Authors: Darya Gribkova & Viktoria Ivanchenko*
According to Joseph Nye, the pioneer of soft power concept, Japan’s attractiveness potential is one of the highest in the world. But at the same time Japan faces obstacles to its comprehensive implementation. First of all, it is a policy towards preservation of internal values and the way of life, Tokyo’s aggressive policy in the first half of the 20th century still not forgotten by its milieu, demographic problems, successful competition by the rapidly developing neighbors, especially Republic of Korea and China, in the field of soft power. Today Japan’s desire to revive the status of military power makes the situation more complicated.
Japan is a convincing example of promoting the positive image by a non-great power without engaging military means. Economic success, urban development, high quality of education, futuristic technologies, mysterious culture which burst into information space by anime and manga created perception of Japan as a smart and advanced country. Demonstrative disregard of geopolitical ambitions helped Japan to keep up its stable position in the international arena for a long time.
But what components does Japan’s soft power include now? What role does the state play in it? Which regions of the world are priority-driven when choosing the directions of the Japanese soft impact? What are the prospects for Japanese soft power and which countries can compete with Japan? Let us try to examine the system carefully.
State, “soft power” and cultural diplomacy
Traditional spheres the state is in charge of are economic and military because they both guarantee state’s survival. In case of the state’s participation in public diplomacy space for activity of special-purpose funds, NGOs, media and large corporations occurs. In today’s world, one way or another, states are limited in the use of hard powerand it is soft power that becomes an instrument for creating favorable environment for foreign policy.
Japanese soft power developed independently of the state and rose from Japanese culture, national traditions, aureole of mystery and inaccessibility and later rose from modernization success and model of economic development. But at which stage did the state get involved and soft power become considered as a means of winning leading positions in the world economy, policy and culture for Japan?
After World War II Japanese government faced necessity not only to recover economy and reform governance system in the state but as well to overcome the image of aggressor in the international arena. Spheres of culture and public diplomacy offered Japan wide opportunities for such activity.
Today implementation of Japan’s soft power is under control of Foreign Affairs Ministry. In 1972 the Japan Foundation was established under the Ministry’s management for development of cultural exchange, promotion of Japanese studies abroad, researching activity of Western institutions and international cultural exchange standards and programs. In October 2003 the Foundation became an independent institution and now it has 24 offices around the world, its activity covers more than 190 countries. The main directions of Foundation’s activity are exchange programs for outstanding specialists in the field of cross-cultural communication, science and culture as well as sport exchange programs and participation of Japanese scientists in international conferences, preservation of Japanese cultural monuments by Japanese specialists , cooperation on realization of joint projects with UNESCO.
Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) regulates the issues related to the official development assistance; its goals are the reduction of poverty, increase of effectiveness of management systems, ensuring human security and stimulation of educational and cultural exchange.
In 1988 Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry began to publish the monthly journal on foreign affairs “Gaiko Forum”, which also covered issues related to Japanese popular culture and public diplomacy.
In 2005 the Advisory Committee led by Tamotsu Aoki, professor of Hosei University, was formed to conceptualize the elements of Japan’s soft power. In Diplomatic Blue Book 2004 a section of the 3rd chapter dedicated to the soft power concept and public diplomacy, improvement of image of the state abroad, students exchange programs, cooperation in the cultural sphere. One of the most important part is about “Cool Japan”, public diplomacy program aimed at the promotion of Japanese popular culture. By 2014 the government’s spending for promotion of Japanese pop-culture reached almost $883 million. In 2004, ex-prime minister Aso Taro in his speech about Japan’s strategic development stressed soft power as one of the most perspective direction and Japan’s attractiveness promotion in the world as one of the resources of growth.
There is a departure in the MOFA structure, that realizes Japanese film festivals, painting exhibitions, Japanese cuisine days. The MOFA’s internet-page provides links to resources related to public relations abroad, cultural and people-to-people exchange, cooperation with international organizations (UNESCO, UNU) including WebJapan (available in Chinese, English, Arabic, Russian, Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, Danish and French) which provides information on trends in Japanese fashion, cuisine, nature, Japan’s achievements in the field of economy, education, environmental protection and so on.
