China’s “Health Silk Road” Offensive: How the West should Respond

By Eugénia C. Heldt - 09 December 2020
China’s “Health Silk Road” Offensive: How the West should Respond

Eugénia C. Heldt lays out a strategy for the EU to reassert the West’s leadership of global health governance.

China is exploiting the spread of coronavirus across the globe to present itself as the world’s indispensable power in the field of health. Beijing has turned early signs of success into a larger narrative highlighting the effectiveness and superiority of Chinese efforts to fight the pandemic.

The problem goes far beyond the fact that many global observers also credit Beijing with remarkable success in combatting the virus. In 2017, the Chinese government proposed the “Health Silk Road”, an informal form of global health cooperation, as an alternative to the Western-dominated World Health Organization (WHO) – and is now reviving the initiative in order to further its aspirations to reshape international institutions in a manner more congenial to its interests.

Beijing has carefully orchestrated a soft power offensive that portrays China as a new benefactor able to send Covid-19-related equipment and medical assistance to foreign partners anywhere. These activities are most intensive along the routes of the Belt and Road Initiative, but now extend as far as Europe. While the pandemic has spread out along Initiative routes, a planned network of transportation infrastructure financed by China linking East and West, these same corridors have been used by the Chinese government to provide medical support to Western European countries. When the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic reached its climax in Spain, a Chinese train loaded with medical equipment left Yiwu in eastern China for the journey across two continents to Madrid. In Italy, the public now views China as a more friendly international partner than the EU or the US.

Moreover, after extending its social credit system – an online data system to reward or sanction citizen’s behavior – to include a new health app to contain the pandemic at home, Beijing is now encouraging liberal democracies to adopt Chinese-style digital surveillance, with implications for Huawei and other issues. The government introduced extensive categories of Covid-19 regulations in pilot social credit systems, including quarantine avoidance; improvements to credit repair of the social credit system; control over the quality of medical equipment; rewards for medical front-liners and volunteers; and dissemination of false information.

What the Chinese case shows is that novel technologies capacities, like the enhanced ability to track citizens and their contacts, can be useful tools in stemming the pandemic. But these new technologies can also be used by governments as surveillance instruments and constitute a fundamental threat to our civil rights and liberties.

To date, the absence of firm global leadership from Washington – witness President Donald Trump’s criticism of the WHO, translated later into his intention to exit this multilateral organization – is aiding the Chinese charm offensive. The current crisis of the liberal international order and the rise of populist and unilateral approaches to foreign policy, as the “Make America Great Again” paradigm illustrates, has implications for the future of international cooperation, especially during the global health pandemic. Who is going to take the lead in international cooperation in the upcoming decades?

The creation of the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank illustrate how rising authoritarianism has begun to challenge the liberal international order. China and its coalition partners have used these two multilateral development banks to increase their power and influence by making themselves less dependent on loans from the World Bank and by restricting democratic control mechanisms, including civil society access, public access to information, and accountability. A world order under Chinese leadership, in which China projects domestic politics rules and norms on to the international level by rewarding or punishing international institutions or multinational firms that, e.g., do not adhere to social credit system rules, can become reality in the future. Yet Chinese triumph is not inevitable. The West can regain control over global (health) governance – but the new elected US President Joe Biden or the Europeans must take the lead.

The European Union (EU), perhaps led by Germany (so far a “reluctant hegemon”), should fill the power vacuum by positioning itself as global actor – starting by increasing the human and material resources of the WHO. The EU has the potential to act as a transformational leader and to be an effective actor in shaping global governance rules. The EU’s willingness and capacity to take the lead and carry the costs of providing win-win outcomes in global governance is crucial for the West to regain influence and ensure that democratic values prevail in turbulent times.

The EU as a global health power can take three possible forms: managing the pandemic successfully at home with a strong economic and political support from European institutions; supplying public goods to the poorest countries in the world, giving credit to its reputation as humanitarian power; and coordinating efforts to strengthen the role of the focal multilateral organization on health issues, the WHO. For its part, the WHO, which has so far failed to exploit the pandemic to (re)gain relevance and focality, would have every reason to ally itself with Western European countries and global philanthropists, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, in a “coalition of the willing.” 

This could be the beginning of a new multilateral order. Such an alliance of supranational, national, international, and non-state actors offers the best chance for the West to reassert leadership in this vital area.



Eugénia C. Heldt is Dean of TUM School of Governance, Reform rector of the Hochschule für Politik München and professor of European and Global Governance at Technical University of Munich. This piece is part of the research project “Learning from the ‘Frontrunner’: A Multidisciplinary Analysis of the Chinese Social Credit System and its Impact on Germany” funded by the Bavarian Institute for Digital Transformation (2020-2023).  

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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