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U.S. vs. China in the Battle of Perceptions

A charter flight carrying a 9-member Chinese aid team and 31 tons of medical supplies arrived in Rome as part of China's efforts to help Italy contain the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo via People's Daily Online.

Providing global “public goods” in health, security and other areas has long been a responsibility taken on by the United States. Now, though, as the United States struggles to contain the COVID-19 outbreak at home and with its “America First” foreign policy doctrine, Washington is less inclined to providing global leadership, giving China a unique opportunity to fill the void.

As conditions in China begin to improve and life slowly returns to normal in many of the impacted cities, the Chinese government is now dedicating more attention to providing material, technical and financial support for other countries, including many in Africa, in the fight to contain COVID-19.

The most visible evidence of this more prominent Chinese role is in Italy where Beijing has donated 26 tons of supplies and deployed a team of specialists to advise the government in Rome.

In Africa, where the U.S. remains the largest aid donor by far, Washington is contributing additional funds to the fight against COVID-19 with a $37 million supplemental allocation to 25 impacted African countries. But considering that the United States spent $2.3 billion in the campaign against Ebola and the fact that COVID-19 is going to impact far more countries, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that a growing number of observers are questioning Washington’s commitment.

The U.S. government allocated approximately $2.369 billion for Ebola response activities that included technical expertise, resources to the response and new emergency operations center in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

“Washington has stuck to its “America First” isolationist approach, directing all its energy to domestic measures to protect its citizens against the virus,” said Peter Kajwanga, Chief Executive of the Africa Policy Institute in a recent column in Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. “America has significantly rolled back its contribution to global preparedness to combat pandemics.”

Kajwanga is right in broad terms, but his argument leaves out some crucial context. While a lot of people in Africa and elsewhere have become frustrated and disillusioned with U.S. foreign policy on the continent and the Trump administration’s perceived abrasiveness, the reality is that the United States still spends far more on human development programs on the continent than any other country. The fact that China is getting more attention for its recent increase in aid spending on the continent aggravates U.S. officials, who feel that the positive press coverage doesn’t acknowledge that Beijing’s contributions don’t come close to those of the United States.

COVID-19 is going to provide a critical global leadership test for the U.S. and China. But as we evaluate which of these two countries is contributing more to the “public good,” it’ll be critical to judge them both on the optics of their efforts, as well as the substance.

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