Also it is worth to note that neither the Prime Minister nor the Minister of Foreign Affairs, nor the Japanese Ambassadors refuse to give comments to the major national and foreign media on such seemingly acute issues as territorial disputes with neighbors. This looks like demonstration of Tokyo’s willingness to discuss these issues openly and confidence in the legitimacy of the territorial claims.
The state invests a lot in support of external economic activity of Japanese enterprises. In the sphere of economy attractiveness of the state and national culture are valuable as they bring significant dividends to business. At the same time the country’s economic success is already a powerful tool of positive influence which forms the attraction of Japanese corporate culture. In the Intellectual Property Strategic Program 2006 cultural and economic aspects were identified as complementary, and also there were measures proposed to improve the image of the country through the use of rich cultural potential, through support of Japanese business and promotion of Japan brand all over the world. The brand “Made in Japan” around the world is associated with the quality and reliability of Japanese products and despite the high price it is in great demand.
In 2004 the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry launched the “Japan Brand” program, aimed at promoting certain products produced in Japanese regions at the foreign markets. This program became a part of a strategy for stimulating external economic activity of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Japan became the first state in Asia which realized the opportunities that opens up the proper use of soft power as a powerful instrument of influence in the world. After the World War II Japan was a defeated aggressor, which in order to restore its economy and position in the international community needed to achieve normal relations, primarily with the countries of Asia Pacific, which suffered the most during the war.
But active state involvement and directive approach to soft power produce some serious risks. Usually, the private sector evokes more trust abroad as more independent and free in its actions.
Here other players come, for example, transnational companies. One of the strongest soft power instruments they engage is corporate social responsibility. Such big companies like Mitsubishi and Toyota take part in various projects related to the social sphere in Russia. For instance, Mitsubishi Corporation supports the Center of Japanese language and culture in Moscow State Linguistic University. As well in 2017 on the base of Far Eastern Federal University Mitsubishi Corporation and Far Eastern Federal University established the Center for study of Russian-Japanese relations. Mitsubishi’s employees visit boarding schools, organize educational and leisure activities. In December 2015 Furusawa Minoru, CEO of Mitsubishi Corporation Russia, was awarded as a “Maecenas of the year” at the St. Petersburg Cultural Forum.
Vectors of dissemination
After the World War II Japan managed to solve an extremely difficult task: in a short period of time the country not only earned the reputation of a peace-loving country and a reliable economic partner but still continues to support it successfully.
Japan’s cautious, non-assertive policy and economic assistance to the countries of Asia Pacific after the World War II played a key role. In 1954 Japan became a participant of the Colombo Plan for the joint economic and social development of Asia and the Pacific. From that moment, directly or through participation in international projects, Japan began to provide official development assistance, grants without requiring their return and long-term loans on preferential terms. Today speaking of lending Japanese banks keep a leading position in the Asia Pacific region.
The construction of Japan’s infrastructure projects is another significant area, however today Japan faces strong competition from China. Tokyo invests in the construction of schools, hospitals, purchase of equipment, construction of roads. In May 2015 Shinzo Abe announced the launch of the “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” project which should embrace South, Southeast and Central Asia countries. Next five years Tokyo intends to invest 110 billion dollars for the project implementation. Despite the recession that has continued since the 1990s, Japan remains the main donor of economic assistance and lender in Asia, one of the founders of the Asian Development Bank and the largest contributor to infrastructure development projects.
Assistance for developing countries, financing of development programs, provision of preferential long-term loans, training of personnel and sending Japanese specialists to developing countries allows to form the positive image of the country and favorable environment for Japanese business.
During the recovery period after the World War II the cautious Tokyo’s policy, the emphasis on the provision of economic means, loans, grants, and investments in infrastructure project played an important role in spreading the so-called soft influence of Japan in North Asia and Southeast Asia – closest Japan’s neighbours. Thus, after the beginning of reforms in the People’s Republic of China in the late 1970s Japan was one of the main trading partners and still one of the main investors.
