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Md. Nazibur Rahman
Md. Nazibur Rahman
20 Apr 2020 23:29:08

Corona diplomacy: Is Bangladesh the new test case of Chinese soft power?

Corona diplomacy: Is Bangladesh the new test case of Chinese soft power?

Countries around the world, including the United States have reported major shortages of ventilators, respirators, test kits, surgical masks, and other essential health equipment to deal with the pandemic, as the numbers of COVID-19 patients soared. President Donald Trump continued to blame China and doubled down his use of the racist term “Chinese virus”.

China despite having once been the epicenter of the virus appears to have recovered and is positioning itself at the helm of the global response to COVID-19. It adopted a unique leadership position that may alter global power relations - soft power, a persuasive power deriving from attraction and emulation, grounded on intangible resources, namely culture.

American political scientist Joseph S. Nye junior, who, along with Robert Keohane, co-founded the international relations theory of neoliberalism, developed in 1977, in their book Power and Interdependence, pointed out how soft power can attract and co-opt. A state, he suggests, can stay non-coercive, yet imply enough power on other states through soft power strategies. Nye concentrates on financial transfers, transfer of technologies and other forms of know-how sharing in this regard.

While the world struggles with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, geopolitical maneuvering continues. China has seized the outbreak as an opportunity to lend a very public hand to countries now battling the disease. Already Beijing has promised or delivered humanitarian aid to countries ranging from Estonia to Iran, from Pakistan to Spain.

In the wake of deaths of scores of people in China especially in Wuhan in mid-February, Bangladesh offered donations of anti-epidemic medical supplies to express firm support as China fought the novel coronavirus. Medical supplies were handed over to the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming at a ceremony on February 18 in Dhaka.

Late March saw the focus shift towards Italy, Spain, and France. The US was the next as China healed itself from the virus spread, and gained control over the COVID-19 outbreak. It was sending aid abroad as part of its soft power exercise, while the US, unaware of the consequences, under the leadership of Donald Trump, kept waving at the virus, like a ship a mile from the shore.

On April 9, China, in keeping with its earlier announcement to donate medical supplies sent 10,000 testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) each and 1,000 infrared thermometers to Bangladesh, where the deadly virus was spreading - timely aid indeed.
These efforts could lead to China assuming a global leadership role amid the pandemic, some experts argue, while the Chinese envoy saw disruptions in trade with Bangladesh.

"We are together," quoted the Embassy as China reiterated its strong commitment to help friends in need and build a community of shared future for mankind.

Ambassador Li Jiming assured that Bangladeshi industries, especially the textile, readymade garment (RMG), and the construction of megaprojects in Bangladesh, would not be affected due to the outbreak of novel coronavirus in China, which happened to soothe the public ear as Bangladesh was bracing the virus attack.

Meanwhile, throughout February and March, the Chinese embassy in Dhaka continued to hold press briefings at the Dhaka press club, diplomatically swaying local industrialists that things were being closely monitored and were handled by a dexterous government in China. Bangladeshi importers had nothing to worry about their existing trade deals with Chinese companies.

The Chinese embassy and the Bangladesh China Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCCI) had jointly organized programs at the National Press Club to discuss COVID-19 and the overall situation of the country. The Chinese ambassador had agreed that the biggest concern of Bangladeshi businesses was whether it was necessary to shift the supply chain from China to other countries given the current situation. ‘But the answer is definitely “no” and it will be a “stupid decision” to think of shifting the supply chain,’ he said at a press conference.

Bangladeshi traders, who import more than 70 percent of fabric and accessories from China, have been experiencing a slight disruption in the supply chain as people went on Chinese New Year vacation which extended up to several weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak, he said, adding that there should be no problems as business activities were becoming normal and suppliers had started shipping out the merchandise.

According to BCCCI, Bangladesh imported goods worth $13.64 billion from China, more than 26 percent of its global import, in the fiscal year 2018-2019 and exported goods worth only $831 million, while the National Board of Revenue data showed that Bangladesh’s import from China fell by 22 percent compared to the same time last year.

Finally, it all came true. The mighty China recovered from the virus infection and was ready to restore trade deals with bandwagoning Bangladesh by a swift soft power move. The regional hegemon was sending heavy loads of medical equipment to one of its trusted allies in its periphery who is still to taste a debt trap, unlike Sri Lanka.

 

Md. Nazibur Rahman, Senior Journalist