The broader geopolitical fallout of COVID-19 may depend on the contrast between Beijing’s apparent success in slowing the pandemic and the fact that Western countries – most notably Italy – now face national emergencies in which their healthcare systems cannot cope with the surge of new infected patients. This plays out in a number of ways: the extent that China’s authoritarian technological surveillance and social penetration actually gave an advantage to enforce social distancing restrictions and collective action necessary to protect public health; the Trump Administration’s slow response in acknowledging the crisis and mobilizing the federal apparatus further diminishes Washington’s credibility as a global leader; and that increasing national restrictions on travel and migration will nationalists and populists in their broader campaigns against globalization and liberal economic exchange.
But the human catastrophe unfolding in Italy also highlights one of the developments that we explore in Exit From Hegemony: that of regimes taking advantage of the availability of new non-Western external patrons as suppliers of club or private goods – and of doing so in ways that highlight the “failures” of liberal order.
The Italian government has been desperate to secure urgently needed emergency medical supplies – especially respiratory ventilators – to cope with gaping shortages. A few days ago, the Italian Ambassador to the EU Maurizio Massari authored an op-ed urging the EU to adopt more aggressive emergency measures in support of Italy, including supplying urgently needed medical equipment. He noted that “only China responded bilaterally” to Italy’s needs., Then, as reported in the Financial Times yesterday, the leader of the Italian nationalist Lega Nord party, Matteo Salvini, blasted European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde for encouraging – through her public indifference – spikes in Italian bond rates and a 17% plummet in the Milan-based stock market. All this took place with the backdrop of the arrival on Thursday of the first Chinese plane with medical equipment and personnel. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio celebrated it on Facebook, noting that “Many foreign ministers offered their solidarity and want to give us a hand … and this evening I wanted to show you the first aid arrived from China.”
Of course, all of this represents a well-choreographed demonstration of Chinse public relations. Lucrezia Poggetti, an expert on EU-China relations at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), notes on her Twitter feed – as well as in comments for a Washington Post article on the geopolitics of the Chinese shipment to Italy – that the narrative of “China to the rescue” belies that fact that the supplies were not “foreign aid,” but rather the fulfillment of a commercial contract, one bought and paid for by the Italian government. Nevertheless, the framing of the 1,000 ventilators as “foreign aid” carries with it clear international governance and geopolitical overtones. It feeds into the narrative that the EU is once again abandoning Italy – and that Rome must take it upon itself to secure new partners like Beijing to defend the basic needs and pressing interests of the Italian people.