Because of geographical proximity and close historical ties China and South Korea became the first countries which felt Japanese soft power influence through the popular culture. In late 1990s Japan faced a strong competitor: South Korea film production, music (K-pop) and tourism to Korea, Korean ethnic cuisine, electronics intercepted interest in Japan. Korean pop culture first captured China and Japan, then Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, Thailand, Russia, Mongolia, European, Central Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries, America. Nevertheless, 99% of the exports of the Korean cultural industry go to Asian countries.
To some extent Japan nurtured its competitor itself: it was the Republic of Korea that was the largest consumer of the products of the Japanese popular industry, and then the imitator, subsequently adding its national flavor to the most popular samples of Japanese pop culture.
In Southeast Asia Singapore became a kind of reference point for distribution of Japanese popular culture. In November 2009 the Japan Creative Center was opened in Singapore to introduce traditional and modern Japanese culture, technological achievements, cuisine, anime, crafts, cinema and music.
In Central Asia the basis of Japanese soft power is Japan’s Asian identity, similarity. Diplomatic relations with the countries of the region Tokyo established in the 1990s, but they won attention much earlier and today they are spurred by Tokyo’s interest in energy potential and transit opportunities of these countries.
The undeniable advantage of Japan in the Central Asian region is the absence of military aggression in the past and, as a result, the absence of negative memory of the peoples regarding Japan. “Residents of Central Asia remember tens of thousands of Japanese prisoners of war on the territory of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan after the World War II. Until now buildings built by their hands have been preserved, for example, the Central Telegraph and the Ministry of Culture in Tashkent, the Academy of Sciences in Almaty, the Farhad Hydropower Station in Tajikistan”, notes Olga Dobrinskaya, Research Officer at the Department of Japanese Studies, Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In the 1990s Central Asian countries had to choose the way for further development including economic model. The Japanese case with the leading role of the state seemed very attractive, as well as the fact that Japan acted as a carrier of Western values of democracy with some Eastern specificity.
Ryutaro Hashimoto’s concept of the “Eurasian diplomacy” meant revitalization of Japan’s relations with Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region and China. In 2004, Japan initiated the launch of the “Central Asia plus Japan” Dialogue to strengthen mutual understanding between countries. In 2006 Central Asia along with the South Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East, South, Southeast and Northeast Asia were inserted in the concept of the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity”. Shinzo Abe’s visits to the countries of Central Asia in November 2015 became a demonstration of serious interest in cooperation with the countries of the region.
Among the examples of Japan’s soft power in Central Asia, it is significant to mention programs of official assistance to the development of the Central Asian states, projects in the field of ecology, green and energy-saving technologies, in the spheres of agriculture, education, health. Successes in these fields have strengthened Japan’s image as a state that promotes and develops non-military security.
Japan is interested in Central Asia’s transit routes and energy resources, and that’s why the Japanese government is interested in the stability of the region including environmental dimension, political, economic and social spheres.
Difficulties and prospects
In the Soft Power 30 global index of Portland in 2017 Japan ranks sixth while in 2015 it was located on the eighth position. Despite the high indices there are factors which contain the further realization of the potential of Japan’s soft power.
The most important one is related to the perception of foreign influence. Soft power becomes an unattainable ideal wherever different identities, ideologies, views collide. It becomes effective only if the ‘recipient’ of soft power shares the notions of the way of life, worldview, culture of the soft power ‘projector’. Concerning effectiveness of Japanese soft power the following question arises: how much is Japan’s soft power viable in Northeast Asia given the growth of nationalist sentiments in Asia including those in China and Korea, and Japan’s implementation of military reforms policy? Can it cope with competition from the Chinese cultural heritage which is much older than Japanese one?
Another issue concerns weakness of soft power in overcoming hostility and rivalry rooted back far in the past and kept in memory of several generations. It is evident within long-lasting memory of Japan’s militaristic and colonial policy in Asia in the first half of the 20th century.
Today in Japan military component as an invariable attribute of great power gradually displaces the ‘soft’ component, which is absolutely important in the world of international technologies and free information flows. Nevertheless, soft power cannot be disregarded, since it is one of the most important elements shaping the image of the state, which strives for a more weighty position among powerful actors and in dealing with global issues.
