The Chinese government is engaged in a massive soft-power campaign to capture the narrative surrounding the coronavirus crisis and to present itself as the world’s savior. Chinese officials are pushing conspiracy theories about the virus originating in the United States. In Europe, Chinese diplomats are calling it the “Trump pandemic,” and Beijing’s state-run propaganda outlets are following suit.
Meanwhile, China is delivering emergency supplies to countries all over the world while the United States is instructing its diplomats abroad to find supplies to send back home. Beijing is using aid to further its other objectives as well. Huawei, the Chinese technology giant, is delivering medical supplies to the Netherlands, which is about to decide who will build its 5G infrastructure.
The Trump administration has launched a public relations campaign, mostly on Twitter, to push back against Beijing’s propaganda and misinformation campaign. That’s good, as far as it goes. But President Trump is not proactively leading a coronavirus response based on international cooperation and coordination. That’s what the Biden campaign is calling for now.
“The Trump administration is totally AWOL when it comes to the international dimension of this crisis,” said Antony Blinken, Biden’s senior adviser and a deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration. “That we are AWOL is a huge detriment to us, not just to some abstract definition of global leadership.”
In past crises, the United States didn’t just go about pursuing its response alone, Blinken said. The Obama administration coordinated economic policy with other powers after the 2008 financial crisis. The George W. Bush administration led the international effort to fight the AIDS epidemic. There was always recognition that what happens abroad matters to us at home.
Earlier this month, the Biden campaign published its own plan for combating the coronavirus. The campaign’s covid-19 plan calls for the U.S. Agency for International Development to lead a government effort to send disaster assistance and response to countries in need. In the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, USAID is not even a member of the White House’s task force. USAID has given $100 million to international organizations to help fight the virus, but that’s about it.
If the United States doesn’t help worse-off countries now, we will have to deal later with increased migration, hunger, disease and instability that will surely spill over and boomerang against us, Blinken argued.
The president has participated in one call with Group of Seven leaders about the coronavirus crisis, initiated by France. An upcoming call among Group of 20 leaders was initiated by Saudi Arabia. Blinken said the G-20 would be the perfect vehicle to fund a global effort to speed development of a vaccine.
“This should be done cooperatively, not competitively,” he said. “It’s crazy not to figure out ways to pool ideas and resources when it comes to the vaccine, but unfortunately that’s turned into the new Sputnik.”
When it comes to China, the Biden campaign has been arguing that the former vice president was early to call out China for hiding information while Trump was publicly praising President Xi Jinping on Twitter for his “transparency.” Going forward, Blinken said the United States should publicly hold Beijing to account but also seek to work with China, if possible.
“You have to try to see if China would be responsive to an effort by us to actually lead the international community in a more coordinated and cooperative response,” he said.
While it is too early to say what Biden would do next year if elected, there is a difference between him and the president on how the United States should adjust its economic strategy when the crisis subsides. Some Trump officials want to bring manufacturing back home and speed up economic decoupling with China.
“Protectionists among us may use this entire crisis to keep the doors shut and the bridge up when we emerge from it,” Blinken said. “That's how a Wall Street crash turns into a Great Depression.”
Biden’s foreign policy credentials and his promise to return the United States to its traditional role as global convener are central to his campaign’s argument.
“Our country is in crisis, and we need someone with the experience to lead a team of capable national security professionals to protect Americans,” said Andrew Albertson, executive director of Foreign Policy for America, a nonpartisan advocacy group that has endorsed Biden.
The fact Beijing’s coronavirus diplomacy is gaining traction, despite that the Chinese Communist Party’s mistakes exacerbated the crisis in the first place, should be a wake-up call for Washington. Soft power — the ability to rally other countries to do things that are in our interest and world’s interest alike — is difficult to earn, easy to squander and crucial in a global crisis.