Should the Quad be concerned about Beijing’s “mask diplomacy”?
Short Answer: No
Iain D. Johnson
As the epicentre of COVID-19 moved away from China in the first half of 2020, Beijing began to step up its efforts in providing healthcare exports to states struggling with critical shortages. Despite a largely negative reaction from the West, with onlookers criticising both the quality and the intentions of Beijing’s “mask diplomacy,” exports have been welcomed by its Southeast Asian neighbours. Given the current tug-of-war battle for influence taking place in the Asia-Pacific between the member states of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and Beijing, should the Quad members be concerned that such efforts will leave their own Southeast Asian interests sidelined? For those who are tempted to interpret the gifting of healthcare supplies as soft-power-grabbing geopolitical business-as-usual, the answer may be yes, but perhaps it is time for a shift in perspective. Actions which have been derided as "mask diplomacy" not only provide much needed assistance to states still struggling to contain COVID-19, but also serve as an opportunity to establish positive regional cooperation between Beijing and its Quad neighbours.
Since March, emergency medical donations such as personal protective equipment (PPE), test kits and ventilators have been distributed by the Chinese government, state-owned enterprises and private institutions such as those linked to billionaire Jack Ma with significant fanfare. While Beijing has self-publicised its actions as those of a concerned and responsible global leader, questions remain about its true motivations. Some analysts have even gone as far as to suggest that Beijing’s actions are simply a thinly veiled ruse to distract from its own failure to contain the virus. Such allegations – taken alongside Beijing’s opportunistic political narrative-making social media campaign which has criticised the West for its inadequate handling of COVID-19 – make international scepticism understandable.
Such scepticism is clearer still within the broader context of political relations between the Quad members and China in 2020. From US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s unambiguous call for a security framework to counter the Chinese Communist Party to the ongoing territorial disputes spanning from Ladakh to the Senkaku Islands, there are legitimate issues of concern to the Quad members and indeed the region more broadly. Of course, Australia and the other members of the Quad must stand firm in the face of geopolitical hostilities and microaggressions; attempts to undermine the international rules which govern order in the Asia-Pacific region must be called out, and threats to sovereignty must be dealt with swiftly and clearly. Actors who threaten the rules-based order of the region must be held to account.
However, traditional approaches to international affairs are ill equipped to deal with non-traditional global security issues. As onlookers and analysts, we must be careful about which issues we choose to tar with the realpolitik brush. Global existential threats require predictability and cooperation, and finger-pointing is antithetical to the trust required to achieve this. Pandemics are not deterred by borders, sanctions, or international condemnation but with preventative mechanisms such as transparent communication, information sharing, and policy coordination. Handling outbreaks requires careful resource management and allocation, and effective distribution mechanisms with secure supply chains and barrier-free transportation. Such cooperation can only take place when states have confidence in the sanctity of the agreements they make with one another.
Moving forward, it is important that the members of the Quad recognise China’s potential as a powerful ally and provider of resources. Beijing has proven itself in this regard with its effective distribution of medical supplies over the past year. Acknowledging these efforts would be an important first step in normalising increasingly distrustful relations. However, it is also important that China conform to the norms set out by international institutions such as the World Health Organisation. Beijing must welcome requests for accountability and permit an independent investigation of its handling of COVID-19. Such an investigation would allow for the establishment of international policies better equipped to help all states deal with future pandemics. Finally, both China and the Quad members should seek to work collaboratively alongside ASEAN, as they are best placed to determine the most efficacious distribution of resources within the region. Donations must not be made on a preferential basis or in exchange for favour.
Medical donations should not be a reason for concern, but a standard response to global threats such as pandemics. The Quad members should welcome efforts that reinforce cooperation and enhance the security of those within the region. It is possible to both celebrate behaviour that contributes to regional security and at the same time demand accountability. While there are legitimate geopolitical grievances in the region that require a much more nuanced approach, responding to a health crisis is comparatively straightforward: states must cooperate to get resources to where they are needed most. Such efforts will increase trust and predictability in a region that sorely needs it. Healthcare diplomacy is what states make of it.
Iain D. Johnson is a MEXT scholar undertaking his MA at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Political Science with a focus in Indo-Pacific regional affairs. He holds a BA in International Relations & Politics from Monash University where he has worked as a researcher and teaching associate since graduating with honours.