China’s Humanitarian Aid: Cooperation amidst Competition
In response to the spread of Covid-19, China has deployed medical teams and donated medical equipment to over 150 countries. China refers to these provisions as humanitarian assistance, differentiating them from existing development programs. While this assistance may not fit the principled, non-politicized definition of humanitarian aid used by many donors, it reflects how China thinks about short-term humanitarian action in the context of natural disasters and pandemics.
The exact figure of Chinese spending on its pandemic assistance is difficult to determine due to China’s donor methodology and opacity surrounding its assistance, but experts assess China is on track to spend more on humanitarian aid in 2020 than ever before. It remains unclear whether this increase represents a temporary spike or a transformational shift in the Chinese approach. Regardless, given the increased need and funding shortfalls, China’s increased spending is a welcome development, even as Chinese authorities are encouraged to be more transparent about their assistance, coherent in their approach, and coordinated with other donors and recipients.
China’s Evolving Role as a Humanitarian Donor
Prior to the onset of Covid-19, unmet humanitarian needs presented a major challenge for traditional donors. Conflicts are lasting longer, and humanitarian funding shortfalls are commonplace. The pandemic has intensified needs while traditional donors are prioritizing domestic response efforts and facing severe economic stagnation. Donor states have funded just 35.7 percent of the $9.5 billion required by the United Nations’ Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan. Consequently, China’s willingness to contribute to humanitarian responses has been encouraged by some humanitarian stakeholders. Germany, a significant donor state, recently called on China to take a larger role in the humanitarian sector, noting its “economic capacity to provide substantial humanitarian assistance.” In 2017, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recommended China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) add a humanitarian dimension to its far-reaching development agenda.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, experts estimate that China will provide its highest ever amount of humanitarian assistance. The newly established China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), a Chinese sub-ministry meant to coordinate foreign aid, has stated the Covid-19 response will be China’s “most intensive and wide-ranging emergency humanitarian operation since [its] founding.” China’s humanitarian spending has peaked several times in recent years, demonstrating a willingness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to increase disaster response spending. It set a record at $128.5 million in 2017; notably this comprised less than one percent of the global total for humanitarian spending that year. In comparison, the United States spent $6.89 billion on humanitarian assistance in 2017. China will also contribute at minimum $100 million into the UN humanitarian system in 2020. Since March, China has announced $50 million in donations to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations’ Global Humanitarian Response Plan to Covid-19. While this represents a high-water mark for Chinese contributions, it pales in comparison to the contributions of the United States and other leading donors.
Countering a Narrative
China’s provision of medical aid in response to Covid-19 achieves three interests—drawing attention away from the Chinese Communist Party’s inadequate early response to the virus, seizing on a moment of perceived U.S. retrenchment from global leadership, and reinforcing existing investments in development spending.
China has used medical humanitarian aid as a tool with which to counter the prevailing narrative of responsibility for Covid-19’s spread, a tactic China watchers say is consistent with past efforts to obfuscate the state’s real intentions. According to a Chinese government white paper, by May 31, 2020, China had donated medical supplies to over 150 countries, regions, and international bodies and sent medical teams to 27 countries. A Stanford study documenting Chinese state-affiliated Twitter accounts reveals a systematic effort to promote China’s delivery of aid while downplaying its receipt of aid, an attempt to draw attention away from accusations of culpability.
Domestic messaging serves to draw attention away from domestic missteps and is essential to preempt domestic criticism around spending abroad while urgent needs remain within the mainland. The messaging around China’s Covid-19 aid is also consistent with how it has promoted past humanitarian action. For example, China’s provision of medical rescue teams and relief assistance after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal received wide coverage in state media.
Seizing the Moment
Increased Chinese spending may also be an attempt by the CCP to capitalize on a moment of perceived U.S. weakness. Official Chinese statements say recent aid deliveries are a fulfillment of its obligations “as a responsible global power” and not driven by “selfish geopolitical interests.” Coupled with U.S. disengagement from the WHO and Chinese assertiveness with bilateral recipients, the donations can be seen as an attempt to capitalize on a political moment, particularly as the medical aid coincides with China’s increased development assistance.
China’s Covid-19 aid packages are consistent with its policy of providing emergency humanitarian relief to natural disasters while avoiding donations to complex, conflict-related emergencies. Many of China’s medical humanitarian donations have gone to countries that have signed BRI economic partnership agreements. For example, on April 6, 2020, China delivered medical assistance to 18 African countries, 15 of which are BRI partners. Of the 94 recipient countries publicized throughout CIDCA’s website, 81 are BRI countries. BRI partners in Europe such as Serbia and Italy have praised China for its timely delivery of aid. Notably, the relatively efficient Chinese assistance represents an evolution from China’s response to the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014. While international donors rushed to provide essential resources, China was criticized for its lack of response, especially given its experience handling the SARS pandemic. China ultimately changed course and donated $123 million to West African countries to respond.
These provisions of medical aid are a relatively small investment by China to shore up its larger developmental investments. The aid allows China to emphasize friendly ties and gloss over negative perceptions within BRI states. For example, some Mozambicans worry that Chinese investments may have exploitive elements that benefit China substantially more than Mozambique. In many African BRI countries, the assistance additionally appears to serve to counter accusations of racism within China. In April, the Chinese government was criticized after Africans living in Guangzhou were evicted due to rumors they had Covid-19. Forced in-home testing, quarantine, and displacement of Africans in Guangdong province caused a backlash from African governments and citizens alike.
