from Global Health Program and Asia Program

The COVID-19 Pandemic and China's Global Health Leadership

China's ambitions for global health leadership are faltering as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. The country's mixed record of addressing the virus offers opportunities for U.S. global health leadership, writes Yanzhong Huang.

Council Special Report
Concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contributions to current policy dilemmas.

As China prepares to host the Winter Olympics, its management of the COVID-19 virus is under the microscope. Despite its relative success early in the pandemic, China now appears to be stumbling. “China’s vulnerability in maneuvering for global health leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic presents the United States with an opportunity to reassert its global leadership,” finds Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Senior Fellow for Global Health Yanzhong Huang.

Yanzhong Huang
Yanzhong Huang

Senior Fellow for Global Health

Early on, “China’s comparative success in addressing the virus emboldened Beijing to reassert its global leadership agenda, which aims to establish China’s centrality in the international system and over global governance institutions such as the United Nations,” Huang writes in a new Council Special Report (CSR), The COVID-19 Pandemic and Chinese Global Health Leadership.

More on:

COVID-19

China

Health Policy and Initiatives

Public Health Threats and Pandemics

However, “China’s efforts to project soft power and strengthen its international image have been met with mixed success,” Huang explains. “China’s initial mishandling of the outbreak undermined its international reputation,” despite a relatively effective rebranding campaign coupled with robust international vaccine diplomacy. Now, “highly transmissible variants are challenging China’s draconian pandemic response and casting doubt on the efficacy rates of Chinese vaccines,” he writes.

Huang, a leading authority on China’s health issues, also raises long-term concerns about China’s zero-COVID policy, which is at the core of Beijing’s domestic pandemic response. “As the pandemic becomes endemic and people learn to live with the virus in other countries, the immunity gap between China and the outside world will expand,” he writes.

“The zero-COVID strategy will be extremely costly and highly dangerous: a small omicron outbreak in China could quickly develop into multiple larger outbreaks across the country, sending shock waves through society and the economy and intensifying the disruption of global supply chains and inflation pressures worldwide,” he warns.

Against this backdrop, “Washington has the opportunity to pursue an effective strategy to expand soft power and reassert global health leadership,” Huang notes. “To cope with China’s leadership ambitions, the [Joe] Biden administration should consider the following steps”:

  • “Take a more strategic approach in matching China's COVID-19 diplomacy,” by scaling up vaccine diplomacy and better publicizing its global health efforts. 
  • “Form a bloc with U.S. allies and partners to give the World Health Organization more authority vis-à-vis member states in publishing disease-related information and dispatching experts to conduct in-country investigations of outbreaks.”
  • “Work closely with civil society groups, scholars, investigative journalists, international organizations, and like-minded countries . . . to present credible information to a global audience in countering Beijing’s disinformation campaigns.” 
  • “Collaborate with China when it serves U.S. interests,” including on “disease surveillance and response capacity–building, development and distribution of vaccines and therapeutics, supply-chain resiliency and security, travel resumption and safety, and biosafety and biosecurity.”

More on:

COVID-19

China

Health Policy and Initiatives

Public Health Threats and Pandemics

The proposed approach represents “a balanced and forward-looking strategy that counters Chinese influence while recognizing Beijing’s proper role in global health governance and the importance of U.S.-China cooperation,” Huang concludes. “U.S.-China competition for global health leadership does not necessarily have to be zero-sum.”

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