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SPF China Observer


No.33 2020/06/05

Logic of China’s International Behavior During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Ichiro Inoue (Professor, Graduate School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University)


 The Chinese word for “crisis,” 危机 (weiji), contains the nuance of both “danger” (危险) and “opportunity” (机会), implying that the Chinese people often display a tendency to discover opportunities amid the crisis.[1]As the novel pneumonia caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) raged throughout the world, China was quick to quell the outbreak, while the United States suffered the most severe infection-related casualties in the world. In the United States, the Trump administration was unable to show global leadership in its coronavirus countermeasures, and there were those who warned that China would attempt to leverage this US failure to instigate a change in the global order.[2]On the other hand, since the outbreak developed globally into a serious situation, a large number of countries, including the United States, have begun to scrutinize the actions of China—including the origin of the disease—in the early stages of the outbreak. This seems to have placed China in a difficult diplomatic situation. However, China is becoming more active in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, displaying a resolute stance vis-à-vis Hong Kong and Taiwan. Even Chinese diplomats—who are expected to act as mediators in disputes with other countries—have recently made hardline statements, leading to the deterioration of China’s image around the world. This paper will examine the logic behind China’s international behavior as the negative effects of the coronavirus outbreak became increasingly dire on a global scale, and as the international stance pertaining to China worsened.

1. China and international organizations

 Compared to the 2003 SARS outbreak, when it comes to COVID-19, China was quick to cooperate with the World Health Organization (WHO). During the SARS epidemic, the Chinese government refused to cooperate with the WHO for 3 months, even after the domestic situation had become serious. After the first case of SARS was confirmed in Guangdong Province at the end of 2002, an outbreak occurred sometime after mid-January the following year in the provincial capital of Guangzhou, and then spread to the rest of the world via Hong Kong. However, even after a WHO research group had arrived in Beijing, the Chinese health authorities did not allow it to conduct an on-site survey in Guangdong Province. In response, the WHO—which had lost patience with China due to its lack of cooperation in releasing information—unilaterally issued emergency travel advisory for Guangdong Province and Hong Kong at the beginning of April, and other countries soon implemented their own travel restrictions to these areas in response. Meanwhile, the infection had become increasingly serious in the capital of Beijing. Finally, the Chinese leadership made a major policy change that allowed them to replace the Minister of Public Health and begin to release information to the public.

 In contrast to its passive response during the SARS epidemic, in the case of the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government was actively engaged with the WHO and displayed a major development in its interactions with international organizations. The WHO received reports regarding the spread of the infection in China, and it held meetings of its Emergency Council on January 22 and 23 to determine whether to issue an emergency declaration. However, at that point, views on this issue were divided, and the decision on whether to issue an emergency declaration was delayed for approximately 1 week. The Chinese representative who participated in these meetings expressed strong opposition to the implementation of travel restrictions, as such restrictions would have had a major impact on the Chinese economy.[3]Subsequently, after receiving courteous treatment from Xi Jinping during his visit to China on January 28—immediately prior to the issuance of the declaration—WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak.[4] COVID-19 then spread throughout the world, and even though the Chinese government received increasing criticism for its initial response from other countries, its actions were justified by saying that its response was praised by the WHO, that it possessed expert knowledge of the virus, and that authority had been given to international organizations that were, by definition, politically fair and neutral.

 Up to that point, China had not directly rejected the framework of the liberal international order supported by the United States and based on Western ideologies. Rather, it achieved development, while fully enjoying the benefits of free trade and other elements of this framework. However, today, China no longer supports the values—such as freedom, democracy, and human rights—espoused by the international order based on liberal democracy, nor does it support the security structure that is centered on the United States. Instead, it has demonstrated its continued support of an international order that is centered on the United Nations (UN).[5]Given this attitude, it would seem that China is adopting a strategy for resisting the United States and its allies by utilizing the UN, which majority is constituted of developing countries.

 China has already placed its own countrymen in leadership positions in UN specialized agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the International Telecommunication Union. Therefore, one could say that they acquired the skill of utilizing international organizations as allies. Nevertheless, the international community has become wary of this behavior, and the Chinese candidate in the election for the next director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization held in March lost to Singapore’s candidate.

2. The failure of “mask diplomacy”

 Once China received the support of the WHO, they seemed to think that they had control over diplomacy. However, the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread to Europe and the United States, with the latter soon ending up being the most severely affected country. This chain of events led to a severely critical stance in these countries against China. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the United States and China were engaged in a serious standoff. Although China’s long-held basic strategy was to cause a rift between the United States and Europe, its diplomatic failure resulted in the major European countries becoming increasingly wary of China.

 The fact that Italy as the European country experienced the most severe circumstances in the early stages of the pandemic is ironic. Italy is not only a major European country where the foundations of democracy have become relatively weak as a result of the emergence of populism, but it is also the European country that is most economically dependent on China, and it is the only major European country that has announced its formal support to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Previously, China’s appeals to Greece—which was experiencing economic hard times—had a damaging effect on the cohesion of the European Union (EU) as a whole, and as a result, such appeals came to be viewed with caution. Currently, China is making active offers to provide support to Italy and other European nations that are in dire circumstances because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have been actively placing diplomatic telephone calls to the leaders of countries suffering from the effects of COVID-19 to offer condolences and cooperation. In addition, Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been making the same type of calls to the foreign ministers of these countries. However, while Xi Jinping himself made calls to the leaders of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and other major European nations, it was Li Keqiang who made the call to Ursula von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission.[6]The EU, which is losing its political momentum, is quite sensitive to China approaching its member nations individually, and thus, it subsequently decided to accept support in the form of masks from Taiwan. This move carried some political risk, but it was viewed as taking a balanced approach vis-à-vis China.[7]

 It was President Macron of France who advocated the G7 teleconference, which excluded Chinese participation, on the response to the coronavirus pandemic.[8]In addition, anti-Chinese sentiment in the United Kingdom, which is increasingly dependent on the Chinese economy, has expanded following Brexit. Even Chancellor Merkel of Germany, who for economic considerations had previously been subdued in her criticism of China, complained about its lack of transparency.[9]

 Recently, China has proposed what it calls a “Belt and Road Initiative for Global Public Health” to the countries where the coronavirus spread, but this slogan gave a strong impression of propaganda to many democratic countries. Moreover, the claim reported by Xinhua, China’s state-run media outlet, that “the world should be grateful to China for quickly bringing the coronavirus under control and thereby contributing to the prevention of its spread to the rest of the world”[10]only succeeded in making the international community extremely uncomfortable. As far as China was concerned, this campaign was designed to restore confidence in itself, improve its global standing, and expand its influence. However, it seems that they communicated to the rest of the world the sort of propaganda-style message the Chinese government normally uses on its own people. This tone-deaf and excessive diplomatic offensive against the international community had the opposite of its intended effect. Subsequently, media outlets in countries around the world labeled this as China’s “mask diplomacy,” and the wariness of China increased even more.

3. Mistaken international perceptions resulting from domestic logic

 During the 2003 SARS epidemic, after the Chinese government changed its policy to one in which it released information about the infection, the Chinese media as a whole temporarily gained a measure of freedom. However, during the present coronavirus pandemic, domestic control has been strengthened. President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party used their leadership not only to end the spread of the coronavirus and announce to the people of China that they “should be thankful to the Party and the President,” but they have also sought to put pressure [to offer their thanks to the Party and the President] on friendly nations such as Pakistan, and the Chinese media has reported that many foreign nations have expressed their appreciation to China.[11]Even in the United States—which has a strongly adversarial relationship with China—the Chinese government has put similar pressure for appreciation on locals. For example, the Chinese Consulate in Chicago requested that Wisconsin State Council representatives pass a measure in which they express appreciation to China, but this request was met with opposition and laughter.[12]Public diplomacy (in Chinese, 公共外交), which appeals to the public opinion of the international community, is an effective diplomatic tool that China has recently come to view as important. However, in China today, even this type of diplomatic effort has been hijacked by the Chinese Communist Party Department of Propaganda,[13] and as a result, China has been working against its own interests internationally as a result of its hardline stance known as “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.”

