June 3, 2020

“Mask Diplomacy”: China’s Confucian Strategy in International Relations

By Punsara Amarasinghe

It is by no means a hyperbolic phase to call the year 2020 as Anus Horribilis by virtue of the events that have befallen from the very first month. The new year bells rang amid the bush fires in Australia and within seventy-two hours after the new year eve the US assassinated Iranian top General Soleimani in Iraq creating an extremely tense situation. Then within a week, the greater disturbance escalated into a worse scenario when Iran launched an attack on the US bases in Iraq.

However, all the above-mentioned events became less significant and probably forgotten when COVID 19 became an unmitigated disaster creating chaos around the world. But when it emerged in China at the end of 2019 the morbid fascination shown by the US foreign policy analysts was a palpable factor as the US perceived that repercussions of COVID 19 in Wuhan may inevitably stagnate the magic economic growth that China has been witnessing. But this irrational jubilation was short-lived as it ultimately turned to irrational disappear with the rapid spread of COVID 19 as a global pandemic which has now brutally wounded the USA making it as the current epicenter whereas China has slowly begun to recover from its eleventh-hour moment. The unexpected situation erupted in the West before coping with the coronavirus was followed by China’s evasive global aid campaign against the coronavirus as the Chinese opted for “mask diplomacy” by sending medical supplies to European countries and the portrayal of China as the scapegoat was vindicated by these actions.

So, it is intriguing that, especially the growing emphasis on China’s liability for concealing the coronavirus when it emerged in Wuhan from the global community, that China gleefully clung to its mask diplomacy across Europe when European solidarity was at stake. Especially, China’s gusto in supplying medical aid and masks to Italy was a notable factor as it has altered the hostile public perception pervaded in Italian society towards China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). For example, there was a massive criticism on Chinese BRI project in Italy, particularly in relation to its potential threat to debilitate Northern Italy’s economy. China seized the moment in such a berating atmosphere towards them in Italy as the good Samaritan. China’s massive medical supply and masks to Italy even as the European Union failed to rally around one of is leading economies played a crucial role in China’s position in Italy. In fact, Italy was just one example showing the astuteness of China’s mask diplomacy amid many COVID crises.

Nevertheless, the causes rooted in Chinese bonhomie seems to have been propelled by Xi Jin Ping’s biggest dream of leading China to the global political realm and the apathy showed by the USA contrary to its historical Atlantic alliance with Europe boosted China’s “Mask’s Diplomacy” significantly. While ascertaining the Chinese strategy amid the COVID crisis to uplift their good name in the Western world, one cannot forget the trajectories shaped up Chinese foreign policy that has mainly derived from Modern Chinese infatuation with their ancient Confucian values in diplomacy. The Gift giving has been depicted as a rather essential feature in Confucian ethics and it was well applied by several dynasties in imperial China to expand Chinese influence beyond its frontiers. China’s ethical guru Confucius venerated ethics over law. In emulating the principle of virtue, the importance given to ritual has played a significant one, because, in the Chinese ancient book of rites, the governance and giving were linked to ritual. It was believed that gift-giving as a ritual was filled with reverence and sense of generosity and also it was expected to receive blessings from the receiver.

The Confucian ethics prevailed in imperial China reached its nadir after the formation of the People’s Republic of China grounded on Communism. Yet, its importance came back to the practice with the steeping growth of China as a global political, economic and military power in the late 20th century. In particular, the famous gift-giving strategy adopted by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the ’80s to make comity with the USA was known as Panda Diplomacy which resulted in a considerable diplomatic triumph for China.

From a vantage point, the Chinese strategy of sending medical aid and masks to foreign countries, especially to EU states is akin to how the Chinese approach to developing foreign relations under Confucian values, but its deeper political expectations seem to have been envisaged by the west with a sense of doubt. Especially, China’s act of sending masks and medical aid was seen as a way to extend Beijing’s political leverage to other countries and divert world attention from discussing China’s culpability for spreading coronavirus. The Chief of the European Union Joseph Borell has described this phenomenon as “the politics of generosity”, simultaneously the West has lampooned China for conducting provocative campaigns against neighboring countries from Taiwan to Japan by taking the advantage of corona chaos. The criticism focusing on Beijing’s actions are been propelled by China’s contemporary attitude to increase its participation in global politics contrary to its initial claim on a peaceful rise, which used to be the mantra of Chinese depiction of their yearning to become a superpower under Hu Jintao.

Given this situation of West’s ambivalence to view Chinse “mask diplomacy” as an evasive action to change the global attitude towards China, the Confucian ideals need to be reexamined as it guides foreigners to fathom how Chinese vision works. As I stated above, gift-giving culture played a dominant role in ancient China under Confucian ethics to underpin social harmony. Throughout its civilizational saga, China always called herself the middle kingdom and kept paternal relations with the neighboring states. Thus, it is justifiable to argue the way Chinese have been using Mask Diplomacy is not entirely an act of manipulation of opportunities as it has been vehemently critiqued by the West. Indeed, its roots have derived from China’s unique civilizational approach to international affairs.

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