Mask diplomacy: a novel form of statecraft?

Is China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ a novel form of statecraft? At first glance, it might not look that distinct from humanitarian assistance delivered to victims of natural disasters. Yet there are several notable differences that make this emerging practice worthy of closer attention. The strategic effectiveness of Beijing’s ‘mask diplomacy’ remains unclear and somewhat dubious. If anything, its emergence highlights the prospect that humanitarian aid is taking on increasingly strategic dimensions.

Features of ‘mask diplomacy’

In recent weeks, ‘mask diplomacy’ has become part of daily conversations around COVID-19. The concept describes deliveries of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as facemasks, and medical equipment like ventilators, to countries facing shortages amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.

What are its novel, or at least notable features? First, the term ‘mask diplomacy’ is typically used in Western media to describe efforts by China to provide supplies to other countries, which began only after the Chinese government had mostly stabilised the outbreak at home. China is cast as the primary practitioner of ‘mask diplomacy,’ despite the fact that it was itself an early recipient of medical supplies, with the European Union, Japan and the United States all early donors.  

Indeed, perhaps the first mention of the term ‘mask diplomacy’ came on 4 March on a Project Syndicate blog post by Yoichi Funabashi about American populism in Japan, in which the author mentioned how the movement of PPE between Japan to China in both directions could help improve a (then) warming bilateral relationship. 

Second, China’s mask diplomacy is receiving widespread, real-time, and critical scrutiny, for several reasons that are relatively novel in themselves. For one thing, some of the key recipients are wealthy Western countries, creating an unfamiliar ‘South to North’ dynamic. More significantly, the practice is refracted through the broader strategic lens of geopolitical rivalry, including China’s rise and global ambitions, a declining and politically polarised United States, and a fracturing Europe. 

Third, it seems quite apparent that Beijing has a specific strategic objective around COVID-19 that is shaping much of its international activities at present, from mask diplomacy to institutional manoeuvring, to propaganda campaigns. That objective is to shift the narrative away from one that focuses on the origins of the virus in Wuhan, and the initial missteps by the Chinese authorities in containing it. The Chinese Communist Party wants to replace this with a narrative in which Beijing’s (eventual) response in locking down much of the country provided the world with effective, if not uniformly desirable, methods for controlling the virus, representing a significant win for China’s authoritarian model of governance, which other countries might want to emulate.

Strategic effectiveness unclear

Of course, honourable intentions at least partially motivate most forms of humanitarian assistance, and ‘mask diplomacy’ is no different. Typically, the short-term gains sought by donors of humanitarian assistance are stabilising crisis situations and improving welfare. Nevertheless, national interest and strategic considerations will inevitably influence government decision making even in the most benevolent of cases, typically via seeking to build longer-term goodwill and influence. While China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ is thus not wholly new, it is nevertheless novel in the sense that narrow interests are so prominent and actions directed towards achieving a short-term strategic outcome. 

To evaluate the strategic effectiveness of China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ we need to ask at least two questions. First, is it causing political leaders in recipient governments to make policy decisions that they wouldn’t otherwise make that favour the donor’s interests? And second, is it building goodwill among the general public, or key interest groups, that will affect policy decisions of the recipient country in the future? (The latter being a valid measure of whether this form of economic statecraft is effective or not.) 

On the first question, aside from some cringeworthy platitudes, such as we saw from the Serbian Prime Minister (kissing the Chinese flag when the first shipments of China’s medical aid arrived), no government appears to have made concrete policy decisions that obviously favour Beijing. This is no surprise given the universal focus on suppressing the pandemic and the short time that has elapsed since the diplomacy began. But if, for example, ‘mask diplomacy’ can subsequently be linked to a government deciding to adopt Chinese company Huawei as a supplier in their 5G networks, that would be a clear success. For the moment, however, news out of the United Kingdom suggests one government at least leaning in the other direction. 

On the second question, it is probably too early to accurately measure public reactions, but opposing forces are likely at play. On one hand, Beijing’s overall campaign has endured some high-profile missteps, such as faulty equipment being provided by Chinese suppliers, Chinese diplomats endorsing conspiracy theories, and direct efforts being made to procure overt praise for its COVID-19 response. Moreover, international media has done an excellent job in reporting on how Chinese authorities were slow to respond to warning signs in January. 

On the other hand, Donald Trump and the Republican Party have been ramping up their criticism of China for its early failings, likely as part of a re-election strategy. Their ill-judged and widely criticised efforts to insist on labelling COVID-19 the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus, as well as Trump’s own bizarre public statements about the virus, can only serve to bolster the perceived professionalism and functionality of the alternative Chinese approach. 

Strategic aid

Ultimately, it may simply be that the people of the world are too inwardly focused, on their own efforts to contain the virus and manage the economic and social crises it is creating, to pay any real attention to the “high politics” of ‘mask diplomacy’. It does, however, raise the prospect that the range of generous actions by countries is taking on increasingly strategic dimensions. Such is the reality of greater contestation and rivalry in international affairs today.