Moreover, the longest life expectancy results in a high rate of aging; the desire to preserve the culture, way of life, business ethics appears in rigid migration legislation, which exacerbates demographic problems. The migration legislation provides a facilitated regime for obtaining visas and citizenship for “unique” specialists, however, a language barrier remains a strong obstacle. Japanese popular culture is experiencing serious competition from the Korean one. Competition with China in Southeast Asia and Central Asia is increasing and India is rising a a new vigorous rival in the economic field.
So the question is if it is possible in the current conditions to give a new impetus to the Japanese soft power. In case Abe’s government is able to cope with domestic economic problems, Japan will be able to maintain its status as a reliable economic partner and one of the main creditors in the international community.
An important but hardly feasible step could be Japan’s willingness to discuss the issues related to its militaristic past, which the present government is trying to forget with all its might.
In cultural diplomacy Japan relies on pop-culture, the brand of anime and manga, which should promote a deeper interest in the country’s rich culture. But maybe today the world needs things which fascinated foreigners in the XIX-XX centuries? For example, traditional, authentic cultural heritage?
Today military reforms can eradicate the government’s efforts to project its soft power and their further implementation will require much more effort and resources to maintain Japan’s attractiveness in the world. A great opportunity to put life into Japanese soft power can be the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games which will be held in Japan.
As well 2018 is a cross-cultural Russian-Japanese year. For both countries it is a great opportunity to better understand each other, to make people interact more often and find more common points for cooperation. Despite the Kuril issue, which is yet to be resolved, current stable and friendly relations between Russia and Japan provide great potential for dialogue and collaboration. Within the Pivot to the East Russia now makes an attempt to establish close ties with promising and highly developed Asian countries, and 2018 grants Japan a more privileged position at least in terms of people-to-people contacts.
Japan`s cultural events are warmly welcomed in Russia. For instance, in Autumn 2017 just three big events took place in Moscow: 7th Moscow Biennale, exhibitions by Takashi Murakami “There will be a gentle rain” and Keichi Tanaami “Country of mirrors”.
But opportunities granted to Japan by international large-scale sports and cultural events have temporary effects although they give a good chance to show the country at its best. Japan as an influential soft power actor requires a long-term strategy which would work in accordance with other state policies. Otherwise, Japanese government run risks to lose its positions as one of soft power leaders if it chooses hard power instruments for projecting its influence and will have to fully revise its soft power strategy.
Original pre-revised text in Russian
*Viktoria Ivanchenko, PICREADI (Creative Diplomacy) editor-in-chief, researcher at Higher School of Economics, Moscow
Taiwan: The First and Oldest ‘Thorn’ between China and the West
Over three hundred and fifty years ago, when the West lost its first war with China over Taiwan, the technological level between the two sides was fairly even. But the Dutch, then the most dynamic colonial power, paid a heavy price for misbelieving “China might have invented gunpowder but we possess superior guns.” Today, the world is witnessing China’s rapid rise and the US is in decline. The question is, will Taiwan once again bust the Western (aka US) superiority myth?
In 1662, the West fought its first war with China and lost. The Sino-Dutch War, as it is called now, was fought when a Chinese admiral dared the Dutch East India Company to give up its little under half century ‘rule’ over Taiwan. The defeat resulted in the island falling under Chinese rule for the first time in history. It is not so important to know it was China’s first great victory over Europe’s most dynamic colonial power. In the words of the Dutch historian, Tonio Andrade, what is more significant is the first Chinese victory over the West broke the myth of Western superiority as it had been achieved on the basis of “Chinese advantage in strategic and tactical culture.” (Emphasis added) The Chinese victory also broke another myth which the Western historians held on to until as recently as in 1970s, i.e., the Chinese might have invented the gunpowder but didn’t know how to use it as weapon, Andrade, the author went on to add.
Fast forward to the present-day tensions in the Taiwan Strait. As China embarked on the path of Reform and Opening-up, relations between Beijing and Taipei too started improving in the early 1980s. Seen as a remarkable political development on both sides of the Taiwan Strait in 45 years, the KMT government in Taipei declared in 1991 “an end to the war with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.” However, since the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, political headwinds in Taiwan have been moving in the opposite direction to Beijing. Alarmed by Chen’s backing of demands for Taiwan’s independence, Beijing was quick to pass anti-secession law a year after Chen was reelected in 2004.
In 2016, following Donald Trump’s victory in US and the victory of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s president respectively, Beijing’s fear of Taiwan declaring itself an independent country has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, Beijing is feeling seriously threatened by the US role in creating conditions for Taiwan to declare independence. Immediately upon assuming office, President Trump held telephone conversation with the Taiwan president – something which no other US had done in the preceding forty years. This was the beginning of a new trend in US-China relations and which grossly undermined the “One China” policy.
During the past decade (between 2007 and 2019), the US warships made over one hundred trips through the Taiwan Strait. No wonder Beijing has been describing Taiwan as “the most important sensitive issue in Sino-US relations.” According to New Strait Times, in 2020, the year of Coronavirus pandemic, the cross-strait faced its worst crisis in the past two decades. Without denying that the PLA fighter planes crossed maritime border with Taiwan, China however dismissed Taipei’s claims of “incursions” by the mainland. Beijing even maintained its warplanes, bombers and anti-submarine aircrafts “conducted normal exercises on September 18 and 19 respectively and that the median line never existed.”
However, according to experts, the median line is the unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and China, and was demarcated by US Air Force General Benjamin Davis Jr. in 1955, before the US pressured both sides to enter into a tacit agreement not to cross it. Media reports originating from Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore claimed the forty or more PLA incursions last October, were prompted by two US top officials visiting Taipei during August-September period last year. “U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach arrived in Taiwan on Thursday for the second visit by a high-level American official in two months. The first visit was by the US Health Secretary Alex Azar in August 2020.” The visits by Krach and Azar respectively were first highest-level US Cabinet visits to Taiwan – in gross violation of the US commitments to China – since the US switched formal relations from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979.
This year, especially within hours following President entered the White House, the new US administration lost no time in announcing “our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” Two days earlier, the State Department invited and officially received Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador in Washington to Biden’s inauguration – the first envoy from the island present at a presidential swearing-in since 1979. Both the statement of commitment to Taiwan and the presence of Taiwanese envoy at the presidential inauguration respectively were interpreted by strategic affairs experts in Washington and Beijing as moves to provoke China towards making a strategic mistake leading to military conflict.
Further, Taiwan has returned as “thorniest” issue in US-China relations under President Biden – since perhaps it is easier to violate “One China” policy than to either rally European allies against China or to announce a decisive Washington position toward Beijing. As President Biden gears up to embark on his maiden in-person visit to shake hands or bump elbows with his European allies, the US administration has further escalated tensions over Taiwan. Last Sunday, a bipartisan contingent of three US Senators – Tammy Duckworth and Christopher Coons, both Democrats, and Dan Sullivan, a Republican – briefly visited Taiwan on a US military aircraft. According to media reports, the Chinese Defense Ministry described the visit as “extremely vile provocation.” Reuters citing Chinese sources said China believes that “Biden administration is challenging one-China principle and trying to achieve the so-called goal of ‘using Taiwan to control’ China.”
Experts in Beijing point out, Biden is accelerating the pitch of what started under Obama and was intensified by Trump, i.e., to use “the US economic and military might to pressure Beijing and force it to accept US hegemony in the region.” Elsewhere, first the joint statement following Biden-Suga summit in April and then in late May the statement released after the summit meeting between European leaders and Japan’s Prime Minister Suga, are being interpreted as “belligerent stances towards Beijing initiated and encouraged by President Biden.” The EU-Japan post-summit statement called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Similar to several moves initiated by Trump and Biden challenging one-China policy, the EU-Suga joint statement too is the first time that Taiwan has been included in such a statement.
A scholar in Tianjin, who writes a column for ftchinese.com, the daily online Mandarin version of the Financial Times, thinks Biden has intensified the so-called Thucydides trap. In a recent article, he has actually put forward a solution for Beijing to not only avoid falling into the trap, but also steer clear of having to choose between using force to reunify with Taiwan and being forced into military conflict with the US by striking first. To sum up Li Yongning’s rather long thesis, he prescribes that China fight out Thucydides trap with economic growth and people’s prosperity. To prove his point, Li flashes the example of de-escalation of hostility between China and Japan. Remember until a few years ago, heightened tensions between the two over Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. Of late, especially since the middle of Xi Jinping’s first five year tenure, belligerent provocations between Beijing and Tokyo have almost ceased.
How did China under Xi achieve this? According to Li, Xi’s strategy to strike peace and tranquility with Japan was simple and practical. “China’s GDP exceeded Japan’s in 2010 and by 2019 it became 2.8 times more than Japan’s, which put an end to Sino-Japan competitiveness. Likewise, once China achieves one and a half times or twice bigger GDP of the USA, the China-US competitiveness will be rendered as joke,” Li contended. In 2017, in PPP terms China had already exceeded the US economy. Li cited a Brookings Institution report which predicted China’s GDP will cross America’s in 2028. “Once China reaches there, higher GDP will act as shock absorber for all Sino-US conflicts,” Li wrote.
China’s know-how on becoming the oldest society in the world
For decades, China had a “one-child policy” that permitted families to have only one child. A few years ago, this restriction was changed to a “two-child policy”, and now the Chinese government has allowed the Chinese people to give birth to three children.
The main reason for this is the concerningly low birth rate and the impending demographic crisis. China is still the country with the largest population (1.41 billion), but UN forecasts indicate that India will soon surpass it, since India has a much higher birth rate.
Statistics show that last year approximately 12 million babies were born in China, which is the lowest birth rate China has had in many years. For instance, in 2016 when the “two-child policy” was implemented, the number of newborns reached 18 million.
Chinese demographers argue that it will be difficult for China to boost birth rate in the near future because the number of women in the reproductive age is decreasing. This was caused by China’s “one-child policy” that was in force from 1979 to 2015.
Chinese families could give birth only to one child, and many families chose to “spend” this quota on a boy, since in China boys have traditionally been valued more than girls. If a family were told they were expecting a girl, the mother would often decide to have an abortion.
This caused an unexpected outcome – the number of men exceeded the number of women. Although it was not allowed to find out the sex of the baby during pregnancy, there were several ways to do so which lead to numerous late abortions. That is why currently there is a disproportion between the number of men and women in the Chinese society.
As a result, modern China is overproducing men and is in a grave lack of women. Statistics indicate that there are 35 million more men than women – leaving many men with no chances of finding a spouse.
Moreover, the beliefs and values of the Chinese people have also changed over the years, i.e. many women wish to pursue a career first and only then to establish a family. The recent years have seen a rapid decline in marriages in China.
These trends are particularly prevalent in Chinese cities, leading demographers to predict that the gap between the situation in cities and the situation in the countryside will only widen in the future – people in the countryside still prefer larger families, while city dwellers have a hard time giving birth to a single child.
“Now, we are allowed to have three children. The problem, however, is that I don’t even want one child,” a user of the Chinese social media network Weibo wrote in his account.
Many are asking the question – will the “three-child policy” change anything if the “two-child policy” wasn’t able to do so? That’s why people are happy about the government’s decision to provide other incentives and motivations in this regard.
For example, education costs – which were twice as high in two-children families – will be cut, people will see additional support on tax and housing issues and working women will be granted more rights. In addition, the government also has plans to educate young Chinese people on the issues of marriage and love – now, state propaganda will not only deal with shaming the West, but also teach people how to love correctly and “make children”.
This leads to believe that the Chinese government has taken quite a peculiar approach to identifying mistakes in their previous policies, but it isn’t truly admitting these mistakes – as is the case in all authoritarian regimes. If the previous plan fails, simply improve it a bit and relaunch it anew.
The “one-child policy” has led to one-and-a-half generation where there are six people from the non-working population for each person in the working population, i.e. the person’s parents and two sets of grandparents. This is the Chinese Communist Party’s know-how.
Global Health & Health Silk Road: The Other Side Of Picture
The new world order is a twisted maze of political, economic and cultural ambitions. China’s obscure political economy presents an unparalleled challenge to those unfamiliar with the cultural and historical undercurrents driving Beijing’s global movements. Following the onset of the CoVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the global society observed one of the hasty economic convulsion since World War II. Nearly all nation states sealed their borders and placed global supply chain and trade in limbo as the spread of the virus continued unabated. As Beijing’s flagship investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was similarly disrupted. The BRI initiative has formed the cornerstone of President Xi’s approach to strategic diplomacy and challenged the traditional concept of development. Key rhetoric underlying the initiative, such as “the community of common destiny for mankind”.
