In a globalized world, success in trade and investment was considerably reliant on public goodwill. One of the primary goals of foreign ministries was to educate the public in foreign countries, engage the civil society in those countries and promote better understanding and cultivate friendship not just with governments but also with the people at large. A term that has come to be associated with this aspect of foreign relations is public diplomacy.
The United States had earned a great deal of public goodwill around the world due to its economic successes, democratic ideals, social values, and also military prowess. The United States attracted other countries and civil societies, and this power of attraction came to be conceptualized as “soft power” by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye. Businessmen of every country desired to develop trade and investment ties with the United States, corporations and companies aspired to be listed in New York Stock Exchange, students from across the world sought admissions into American colleges and universities and tourists from every country in the world desired to visit the United States and have a feel of the place and see the marvels of material advancement in the United States.
There was no country in the world that could match the United States in “soft power”. Then came an economic miracle in the People’s Republic of China. As the growth rate of economy consistently galloped like a warhorse in a communist country and China achieved unprecedented success in material prosperity, it attracted the attention of people, companies, and governments; and with the passage of time, the commercial liberalism advocated by the Western liberal democracies faced an ideological and economic challenge. To achieve material prosperity, liberal democracy is no longer considered a precondition. There were analysts who gave the examples of political transition in South Korea and Taiwan from authoritarianism to democracy after those two countries’ economies grew into “tiger economies” to suggest that China would also move in the same direction due to its economic accomplishments. That would have proven the significance of liberal democracy as a desirable form of government and governance.
However, China’s economic and political evolution moved in a different direction. Political authoritarianism and extraordinary economic prosperity in China have co-existed. The Chinese Communist Party’s grip over the country has witnessed rising consolidation with growing prosperity and lessening the poverty rate in that country. China came to be adored, admired all around, and many analysts and commentators began to see the surfacing of a contest between the Washington Consensus Model of Growth and the Beijing Consensus Model.
Almost every country in the world sought cooperative ties with China, and more than a hundred countries found in China their largest trade partner in terms of volume of trade. The energy exporters, commodities exporters, and raw materials exporters in various parts of the world benefited a great deal by trading with Chinese manufacturers. The United States, Canada, and European countries found in China an important nodal tip of their global supply chains in most of the trading items.
Foreign policy analysts deliberated on China’s rise as a superpower and America’s decline as a superpower, but then a major change has come again in the wake of the Corona Virus pandemic. The entire world is busy dealing with the virus, and China has begun flexing its muscles more and more. As the US-China cold confrontation in the pre-pandemic era became more intense during the pandemic and US President Donald Trump seemed determined to expose China’s manner of handling the pandemic and dubbed the virus as a Chinese virus, Beijing fumed and unleashed “wolf warrior diplomacy”.
The fact remains that the Covid19 pandemic originated in China to which even Beijing has admitted, and it cannot deny that. Nevertheless, Beijing’s brazen denial to allegations of its failure in reporting in time the outbreak of Covid19, so that the rest of the world could get prepared has been unpersuasive and egotistical. This has negatively impacted the international goodwill China had earned in the pre-pandemic era. The way China contained the virus within its territory, while the rest of the world has kept facing the Herculean task has certainly provoked a thought that timely information could have enabled other countries to handle the situation better.
However, the matter does not end there. China reportedly exported protection kit and other related medical equipment that were found to be of low quality and ineffective in dealing with the infection. This also dented the image of China in the international community. Then came a much worse side of Chinese ambitions. China sent thousands of troops to the Sino-Indian border and crossed the Line of Actual Control that led to the loss of soldiers’ lives. Violating all principles of ethical behavior and spirit of the agreement to maintain peace and tranquility along the border, China not only showed the belligerent side of its foreign policy but kept alive the standoff by refusing to disengage from all sectors of the LAC. China’s similar claims of sovereignty in the maritime sphere in the South China Sea and the East China Sea are not new, but its muscle-flexing vis-à-vis weaker neighbors have made countries speak more loudly against China than before. The United States and Australia have now more openly challenged the Chinese assertion. ASEAN, which under Chinese pressure never came up with a unified position on the South China Sea dispute, has also now taken a stand that the Law of the Sea should be the guiding principle to resolve differences.
All these developments have cost China heavily in terms of their attractiveness. Although China retorts through wolf war diplomacy, its statements are less credible. The loss of America’s charisma due to President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy is well known. President Trump’s unpalatable remarks and unfriendly tweets now seem to be less bitter than hostile Chinese statements. The way pandemic has affected the United States draws more sympathy today, while China’s reported triumph over the pandemic has hardly generated appreciations or kudos. The decision by some countries to relocate the supply chains away from China, Indian measures to decouple its ties with China, growing sentiments in many countries to develop and strengthen self-sufficiency and the US decision to confront China in the face are all indicative of loss of trust in China.
China will surely pay heavily for the exposed face of its development assistance strategy through BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and its belligerent assertion of sovereignty over other’s territories on land and maritime domains in times to come. While the trend of delocalization had already started before the current pandemic and China had begun to profess and champion globalization, the world perhaps will now listen less to China and do more to reduce dependence on a China whose “peaceful rise” rhetoric has now shown its true color!