Veneer of China’s Charm Offensive Cracked By Vietnamese Fishing Boat Incident

April 9, 2020 5:35 PM
China Coast Guard Cutter taken by Vietnamese fishermen. Photo via South China Sea News

Last week’s collision between a Chinese Coast Guard vessel and a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands exposes Beijing’s “charm” and “coercion” strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic, regional experts say.

The Department of Defense released a statement on Thursday criticizing the People’s Republic of China’s handling of the incident.

“The PRC’s behavior stands in contrast to the United States’ vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms,” the statement said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of the rules-based international order, as it sets the conditions that enable us to address this shared threat in a way that is transparent, focused, and effective. We call on all parties to refrain from actions that would destabilize the region, distract from the global response to the pandemic, or risk needlessly contributing to loss of life and property,” the statement continued.

In a video-teleconference last week, a panel of Hudson Institute foreign policy experts said this dual charm and coercion approach is Beijing’s way of “playing a depth game” to get its way on more significant issues, like territorial claims in the South China Sea, pushing Huawei as the world’s 5-G network giant and blocking Taiwan from participating in international groups like the World Health Organization even in a global crisis and asserting its political and economic power.

“China wants to be seen as the model” for treating COVID-19 in the Indo-Pacific region, said Patrick Cronin, an expert on the region. China is marketing itself as expert in treatment and containment.

However, Cronin said under scrutiny and experience, Chinese claims of expertise in manufacturing medical equipment is failing to hold up.

He said the Philippines, “one of the least prepared nations” in the world for the pandemic, received worthless testing equipment as did Indonesia when these nations noted the first outbreaks of COVID-19 inside their borders. The irony is the useless kits arrived at the same time Beijing stepped up pressure on both countries over territorial claims in disputed waters.

This mix of a “health Belt and Road” accompanying military or political threats was happening before the collision with the Vietnamese vessel.

“The left hand, right hand [of Chinese policy toward Jakarta and Manila] are not joined up,” Cronin said.

In Europe where “economies are cratering” because of the pandemic, Peter Rough said there are even new doubts about defense spending. The sad state of European economies jeopardizes many NATO members’ abilities to meet budget targets of dedicating 2 percent of gross domestic product on beefing up and modernizing their own forces.

Yet China’s “charm” offensive has had limited effect in reaching European nations experiencing financial trouble, Rough said. China offered financial aid to southern European countries, but this aid can’t match pledges from Germany’s and its proximity to those nations. Beijing tries to obscure those facts through propaganda and public demonstrations of assistance to those in need, like sending medical supplies to Italy and Spain, he added.

Plus, China’s response to stemming the spread of COVID-19 inside its borders is not the only or even the best model for other nations to follow, the panel members agreed.

Nations like South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, all democracies, have been very successful in containing COVID-19 without the heavy-handed authoritarian approach China used. The approach was adopted weeks or months after first denying and then downplaying what was happening in Wuhan Province.

“The heroes in China … have been local responders,” like doctors and journalists who at the risk of their lives spread the word about COVID-19, Cronin said.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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