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China sees chance to expand global influence amid pandemic

China sees chance to expand global influence amid pandemic
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China is seeking to expand its global influence during the coronavirus pandemic by painting itself as a powerful benefactor at a time when Beijing is facing accusations of concealing information about the initial outbreak.

Beijing is touting its shipments of medical supplies to more than 100 countries, including the U.S., as a way to present itself as a global leader providing aid to those in need. But U.S. experts argue that projection is a mirage.

Not only is China largely charging for the supplies, they said, it also comes with political strings attached.

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“Once you accept Chinese aid, there is pressure to adapt to Chinese positions on things like human rights, environmental issues, political disputes and the like,” said Michael Auslin, a distinguished research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

“There's no reason to believe that Spain, or Italy or Serbia, or any of these other countries that are receiving aid are going to be exempt from the pressures that the Communist Party state puts on those countries that wind up taking Chinese support — even when they're buying it,” he added.

Peter Singer, a senior fellow at New America, drew parallels between China’s recent efforts and the U.S. implementing the Marshall Plan after World War II when the Soviet Union was looking to expand its influence.

The Marshall Plan, he said, was not only a massive aid package to postwar Europe, but also a defined strategy that spread a dual message.

“One was, how powerful and successful the United States was. And second was the theme of charity,” Singer said. “And charity has often, particularly in geopolitics, had an underlying message of obligation, gratitude, reframing of the relationship.”

That combination of power and charity was recently on display by a state-run TV station highlighting a cargo plane from Shanghai that landed in New York on Sunday, bringing much-needed medical supplies and equipment: 12 million gloves, 1.7 million surgical masks, 130,000 N95 masks, 130,000 hand sanitizer units, 50,000 gowns and 36,000 thermometers.

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Three more flights have arrived since then. The U.S. is also scheduled to receive aid from Honduras and Malaysia, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

China has been casting a wide net, providing medical supplies and equipment to countries in Europe, Southeast Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

“There is no question China is making a massive push in that regard. I think the big open question is the politically lasting impact” of this effort, said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But there have been various problems with the medical supplies from China.

In Spain, a recent study found that tests brought over from China correctly identified people with the virus only 30 percent of the time, the Spanish newspaper El País reported last week.

The Czech Republic had a similar experience, finding that a majority of coronavirus tests were faulty, with some reports estimating that as many as 80 percent were defective. Prague’s Health Ministry paid roughly $555,000 for the 100,000 test kits, while the Interior Ministry covered the costs for an additional 50,000 tests, according to Czech news reports.

And after receiving 1.3 million masks from China, the Dutch government had to recall roughly 600,000 defective ones that had been distributed to hospitals, the German media outlet Deutsche Welle reported. Chinese officials, in response, said critics should not “politicize” issues with the equipment.

Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulWarren, Porter to headline progressive fundraiser supporting seven swing state candidates Bipartisan action needed to counter Chinese influence Hillicon Valley: House panel says Intelligence Community not equipped to address Chinese threats | House approves bill to send cyber resources to state, local governments MORE (Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said China isn’t helping relief efforts, it’s hurting them.

“The [Chinese Communist Party] allowed this virus to spread both inside their country and globally by their mismanagement and lies, and now they are exacerbating the problem by selling faulty equipment to fight the disease,” McCaul, a frequent critic of China, told The Hill.

China has come under international criticism for how it handled the initial outbreak in Wuhan. Chinese officials downplayed the severity of the virus in early January, denying that it could be transmitted between humans and later refusing offers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to come in and help analyze the virus early on.

An internal speech, later published in mid-February, revealed that Chinese President Xi Jinping knew about the outbreak roughly two weeks before he made his first public comments about it.

“The world was caught unprepared because China lied about the virus and we could not prepare ourselves and protect ourselves the way that we could have if they had been honest,” said Auslin, author of "Asia's New Geopolitics."

China has recently reported declining new infections, but under the government’s guidelines, asymptomatic cases were not being counted as confirmed cases in its tallies until Tuesday, when the government officials announced efforts to better screen for infected individuals who are not showing symptoms.

Adding to the scrutiny, Bloomberg News reported Wednesday that a classified U.S. intelligence community report given to the White House showed China has purposely reported false data about the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.

In response to the report, Trump’s former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonJohn Kelly called Trump 'the most flawed person' he's ever met: report Bolton: North Korea 'more dangerous now' Demand for Trump-related titles sparks expected record year for political books MORE emphasized that China cannot be trusted.

“This is critical evidence confirming what we already knew to be true — China lied. China continues to lie. China must be held responsible,” he tweeted.

But China is still well positioned to reap the benefits of a pandemic that originated in their country, according to experts who say Beijing is likely wrapping together agreements to donate or sell supplies with future deals, such as building 5G and other key infrastructure down the line.

The U.S. has warned its allies against allowing China to set up 5G networks, citing national security concerns that Beijing would be able to spy on digital traffic. But now China may be increasing its leverage; smaller countries accepting their aid may now be further compelled to accept 5G as well.

And with the U.S. turning further inward amid the crisis, China increasingly has the opportunity to reach out to more countries in their time of need.

“It's not just what China is doing, but what we didn’t do,” Singer said.