Nevertheless, there is a “Digital Silk Road”, and “Space Silk Road”, so it should come as no bombshell that China is also building a “Health Silk Road”. China’s HSR first appeared in a speech given by President Xi in 2016. At the first BRI Forum 2017, a Beijing Communique of Belt and Road Health Cooperation and Health Silk Road was signed by China, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS, OECD, GAVI and other participating countries. Since then, China made a significant move towards the consolidation of its role as a major player in global health. Similarly, it is no secret that China is making a boost for global health leadership during CoVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic spread across the world, China sought to provide aid packages and medical assistance to partner states within the BRI under the name of “Health Silk Road”. The ongoing CoVID-19 pandemic is not only going to fundamentally transform the global politics, but also the foreign policy priorities of many countries. Since the outbreak, the CoVID-19 pandemic has exposed the significant weakness of public health infrastructure of developed and developing countries alike.
There is widespread understanding among scientists, heritage and history writers that one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, black death, originated in China and spread along the old silk road to central Asia, northern India and Europe. It exhibited a blueprint that is as old as human history, – when people and goods travel, so do viruses and bacteria. Today, there is some speculation about whether CoVID-19 circulated along the “new silk road”, and it has been criticized that the BRI contributed to the spread of the virus. These kinds of debates are pointless because, even without modern means of transport like trains, cargo-ships, and planes, the plague can reach the most remote places in the world and kill a large portion of the global population. Highly criticized for covering up and not preventing the virus from turning into a global pandemic, China is making an efforts to reinstate its persona as a symbol of support, strength and leadership. Opponents have also alleged that Beijing rationalized itself as a global health champion at a time when Washington had abdicated its responsibilities.
Regardless of misgivings, China has been promoting the institutionalization of health cooperation within HSR framework by organizing and sponsoring a number of health-themed forums. For example, the Silk Road Health Forum, China-Central and Eastern European Countries Health Ministers Forum, China-ASEAN Health Forum, and the China-Arab States Health Forum. Beijing also initiated a series of supportive programs on disease control and prevention in alliance with its neighbors in Central Asia. All these efforts were made as part of China’s broader global health diplomacy and leadership before the CoVID-19 pandemic hit the world. With the spread of CoVID-19 across the world, the Chinese government extended support to countries from East Asia to Europe. It has given 20 million dollars to the World Health Organization (WHO) for assisting developing countries in coping with the pandemic, build up their epidemic-prevention abilities, and building a stronger public health system. China also handed out concessionary loans and played a coordinating role in multilaterals like G-20, ASEAN, the SCO and the African Union, established itself in a leadership position by promptly responding to the crises and catering to the needs of the countries all over.
In contrast with the advance economics, what China has contributed to the global pandemic combat becomes even more admirable. Statistics show that China has provided considerable amount of medical assistance to the rest of world, including approximately 70.6 billion face masks, 225 million test kits, 115 million pairs of goggles, 340 million protective suits, 96,700 ventilators, and 40.29 million infrared thermometers to 200 countries and regions in 2020. China’s medical professionals have also played a vital role in the global pandemic battle by contributing their knowledge and experience on the frontlines in many virus-impacted countries. China has shared medical best practices with a multitude of international organizations, including the ASEAN, EU, African Union, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Caribbean, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as some of the hardest-hit countries such as South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States, and Germany.
Concisely, with all these notable endeavors and substantial contributions, is it still premature to presume that China has taken over the leadership role in terms of global health? China’s engagement in global health, especially during CoVID-19, has positioned itself as a johnny on the spot in global health leadership. The HSR undoubtedly will allow China to re-establish its national repute on the international stage, in particular by contrasting it with the inelegant responses of the United States and other European nations. China’s global aspirations, efforts to present itself as a global health leader should not be considered as surprise. It is still too early to tell the magnitude to which China’s global health sprint will transform its international profile, but there is no reason to be cynical that it will be revolutionary. As an old Chinese saying goes, it takes a good blacksmith to make good steel.
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