China’s Belt and Road Initiative (“BRI”), a large-scale international investment program dedicated to strengthening China’s global connectivity through infrastructure projects such as pipelines, factories, and ports, was severely stunted by the pandemic. The restriction of international travel and disruption of global supply chains following the onset of social distancing measures brought many development projects to a standstill.
In response, Beijing adjusted its BRI programs during the pandemic – from infrastructure investments to public health and vaccine cooperation – in a bid to bolster its global standing and to deflect criticism in the West of China’s mishandling of the early stages of COVID-19. The adjustment was backed by a new propagandist slogan called “a community of common health for mankind,” a derivative of the BRI’s common moniker, “a community of common destiny for mankind.” The slogan continues to serve as China’s ambitious grand strategy in diplomacy, reflecting the value of the BRI program, albeit in a new form known as the “Health Silk Road.”
A Belt and a Road Engulfed In a Pandemic
Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the global community witnessed one of its steepest economic contractions since World War II. Most countries closed their borders and placed global trade and supply chains in limbo as the spread of the coronavirus continued unabated. The Belt and Road Initiative was similarly disrupted.
The China Global Investment Tracker (“CGIT”), a data set covering China’s outbound investment and construction activities, showed that the value of China’s overseas investment fell precipitously from 2.43 billion in 2019 to 1.22 billion in 2020. The nearly 50% reduction was the result of host country dependence on Chinese labor and materials to complete BRI projects. Chinese construction companies most commonly import Chinese workers instead of hiring local counterparts, and therefore have little incentive to offer training programs to local unskilled laborers. Thus, when social distancing measures and mandatory quarantine periods curtailed the ability to freely relocate Chinese engineers and workers, supply chains experienced interruptions and projects across the globe were ultimately brought to a standstill. According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more than 20% of all projects were “seriously affected” by the pandemic, and at least 60% were impacted to some degree.
The Health Silk Road: A Rebranding
The decline in China’s overseas investment, however, only paints one part of the picture. China is by no means pulling funding for BRI projects. Instead, the BRI can no longer be viewed as a single-dimensional initiative in which China assists beneficiary nations to build infrastructure like pipelines, factories, and railways. Instead, the program has expanded investment into other sectors, such as agriculture, finance, and technology. Under the context of COVID-19 specifically, Beijing has pivoted towards extending financial support towards public health and vaccine development efforts.
China has framed its public health-related outbound investment as the “Health Silk Road.” By no means, however, is this moniker new to the pandemic. In 2016, President Xi vowed to deepen cooperation in medical and health industries as well as medical assistance, while strengthening reporting mechanisms of infectious diseases, disease prevention and control under the “Health Silk Road” initiative. Yet, with limited success in marketing it prior to COVID-19, Beijing has since rebranded the term to fit the unique circumstances of the pandemic.
As the pandemic spread across the world, China sought to provide medical assistance and aid packages to partner countries within the BRI program under the name of the “Health Silk Road.” For instance, after Italy shocked its Western allies by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with China and endorsed the BRI in a bid to attract more Chinese investment – the first member of the G7 to do so – the country received 2 million surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks and 50,000 testing kits.
China’s collaboration with the UAE on vaccine development is another prominent example of China’s shifting gears from infrastructure construction to healthcare. The UAE is not only an active member in China’s BRI initiative, but also a growing ally of Beijing both vis-à-vis strong economic ties and on global policy issues. As nations continue to race to vaccinate their populations, the UAE has received enough doses of the Chinese-developed Sinopharm vaccine to inoculate more than 1.8 million front-line healthcare workers, government officials, and residents. As a result, as of March 2021, the country now ranks second globally for inoculation rates at 26%. In line with the shift in strategies, The Global Times, a Chinese state media outlet, pointed to the establishment of a Middle East vaccination center in the UAE as an indicator of success for China’s “Health Silk Road” initiative and added that the China-UAE cooperation would become a paragon for other countries in the Middle East to follow.
Italy and the UAE are not isolated incidents. China has set up at least 18 production lines making over 2 billion doses of vaccine just within the first quarter of 2021, and has exported jabs to more than 50 countries. Beijing has also claimed that vaccines either have been or will be distributed equally and fairly to Pakistan, Cambodia, Mexico, Ukraine, Turkey, and Bolivia – all long-standing BRI partners involved in numerous cooperative infrastructure projects.
The Logic Behind the Health Silk Road
As Beijing’s flagship investment project, the BRI initiative has formed the cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s approach to strategic diplomacy. Key rhetoric underlying the initiative, such as “the community of common destiny for mankind,” has gone so far as to have been enshrined into the state’s constitution in 2018. Ever since, Beijing has made a point to re-emphasize this political thought at each global meeting pertinent to the BRI.
Yet, as traditional infrastructure projects stalled and Beijing instead re-oriented the BRI to capitalize on vaccine diplomacy via the “Health Silk Road,” the initiative’s driving moniker shifted to “a community of common health for mankind.” Not only would this allow China to preserve close ties with BRI member countries in the lapse of active infrastructure programs, but, of equal importance, it would also give Beijing the maneuverability to deflect Western criticism of China’s mishandling during the early stages of the pandemic, while potentially burnishing China’s global image as a responsible, cooperative, and trustworthy partner.
The Future of the Health Silk Road
The fate of the pandemic remains uncertain insofar as new coronavirus variants emerge and the efficacy rate of certain vaccines remain less than ideal. China’s early draconian containment measures allowed the country to recover ahead of other superpowers, which in turn opened the door for expanded international cooperation through vaccine diplomacy with its longstanding BRI partners. Beijing will undoubtedly continue to strengthen these efforts in a bid to combat COVID-19 while building political capital across the globe.
Furthermore, despite many BRI infrastructure projects having since resumed, the “Health Silk Road” is likely to see growing vocalization by officials in China. Many view the BRI’s rebranding in 2020 as an opportunistic China replacing an outdated model to a more compelling narrative. Over recent years, many infrastructure project delays and cancellations have been attributed to surging debt crunches in BRI member nations, and there has been growing scrutiny towards Beijing’s predatory lending tactics. This has led to shrinking outbound investment, which in turn has limited China’s ability to project economic and political influence.
As a result, top officials in Beijing have begun to discuss winding down new investments into traditional infrastructure. As new subprograms like the “Health Silk Road,” “Digital Silk Road,” and “Green Silk Road” emerge, it is speculated that Beijing plans to rebrand the decaying initiative and shift the narrative towards one perceived as less risky and more aligned with current Chinese macroeconomic priorities. While infrastructure projects will continue for the time being, China’s objectives are increasingly focused in other areas, and the future of the BRI will surely transition in turn.