Transatlantic relations as we knew them were born from the crisis of World War II. And now, as analogies to that war are abounding, new international relationships are being cultivated to face the Coronavirus Crisis. Yet, at the same time, some other relationships are degrading to the degree of collapse. 

Under “normal” circumstances, the coronavirus pandemic should have drawn already existing alliances closer together, like the Transatlantic ties. The U.S. and European alliance forged over 75 long years is “out of reach” just when the coronavirus crisis has hit both sides immensely hard. 

Will the superpower and alliance void left in Europe by the U.S.’ retreat be filled by China? Will China fulfill its aspiration to become the global health superpower? How would that affect countries at the fringe of Europe like Turkey?

While various countries including Turkey are now embarking on “corona diplomacy,” China was the first to begin attempts to win hearts and minds with direly needed aid. Beijing was the first to extend a helping hand to European countries suffering the worst from the pandemic— Italy and Spain—and to the economically most fragile one, Greece. 

China’s President Xi Jinping called the Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte and Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez in mid-March, offering his full support. In the case of Greece, while there was not a phone call between Xi and Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis, there was a warm exchange between Mitsotakis and the Chinese Ambassador in Athens, Zhang Qiyue. After all, Athens is the most dependent among the aforementioned countries on good relations with the U.S. due to military and diplomatic confrontations with Turkey—a dependence that may have been factor in the lack of direct phone calls between the leaders. Previously, Athens and Beijing exchanged letters pledging mutual support in facing the Corona Crisis.

In Xi’s calls with Sánchez and Conte, there were words that sounded like music at a time when harsh and egoistic retorts, and even trolling, have often replaced the finesse of diplomacy. According a report by China’s official Xinhua news agency, Xi told Sánchez that, “sunshine always comes after the rain.” Comparing that to the rambling tweets from U.S. President Donald Trump, there is a clear difference between the U.S. and China in which country is striving to cast itself as the “responsible power in charge.” Xi’s words reflect the idea of a “community of common destiny for mankind,” the strategic ideological concept underlying all of China’s Corona diplomacy these days. From the carefully penned multilingual poetic notes attached to medical aid supplies, to the kind gestures of Chinese diplomats, China is working hard to win hearts and minds in Europe and beyond whilst “America First” ideology looks bleak by contrast.

Health Silk Road?

Moreover, beyond the sweet words of Xi, there were also proposals of substance: during his conversation with Italian Prime Minister Conte, Xi flaunted the idea of the “construction of a Health Silk Road”. 

“Health Silk Road” (健康丝绸之路) happens to be a rhetorical extension of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and it is not in itself a wholly novel concept. Previously, there were allusions to the “Digital Silk Road” in reference to the virtual roads created by China through technological infrastructure investments such as fiber optic cables and 5G networks.

However, despite the original BRI’s and its spin offs’ achievements and transgressions, the Health Silk Road may be here to stay. Despite China’s efforts to carve itself a place as a global health superpower amidst the Corona Crisis, the world does need more cooperation in terms of health and the leadership void will be filled by some actor.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Xi also spoke over the phone and China pledged to assist Ankara in health and medical issues and in the supply of medical equipment. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) already retains a great interest in the healthcare industry—a hallmark of the party’s platform and especially of Erdoğan’s inner circle itself—so it would not be a surprise if Turkey and China began cooperating more in the health sphere now and beyond COVID-19.

Who else than China eyes the role?

The international actor best designated for global health leadership, the World Health Organization (WHO), is being bashed and denigrated by President Trump with the accusation of “being China-centric.”  Trump threatened to withhold funding from the international organization under the pretext that its biggest member donor is the U.S. As the institution already struggles with a minuscule budget—considering the magnitude of its task—of around 2.5 billion dollars, Trump’s crusade against the WHO is no good news for the organization. Ironically, Trump’s confrontation with the WHO comes at a time when Jack Ma and the Alibaba Foundations have delivered relief packages to various countries including the U.S., once the donor itself. 

Transatlantic relations were supported by institutional backbone; will a “Health Silk Road” or similar initiatives be the new pillars of new international ties?

Given that epidemics and pandemics are here to stay beyond coronavirus, some actors will rise up to become global health superpowers. China is evidently eyeing the role; it seems there is nobody else doing so. 

If China does indeed hang on to the role of “health leadership”, not just transatlantic ties and the EU’s intra-European and international relations will be transformed. So will Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. and Europe. There will be new priorities, tools and modes of engagement: corona diplomacy may be the first steps towards a new age of “health oriented international relations”. 

Amongst all these unknowns, what we can assert for sure that epidemics and pandemics are here to stay beyond Coronavirus, some actors will raise up to become the global health superpowers. China is evidently eyeing the role; and there is nobody else doing so as it seems.