By Brandon Cleary
The Chinese government has been criticized for its relatively slow and initially inadequate response to the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but this criticism has not fallen on deaf ears in Beijing. China is now redoubling its efforts in the region, showing a side of the economic giant that many have been waiting for since then-deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick urged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” almost a decade ago. Ultimately, increased involvement in the crisis is a win-win for Beijing as it simultaneously secures economic interests in the region and demonstrates its commitment to the global good. However, China’s slow response is not unprecedented and must be remedied moving forward if the country truly seeks to establish itself as a reliable actor in the world of humanitarian assistance.
China is by far the largest investor in West Africa, with total trade between it and the countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak ten times that of the United States over the past year. However, pundits have warned for years that China’s economic interest in the developing world was strictly predatory and extractive. At the onset of the epidemic, China’s business community initially fed these flames by pulling out personnel and infrastructure, which further compounded the region’s economic woes. Additionally, its initial $40 million contribution to the fight was only one-fifth of the U.S. commitment. This all fueled the narrative that Beijing cares little about shouldering international responsibilities that do not directly pay dividends back home.
That said, China is now putting real skin into the game. On October 24, China Daily reported that President Xi pledged China’s fourth and largest aid package to date, bringing the country’s total commitment to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to over $120 million. This is still a far cry from America’s $350 million mark, but compares favorably to the world’s third largest economy, Japan, who has offered just $40 million to the effort. In addition to economic contributions, China’s aforementioned infrastructure and personnel in the region are now being mobilized to help in the effort along with over 250 Chinese medical professionals; a number that will increase to over 1,000 in the coming months. Perhaps most significantly, China recently made a pair of unprecedented commitments to the region. First, China’s ambassador to Liberia, Zhang Yue, promised to help build up and modernize Liberia’s health sector as part of a plan for the post-Ebola period. Complementing this, on October 31, China’s Foreign Ministry announced that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops will build a 100-bed treatment center in Liberia, which will be staffed by PLA medical personnel. This will be the first such facility in the region constructed and operated by a foreign country.
But the question remains, if the Chinese government clearly recognizes the need to provide assistance to West Africa, why has its response been so painfully sluggish? One possible explanation points to China’s lack of experience in dealing with humanitarian crises. “There is a gap between our capacity and our willingness” to help, said He Wenping, an Africa expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. While there is certainly some merit to this reasoning, China has gained considerable experience in recent years dealing with disasters both at home and abroad. Among other efforts, China has dealt with the Hong Kong SARS outbreak in 2002, the 2008 Wenquan earthquake, Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, and in August it conducted Mission Harmony-2014, a week-long medical assistance tour in the South Pacific. These types of missions invariably enhance the country’s capacity to address humanitarian catastrophes, reducing China’s ability to blame a slow response on inexperience.
Chinese humanitarian assistance may instead be falling victim to internal political rancor. Conventional wisdom suggests that the single party political system housed in Beijing should be able to cut through the political malaise that weighs down western democratic decision making. China’s hesitant response to Ebola, however, is reminiscent of its handling of the Philippines Typhoon Haiyan disaster this past year, where domestic political concerns significantly contributed to slowing China’s response efforts. Under China’s current system, foreign assistance is under the authority of the influential Ministry of Commerce, as opposed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In practice, this means all foreign aid determinations are viewed first through an economic, not diplomatic, lens, which has the potential to result in more economically cautious and diplomatically insensitive policy decisions. This configuration likely plays into the popular narrative that China’s economic interests trump its international responsibilities.
Ultimately, Beijing’s decision to step up in the fight against Ebola is in China’s interest as it seeks to simultaneously secure investment in the region and boost China’s reputation as a well-meaning world power. However, if political infighting over foreign assistance persists in Beijing, China will continue to find it difficult to respond efficiently to future humanitarian crises; a weakness that should be worrying to the international community and China alike. To fully realize its status as a responsible global player, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must first resolve its internal dynamics and come to a consensus on China’s role on the world stage.
Mr. Brandon Cleary is a researcher with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS.