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COVID-19: A Breakthrough Moment for China’s Soft Power in Africa

An Ethiopian Airlines cargo plane at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa loaded with large amounts of supplies donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma to help Africa combat the spread of COVID-19. Photo via Xinhua.

After months of waiting anxiously, reports of the COVID-19 virus spreading across is now a daily occurrence. As of today, there are 1198 confirmed cases in 41 African countries.

Most of Africa’s 1.3 billion people live in countries with weak healthcare infrastructure, therefore, the COVID-19 outbreak could quickly spiral out of control. This is why preventing and controlling the spread of the virus is how many African countries are hoping to contain the virus. For that, they need medical supplies.

This explains the excitement when a plane carrying 5.4 million face masks, over a million testing kits and thousands of protective suits from China arrived in Ethiopia. The cargo will be distributed to all 54 African countries courtesy of the Jack Ma Foundation (JMF) and the Alibaba Foundation.

With the arrival of essential medical supplies, China is proving to be the most responsive to the needs of Africa even before the situation gets dire. While the aid is not necessarily from the Chinese government, it is naive to think that at a time of global shortage of medical supplies, aid from China will not be influenced by Beijing. Jack Ma, the man behind the aid has close ties with the Chinese leadership, while Alibaba, the company he founded has a huge interest in Africa’s burgeoning e-commerce sector.

Aiding Africa to Stay Ahead of the Virus

Before the arrival of this aid package, there have been exchanges between China and Africa in regard to tackling the COVID-19 virus. On 18th March, Chinese and African experts had a video conference for responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. Chinese experts shared China’s experience in responding to the COVID-19.

The number of confirmed cases in Africa indicates that African countries are at the early stages of the outbreak. But it is important to note that African countries are not testing aggressively like Italy or South Korea is doing. Contact tracing is also not as intense. With the millions of testing kits on its way to Africa, it is very likely that we will see a spike in the number of confirmed cases in Africa.

China’s relationship with Africa is different for each country, but by announcing that the aid will be for all 54 African countries, it implies this aid from the Jack Ma Foundation won’t discriminate between China’s bosom buddies like South Africa and the Kingdom of eSwatini with whom Beijing has no diplomatic relations with. But, this remains to be seen.

China, the New Provider of Global Public Goods

Historically, the aid sector in Africa has been dominated by the west. There are far more private and government-backed aid agencies from the US, the UK or the EU working on the continent than there are Chinese aid agencies. Yet, China has beaten them all in donating essential supplies to African countries amid the rapidly evolving outbreak of COVID-19.

While this aid from China is meant to help African countries stay one ahead of the virus, Beijing is also laying the foundation for long-term involvement in Africa’s public health. A few days ago, the Kenyan government announced that China has committed Sh8.3b ($78.2m) to build a 21-story disease research center in Kenya. The news came after Kenya accepted a request from the WHO and the African Union to host a regional disease research center.

Whether the U.S. abdicating its global leadership role, or Washington’s inability to muster and coordinate a solid response to a global crisis, or simply a lack of will of the Trump administration, given its America First world view, China is clearly not waiting to find out, but focused on exploiting this opportunity to consolidate its position as a global leader.

China is also intervening in Italy, the worst-hit country in Europe: after the Italian government turned to Beijing for support to address the COVID-19 outbreak.

It is a bit odd for a European country and an  EU member to request help from far-away China as opposed to the EU or other EU member states. But not long after, President Aleksandar Vicic of Serbia – another European country facing a COVID-19 outbreak – echoed this oddity and his disappointment with the EU.

“European solidarity does not exist…The only country that can help us is China. For the rest of them, thanks for nothing,” Mr. Vicic said last week.

China Is Not Challenging the West, It Is Unchallenged

Once western countries, particularly the US was the leading provider of global public goods, especially in the area of health. But as the world grapples with its first pandemic in over a century, the US is nowhere to be found.

China has stepped up to fill the void, be it in Europe, Africa, or the Middle East, Chinese aid and / or health workers are supporting countries to fight the outbreak. The optics is simple, China is the global power leading the world in its response to the pandemic.

Many observers have drawn comparisons between how China has responded to the COVID-19 outbreak with how western countries particularly the US has responded. The popular narrative is that China has shown greater leadership in dealing with the outbreak, both within its borders and globally.

China may not be offering aid with strings attached, but the gesture will definitely buy Beijing political capital and goodwill not just in Africa, but in places where the US and the EU would rather not have politicians and the public looking to China.

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