FOR the last two decades, the China-rise narrative has dominated development discourses. In that period, China has become the world’s largest manufacturer and the second largest economy behind the Unites States of America (USA).
Beijing’s role in the international arena has thus increased, and it is expected to increase even further.
However, since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in late 2019, concerns have been raised as to whether that will be a natural path for China.
This is despite the fact that the Chinese economy has shown resilience to shocks in the past, such as during the 2008 financial crisis where Beijing recorded a GDP growth rate of 8% - contributing to half of the world’s economic growth in the process. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese economy has once again shown flexibility that saw it improve from a 2.3% growth in 2020 to a projected 8.5% growth in 2021.
The stability of the Chinese economy is important for Africa in particular. As the continent’s single largest trading partner, Beijing is poised to contribute significantly in the continent’s development agenda. In particular, China’s infrastructure financing is transforming the transportation sector in Africa through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The past year was characterized by chaotic politics around global governance of the Covid-19 pandemic. The chaos manifested in the form of big powers blame game about the origin of the virus and the USA’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of the pandemic.
China responded to these developments by attempting to offer a global leadership in fighting the pandemic, as the USA appeared to shun multilateralism.
At home, despite the fact that the first coronavirus case was reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Beijing responded aggressively by putting in place measures that have dramatically contained the spread of the virus.
China’s success in its Covid-19 fight has been a result of investing in the production and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines around the world. In August this year, Beijing pledged to supply 2 billion doses of vaccines to the world by the end of this year. According to one source, China has until September 2021 sold 1.24 billion doses and donated 66 million.
China has also continued to support multilateralism in the fight against the pandemic, committing more resources to the WHO. Chinese-produced vaccines namely Sinopharm and Sinovac have been validated by the WHO for emergency use, and included in the COVAX Facility.
With more than 90% of Africans still unvaccinated, China has the potential to play a very important role in assisting Africa’s efforts in the fight against Covid-19. It has to be mentioned that the Chinese government and private actors such Jack Ma donated Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to countries across the world.
These measures taken by China to respond to the pandemic have increased China’s global influence, especially in the Global South. In Africa, China pledged 89 million doses and has so far delivered 61 million of them.
Four countries have particularly stood out in receiving Chinese vaccines.
They are Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Zimbabwe. During the pandemic, China has echoed the global call for debt relief and cancellation for poor countries as they grapple with the economic and social ravages of the disease. Fifteen African countries have benefited from Beijing’s debt-relief arrangements.
This move is welcome, and will strengthen the trust between China and African countries. Early this year, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited five African countries, including Tanzania. While in the Democratic Republic of Congo he announced a US$28 million debt cancellation.
This is commendable as debt relief and cancellation is one area where China can significantly make a difference in easing the Covid-19 burden on poor African economies. In Tanzania, Mr. Wang witnessed the signing of a contract between a Chinese company and the Government of Tanzania for the construction of a Standard Gauge Railway stretch.
It was an indication that Chinese expertise will still be an integral part of the East African country’s development agenda, even at the time of the pandemic.
The Tanzanian government has recently announced its intention to open up the country for foreign investment. The intention was underscored by the government’s decision to restart stalled talks with the Chinese side over the construction of Bagamoyo port, a potential flagship BRI project.
Since the full weight of economic and social impact of the pandemic is yet to be felt, it is unwise to talk of a post-Covid era. This certainly casts a shadow on the prospects of the global economy, let alone China’s. However, the past year has shown that China has the ability to lead the way in the recovery process.
If Beijing sustains the gains made in the recovery and containment of the virus in a long run, a new world order where China becomes the envy of the world for its Covid-19 resilience is not farfetched.
Lest we forget, China’s Covid response success happened as people in the USA and much of Europe succumbed to the virus in record numbers.
● (The writer is an international affairs observer based in Dar es Salaam)