 Given that this internal, domestic logic is being employed outside of China, it would seem that Xi Jinping and those around him want to quell domestic frustration and criticism as they continue to push the idea that their leadership brought the infection under control, particularly since economic hardships are likely to continue into the future. In addition, as nationalism increases inside China as a result of its recent confrontations with the United States, there is a need to strengthen support at home through the use of a strong stance, even if international relations must be sacrificed. Under these circumstances, one could say that decisions regarding the implementation of international policies are determined based on inward-looking ideas. Furthermore, the Xi Jinping Administration has reinforced top-down decision making and has been working to increasingly shift the authority to make policy decisions—including on international policies—from the government to the Party. The Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, which had been in charge of adjusting and coordinating China’s foreign policy as a whole, has been demoted to what is now known as the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, a move that gave the Party more policy-making authority. These systemic reforms have made it easier for the Party’s intentions to be implemented in a more top-down method, while at the same time, they have made it more difficult for reasonable views from the government to reach the top leader.

 Recently, tensions among the countries and regions neighboring China have increased due to both the Chinese domestic environment and its international relations. In February, the People’s Liberation Army jets flew past the dividing line in the Strait of Taiwan, and in May, the National People’s Congress decided to introduce national security legislation into Hong Kong. In addition, in April, China established the South China Sea as a new administrative division, and a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat and sunk it. Chinese vessels have also increased their activity in the region around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

 In addition, Chinese diplomats have repeated hardline statements, leading to a situation in which the countries that are the targets of these statements are increasingly taking offense.[14] On March 12, Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, wrote the following on Twitter, which further infuriated the United States: “Perhaps it was the US military that brought the novel coronavirus into Wuhan?” Based on the statements and actions of these diplomats from the younger generation, who are referred to as the “Wolf Warrior Diplomats,” it seems that the strongly nationalistic stance being presented on the international stage belies an internal organizational culture that welcomes this type of behavior. Considered rationally, even if this sort of behavior had a negative effect on the long-term and strategic national interests of China, there seems to be an impression shared by the individual diplomats that, at least for the time being, this behavior will bring them personal and organizational benefits. On the other hand, some researchers and veteran diplomats seem to view this behavior as scandalous. In response to the abovementioned statement by Zhao Lijian, Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, rejected the statement, albeit obliquely.[15] Nevertheless, in contemporary China , it seems to have become difficult for more reasonable views of this kind to reach those in charge of central policymaking.

4. Factors causing increasing instability

 The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the growth rate of the Chinese economy this year will be 1.2%, which is a rare case of expected positive growth among projections of negative growth rates in the United States and most other advanced nations.[16] Nevertheless, one cannot simply expect China to be in a position of global superiority as a result of this positive growth after the coronavirus pandemic is brought under control. Despite of the fact that since its economic reforms, China experienced temporary economic slow-downs after the Tiananmen Square incident and in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, this is the most serious economic situation the country has faced in the last 40 years. The raison d'être of the Chinese Communist Party is economic development; therefore, if the economy fails to grow, the Party will lose the support of the public. On the other hand, domestically, there remains the fragile economic social structure of a developing nation. Thanks to the high rate of growth up to now, even those in the lower social classes have enjoyed a measure of trickle-down from this economic development. However, the coronavirus pandemic has had a direct impact on small and micro enterprises and employment in these social classes. This has led to increased social frustration, which is likely to lead further to criticism of the government. In comparison, the United States has more flexible political and economic social structures, which allows for a change in leadership in response to criticism of the handling of political matters. Thus, the United States has a high degree of resilience to negative events of this type over the long run.

 Factors that may lead to future instability regarding China’s Belt and Road Initiative concept have begun to arise. The main projects associated with the Belt and Road Initiative are commercial loans. Indeed, China is faster to examine and approve high-risk loans that other advanced nations would have to treat cautiously, and in many cases, China provides loans with relatively high interest rates. Thus, the global economic slow-down, which is likely to continue for some time into the future, will probably lead to an increase in the number of loans that the borrowing countries are unable to pay back. As long as China does not take bold debt-forgiveness measures, major problems will develop between China and the countries associated with the Belt and Road Initiative.

 As it was mentioned at the beginning of this paper, there is concern that China will attempt to fill the void created by the United States abrogating its leadership role in the international community during the coronavirus crisis. However, the world has come to look upon China with an increasingly wary eye as the pandemic spreads across the globe, and China—which had originally intended to use aggressive diplomacy to switch to the offensive—is now struggling to control the resultant damage. In terms of China’s relations with the United States, although China is gathering domestic support as a result of its strong stance against the United States, given that the predictions for the domestic Chinese economy are grim, it is likely that the Chinese government does not want its confrontation with the United States to become any more serious than it already is. At the same time, as the international environment in which China finds itself is getting increasingly worse, it has gone so far as to discuss the necessity of assuming that the situation will deteriorate further—even to the point of armed conflict with the United States.[17]

 Against the domestic background of increasing nationalism, China, in its international behavior, displays both an excessively defensive perception of the worsening global situation, maintaining at the same time a hardline stance. Naturally, China is not the only one to blame, but the current US administration’s stance toward China is increasingly inflexible. Due to this current lack of mutual trust in the US–China relationship, it is much more likely that “misperceptions”’ of mutual deterrence may occur.[18] This, in turn, carries with it the danger that it will be difficult to manage a crisis arising from some unforeseen incidents. In general, the response to a crisis has a time limit, and the resulting pressure shifts policy decisions to the highest levels of leadership. Within China, however, the leadership is likely to seek a strong stance to avoid giving the impression that they are weak in the face of US demands. Moreover, there is concern that the activities of both the US and Chinese navies in the South China Sea and the Strait of Taiwan may cause a failure of control caused by misperceptions; that is, each country’s intention to put pressure on the other to prevent it from further expanding its activities may fail to be accurately communicated, which could cause an overreaction, and even lead to armed conflict. Both the United States and China signed the 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, in which they agreed to certain procedures for the handling of unforeseen maritime incidents. In addition, as a result of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia by the U.S. Air Force/North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and the 2001 EP-3 aircraft incident, the United States and China went through a period of increased awareness of the need for crisis management. However, for a long time afterward, a period of decreasing trust lingered, which has led to a situation in which neither country is fully equipped to handle a crisis, should one occur.


 China, which succeeded in bringing COVID-19 under control relatively quickly, first began active efforts to engage in diplomacy through assistance once the infection began spreading to the rest of the world. This was its attempt to recover lost trust and expand its influence as well. However, the infection spread more widely than originally expected, and as the major countries in Europe and then the United States experienced the direst circumstances, the populace of these countries grew increasingly resentful of China. At the same time, the excessive diplomatic efforts that China was engaged in gave a strong impression of propaganda as a result of their root in inward-looking logic, characterized by the desire to emphasize that it was the leadership of Xi Jinping that led to the end of the infection in China as a way to quell domestic frustration and criticism. As a result, however, many countries failed to sympathize with China, and this effort by the Chinese ended in failure. In addition, against a background of increased activity in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and increasing nationalism within China, the Chinese leadership seems to strengthen domestic support, even if it means sacrificing the country’s relations with other countries. Nevertheless, in contrast to China’s outward hardline stance, due to the fact that the global situation is becoming worse than expected, it is likely that China will devote itself to improving its domestic circumstances and restructuring the international environment, based on its self-defensive consciousness that it will have to somehow resist a wide variety of pressures placed on it by the United States, which are likely to increase over time. This is not because China is determined to create and maintain a new world order to replace the United States at any cost. Rather, China’s aim is to expand its influence as it utilizes the portions of the present international order—such as free trade and UN-centrism—to its own benefit as a continuation of its current policies.

(Dated June 2, 2020)

1 However, in current crisis management research being conducted in China, the phrase “危机管理 (weiji guanli)” is used with nearly the same meaning as the Japanese term “危機管理” and the English term “crisis management.” Crises are not normally only seen as opportunities for transformation into opportunities, but in addition, the term also emphasizes the need for active self-protection and management. 初晓波「论冷战后中国外交危机管理决策

2 Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, “Coronavirus Could Reshape Global Order—China Is Maneuvering for International Leadership as the United States Falters,” Foreign Affairs, March 18, 2020, (last accessed on May 30, 2020).

3 The January 30th edition of Sankei Shimbun quoted an article that appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde in its report on the Chinese ambassador, who participated in the meetings of the Emergency Committee on the 22nd and 23rd as the Chinese representative, expressing strong opposition to the issuance of an emergency declaration. “Novel pneumonia: French newspaper reports on Chinese pressure, ‘Don’t issue an emergency declaration’” Sankei Shimbun, January 30, 2020, (,(last accessed on May 31, 2020).

4 When Director-General Tedros visited China, several of his close aides advised that, even if he praised China’s initial response, his praise should be restrained, but as the novel coronavirus spread increasingly throughout the world, they also feared that there was a risk of losing the cooperation of the Chinese government. “Praise for China in anticipation of criticism: The distress and intentions of WHO’s Tedros” Reuters (Japanese language edition), May 19, 2020, (last accessed on May 31, 2020).

5 Kawashima Shin, “China’s Global Efforts: The aim of its entrance into the international realm and the view from the ground,” Kawashima Shin, Endo Mitsugi, Takahara Akio, Matsuda Yasuhiro, eds. China’s Foreign Policy Strategy and the World Order: Philosophy, Policy, and the View from the Ground, Showado, 2020, p. 6.

6 “EU fires warning shot at China in coronavirus battle of the narratives,” South China Morning Post, March 20, 2020, (last accessed on May 31, 2020).

7 “EU leader Ursula von der Leyen risks Beijing’s ire by lauding Taiwan’s donation of 5.6 million masks for coronavirus battle,” South China Morning Post, April 2, 2020, accessed on May 31, 2020).

8 Subsequently, a teleconference was held among the G20 countries (including China) as well as among Japan, China, and South Korea, but the G7 teleconference was held using a secret line to prevent bugging. “Teleconference diplomacy is limited: Leaders of the world unable to speak their minds” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, March 30, 2020, (last accessed on May 31, 2020).

9 “Merkel demands transparency from China amidst increasing pressure from Europe and the US on coronavirus” AFP (Japanese language edition), April 21, 2020, accessed on May 31, 2020).

10「理直气壮、世界应该感谢中国」『新华网』March 4, 2020, accessed on June 4, 2020).

11 「巴基斯担参议院通过决议感谢中国支持巴方攻击疫情 反对针对中国的毫无根据的指控」『人民网』 May 14, 2020, (last accessed on May 31, 2020).

12 “Why China is losing the coronavirus narrative,” Financial Times, April 19, 2020,(, last accessed on May 31, 2020).

13 Statement of Susan Shirk, professor of Chinese politics at University of California, San Diego. “Global Backlash Builds Against China Over Coronavirus,” New York Times, May 3, 2020, accessed on May 31, 2020).

14 See the following for references on this series of hardline statements by Chinese diplomats: Kuwahara Kyoko “China’s ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’: Its limitations and problems exposed by the coronavirus crisis,” Institute of International Affairs Comment (2020-11), Japan Institute of International Affairs, May 15, 2020, accessed on May 31, 2020).

15 「崔天凯大使接受AXIOS和HBO采访实录」『中华人民共和国在美利坚合众国大使馆』March 23, 2020, accessed on May 31, 2020).

16 IMF, World Economic Outlook, (last accessed on May 31, 2020).

17 According to an internal report (although Chinese authorities have not confirmed its existence) by the Ministry of National Security that was reported on by Reuters, anti-China sentiment lead by the United States in the wake of the spread of the novel coronavirus infection is at its highest level since the Tiananmen Square incident, and it points out that there is a need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, that is, armed conflict with the United States.
“Internal Chinese report warns Beijing faces Tiananmen-like global backlash over virus,” Reuters, May 4, 2020, accessed on May 31, 2020).

18 For information on the failure of deterrence due to “misperceptions,” see the following by Robert Jervis, scholar of international politics: Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, New Jersey: Princeton University, 1976.

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