embrace their currency," he said.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies observed in a report in March that China has called for increased multilateral involvement to ease the financial burden of the BRI.

"In addition to the MCDF (Multilateral Cooperation Centre for Development Finance), China has been advocating for the BRI's vision within international institutions including the UN, G20 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)," the report noted.

A Chinese government official recently told Reuters that they were willing to work on a bilateral basis with low-income countries facing economic challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the possibility of delaying some debt service payments.

A few weeks ago, Wuhan re-opened for business and its trains started running again. China wants to ensure that the same story is played out across the world's towns and cities, as the alternative scenario -- perpetual lockdown -- means tightening their own belts and, perhaps, greater uncertainty about the future of the flagship BRI


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