Coronavirus ‑ A global war of narratives

By Martyn Rosney

With governments across the world rushing to manage the outbreak in their home countries, in the background and being increasingly played out is a growing tension as world’s superpowers; China, the US, Russia and Europe communicate how they are leading the race to put a stop to the outbreak and save the world’s citizens and global economy. What was first and foremost a world-wide health crisis has now set the stage for a battle of narratives as global superpowers collide.

While the Cold War and US and Soviet Union conflicts defined the 20th century, US-China relations have defined geopolitics in the 21st century. Regularly engaging in rivalry, conflict, and politically opportunistic nationalism, the relationship has been tumultuous at the best of times and, periodically, posed a grave threat to the rest of the world. In modern times, China’s transformation from low-wage manufacturing hub to a technology power has been a catalyst in the move from both regions being complementary to competitive with one another. Longer-term issues such as unresolved questions about the nature of ideological and political systems have continued to fuel tensions for decades.

Europe, in the face of US-China rivalry, has long been playing a kind of “piggy-in-the-middle” role. China is a close and important partner for Europe and the economic opportunity that China presents to the region – particularly those countries who lag their western counterparts – is an incentive to forge a strong partnership. But the course for dealing with China has never been clear. The US remains unconvinced that European leaders can uphold their shared values and norms while benefiting from greater economic engagement with China, and thus, the three have remained in a tense triangle competing for greater influence.

And then there is Russia. Still subject to economic sanctions for its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and interference in the 2016 US presidential election, it is no surprise that Russia sees China as a more suitable strategic partner (and growth market). While the nation’s blossoming relationship with China has seen it draft away from Europe in the process, it remains to be seen whether its partnership with China is past the point of no return – and whether Russia truly believes it to be more beneficial to orient itself towards Europe in the long-run. In the meantime, it seems intent on continuing to set the US slightly ill at ease – after all, my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Amidst the current crisis, we can see that Covid-19 has compounded these pre-existing geo-political tensions and rests on a struggle for influence through narrative spinning it’s worth a deeper dive into how world superpowers have framed their reaction to dealing with the coronavirus.

“China is a sleeping giant. Let her lie and sleep, for when she awakens she will astonish the world.” While the famous French military leader and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte may have had a vision about China’s desire for more assertive foreign policy on the global stage, he could not have foreseen how that may have potentially been won. China’s response to managing the outbreak of the coronavirus was initially a propaganda disaster. It had long cast itself as morally superior and more responsible and reliable than other nations, owing to its authoritarian rule. Now it was being perceived globally as the birthplace of a highly-infectious disease that would go on to wreak havoc across the world economy. Moving to control the virus, and uphold its image as an effective regime, China imposed a lockdown on Wuhan, the central city at the epicenter of the outbreak. Fifteen other surrounding cities were also shut down, with flight and trains suspended and roads out-of-bounds. Soon after, some 760 million people were confined to their homes in the hope that such draconian measures would contain the outbreak.

As the rate of infection reached heady heights in Europe, the officially reported numbers in China began to fall. As it seemed they’d put the worst behind them, Beijing kick-started a not-so-subtle PR campaign by sending planeloads of medical supplies to Europe as well as seconding teams of doctors to Italy to fight on the frontline of Europe’s battle with the virus. By strategically deploying its soft power, the argument for China’s authoritarianism had effectively been won; state surveillance and draconian measures in, hard-won democratic rights and civil liberties, out. China was a model of effective responsibility. In a clear decision to drop the first bomb in the War of Narratives, China’s People’s Daily boasted that, “China can pull together the imagination and courage needed to handle the virus, while the US struggles.”

However, China’s successful pivot from the source of the pandemic to a global leader in its response looks to be short-lived. With US intelligence officials allegedly finding that China concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak, it now seriously risks undermining its own carefully honed narrative. Indeed, Time reported on Wednesday that China had amended the definition of what constituted a Covid-19 infection eight times, resulting in thousands of cases left off official tallies in February due to the fact these infected patients were classed as asymptomatic. While reports questioning China’s handling of the outbreak have continued to roll in, some Chinese officials have demonstrated their anxiety by trying to shift blame, suggesting the virus originated from US soldiers present in China. News this week that Jia, a county in the central province of Henan, has gone into lockdown amid fear of a second wave of infection may well cause the global narrative to shift out of China’s favour.

Donald Trump at times during his presidency has exhorted the benefits of a closer, more cooperative relationship with China. Indeed, the American president does share some commonalities with Xi Jinping, and much like his Chinese counterpart, has been known to try to extend the powers of his office to its limit. Although both leaders may read from the same ‘Deny, Deflect, Deflate’ playbook, the similarities end when it comes to how each framed their response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Turning to what’s become his tried-and-true pattern of defending himself, Trump at various times suggested that the coronavirus was a hoax cooked up by his enemies (and also seemed to believe the disease would disappear “like a miracle”). Branding the disease the “Wuhan Virus” and the “Chinese Flu”, he ascribed fault to China from the outset and supported the vilification of the nation, as is called for by centuries of old power narratives.

It’s not just China who are leveraging the chance for some pandemic propaganda, either. “Russia sent us a very, very large planeload of things, medical equipment, which was very nice,” Trump said on Monday. Amidst sanctions, the idea that Russia had sent the US medical aid – in a giant military aircraft, no less – seemed astounding to politicos. But the aid can be framed as part of Russia’s wider narrative power play, where it would act as an image boost to Putin internally (perhaps less so externally) following his slow, bungled response to the pandemic in Russia.

Hamstrung by a lack of testing kits, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), ventilators, a disjointed federal response and an incoherent plan to ride out the next few months, it has become clear that unfortunately while the US is leading in coronavirus cases, it is not in its response to the pandemic. And as China and Russia jostle for leadership in the field of influence, America may find itself on the sidelines of the global agenda when the recovery begins.

The War of Narratives has also emerged within Europe. Stock portrayals of fiscally pious nations in the Northern hemisphere locking horns with those in the ‘extravagant’ South have played out in recent days with one such example involving the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. Rutte, upon making clear his disdain for the issuance of collective debt, or ‘coronabonds’, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, has since been subjected to stinging criticism in Southern Europe.

Indeed, there has been seemingly such a lack of solidarity on display within the region that it has made it easy for China and Russia to take a swipe. Italy, the European country hit hardest by the pandemic so far, has struggled to get supplies and assistance from its EU partners. The country’s ambassador to the EU expressed his frustration last week over other members’ failure to heed the European Commission’s call to send equipment and supplies. China, an energetic Samaritan, stepped in and dispatched medical supplies and a team of doctors, while Russia sent 15 planeloads of medical equipment and epidemiologists in trucks branded with “From Russia with love.”

Since then, Germany, France and Austria have sent Italy millions of face masks. For the good of the EU project, it is vital that it comes together in solidarity and shows it is, indeed, a Union. A global pandemic needs global solutions and the EU must do all in its power to be at the centre of the fight.

The last global crisis – the 2008 recession – precipitated a loss of self-confidence in the west and a shift in political and economic power towards China. It remains to be seen whether that will happen again. What we do know is that narratives extolled by global superpowers tend to have shaky foundations, which the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare. As these old narratives seem to become displaced and destabilised, it’s clear that the quickest - and safest - route out of this crisis is a coordinated, international joint effort.

This war may well see old narratives wither away – though global superpowers would surely cling on for life, as it is the stories they tell themselves and their self-glorification that ensures their survival as such. But they should know that the cost of continuing these battles for narrative control will come at a grave cost to human welfare across the world.

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