The humanitarian component of China’s aid remains a relatively small portion of its overall international assistance. Because of its small scale and prioritization of natural disaster response, China’s humanitarian aid does not have to be an area of competition with the United States. While the United States should strengthen its commitments to multilateral aid agencies, it should also seize opportunities to coordinate with China for future humanitarian responses to achieve more effective provision of aid. Increased transparency in China’s aid policies and funding is required to ensure cooperation is possible. Even as China increases its contributions, the general lack of data on China’s humanitarian aid spending—which predates the pandemic—remains a barrier to closer international donor engagement. Financial data on much of China’s bilateral Covid-19 aid has not been reported to the United Nations’ Financial Tracking Service (FTS), making it difficult to assess where and how much China is spending. This is consistent with the lack of reliable information on development spending, through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) and similar financial accounting mechanisms.
China is unlikely to match funding levels of traditional donors like the United States, nor adopt the established modalities of humanitarian financing because it maintains a fundamentally different philosophy surrounding humanitarian action. China’s humanitarian aid mechanisms are different from major donors that typically contribute a significant portion of their humanitarian spending to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and/or UN response plans. The CCP’s 2014 foreign aid white paper reiterates China’s commitment to providing emergency humanitarian aid while focusing on developmental projects. China prefers giving bilateral humanitarian aid directly to recipient governments instead of NGOs and multilateral institutions. Chinese policies of non-interference and respect for state sovereignty translate into greater support for South-South cooperation, an avoidance of humanitarian aid in armed conflicts, and a reliance on bilateral aid transfers.
As China continues to reinforce its development and humanitarian spending, the lack of transparency in both China’s developmental and humanitarian aid remains problematic. Belt and Road Initiative development projects are markedly nontransparent. The Center for Global Development notes the difficulty even for recipient states to obtain data on how much aid they are receiving. Established in 2018, the responsibilities of CIDCA are still not fully clear. Its leadership structure, bureaucratic processes, and budget remain closely linked with the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM). In 2019, CIDCA’s nominal budget was $18 million while MOFCOM’s foreign aid budget stood at $2.63 billion. In contrast to traditional donors’ expansive development and humanitarian agencies, CIDCA has approximately 100 staff members. This relatively small staff limits the organization’s capacity to track its aid provision, and expert observers have noted there is no indication staff numbers will soon increase. CIDCA works with MOFCOM, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and China’s embassies to facilitate government-to-government aid. Yet, even with a country-based approach where aid needs are assessed within China’s embassies and reported back to CIDCA, a consistent lack of community consultation remains. Greater transparency is needed to clarify CIDCA’s role and the division of power with its parent ministries. Additionally, China does not have a public data repository sharing financial information on its humanitarian responses. This opaque approach could lead to duplicative efforts when China and other states provide humanitarian assistance simultaneously.
In addition to increasing transparency, China’s increased donorship requires recipient countries and established donors to have a nuanced understanding of what guides its aid provision. For recipient countries, China’s increased medical humanitarian assistance is important to study because the lack of a robust consultative process could mean it does not always give what is most needed. China’s aid reporting focuses heavily on inputs rather than impact. Recipient countries must be aware of conditions attached to China’s provision of aid, be it high-level diplomatic praise or requirements to use Huawei products. The quality of the in-kind aid received also warrants attention. Some European countries such as Spain and the Netherlands recalled Chinese-imported PPE, while Kenya rejected the further use of donated masks after they were found to be of insufficient quality. The United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found a case where a Chinese company purposefully misbranded masks as N95s, suggesting the problem of quality is widespread and occasionally intentional.
It is difficult to forecast what China’s humanitarian aid spending and architecture will look like once the Covid-19 pandemic ends. Having established more robust spending levels, China could seek to accelerate its current humanitarian spending. Yet, internal pressures to focus attention on domestic development priorities may constrain the government’s ambitions. Either way, traditional donors and humanitarian agencies should continue to engage with Chinese authorities to promote transparency and best practices to ensure that Chinese humanitarian assistance is coordinated with traditional donors, achieving the best humanitarian outcomes.
The U.S. Department of Defense recently noted that China’s expanding investments and activity in Africa “can be beneficial and welcome” if China adheres to international norms and operates with transparency. A recent CSIS survey demonstrated broad consensus that the United States and China should pursue cooperation on transnational areas that serve U.S. government interests; clearly humanitarian response would fall into this category. Not every space must be competitive, and the United States should pursue cooperation when we can.
Traditional donors and humanitarian agencies should continue to engage with Chinese authorities to promote transparency and best practices to ensure that Chinese humanitarian assistance is coordinated with traditional donors, achieving the best humanitarian outcomes.
First, China must provide the international community and aid recipients greater transparency in its aid donations. Recipient countries need to know how much aid they are receiving. The Chinese government should prioritize tracking aid provisions, provide ministries the resources to do so, and share data with the international humanitarian system. Outside humanitarian actors have an opportunity to engage with China to encourage and advise this process. Increased transparency reduces the amount of aid duplication from fellow donor states and helps ensure people in crisis receive the aid they need.
Second, the U.S. government should work with other top humanitarian donors to identify opportunities for aid coordination with China. This cooperation is necessary for ensuring streamlined, needs-based, non-duplicative responses to future natural disasters and pandemics. While the United States cannot burden-share humanitarian aid initiatives with China due to the opaqueness of its aid and differing methodology, greater coordination will create more effective humanitarian responses on the ground.
Third, the United States and traditional donors should encourage China to boost its engagement with the international humanitarian system. Germany has already made this effort and is working towards establishing a humanitarian dialogue between the European Union and China. Other donors should follow suit, seizing moments of opportunity to foster dialogue and communication on international humanitarian issues of joint concern.
Jacob Kurtzer is the interim director and senior fellow of the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Grace Gonzales is a temporary researcher with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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