As coronavirus overtakes the Americas, evidence is accumulating that China is taking advantage of increasingly desperate circumstances to enhance its regional position in support of broader global ambitions. It may seem the height of opportunism or even cynicism but China’s actions in the midst of the current crisis build on years of patient investment across a full spectrum of activities. From capital expenditures to media and messaging to technological capabilities to people-to-people exchanges, China is leveraging new facts on the ground that will bear directly on the conduct of regional affairs long after the pandemic subsides.
Despite the wishes of some observers, anticipation that China might seek to “rescue” Latin America and the Caribbean from the worst impacts of the virus through trade, aid, or investment, which fundamentally misses the point. China’s own growth is now negative for the first time in almost thirty years, impacting its appetite for foreign trade and investment. Nonetheless, to the extent China can contribute to hemispheric resiliency in the face of the crisis, while reaping the reward of enhanced product sales and gaining the goodwill that comes with public acknowledgement of assistance, Beijing is all too happy to oblige. Indeed, donations of protective gear and equipment have already occurred with fanfare, and additional donations will surely arrive. There may also be splashy announcements of financial assistance and debt forbearance.
But all of this is “small ball.” China is playing a longer and much larger game, working diligently to change the narrative regarding its interests, intentions, and methods. It seeks to establish a benign equivalency between the Chinese communist system and liberal democratic governance worldwide by creating confusion and doubt about democratic practices. The implications of such an outcome are significant: if successful, the Chinese Communist Party will have won a strategic victory over the West without firing a shot. Coronavirus provides an opportunity to accelerate the timeline.