In politics, oftentimes threats and opportunities go hand-in-hand. COVID-19 is a rigorous test for states’ resilience as well as a make-or-break moment for many leaders worldwide. It is also an opportunity to project influence abroad. Who sends medical supplies and teams of healthcare professionals to whom has overnight become a top foreign policy issue. All major powers – the United States, China, Russia among others – have engaged in this game. Turkey is keen to jump on the bandwagon, too.
The Chinese have had the first-mover advantage. Part of Beijing’s motivation in despatching aid to coronavirus-affected Italy and Spain in mid-March was to brush up its tarnished image. The Chinese Communist Party’s leadership has long contended that its contribution to global governance is the lifting from poverty and deprivation of hundreds of millions of its own country’s people. It never placed much emphasis on taking responsibility for the world’s problems, with Beijing harbouring suspicions that more activist foreign policies from Washington administrations often masked the U.S. bid to retain global supremacy.
But now the situation has changed. China is scrambling to portray itself as a benign pillar of international cooperation which has been wrongfully accused of mishandling and exporting a pandemic as well as seeking to replace Western hegemony with its own. Doctors and protective masks are now central to its soft power.
Russia has followed the Chinese example. Last week, a plane loaded with medical supplies landed in New York, the epicentre of the coronavirus infection in the United States. “A very nice gesture on behalf of President (Vladimir) Putin,” U.S. President Donald Trump commented at one of his regular briefings. Yet many commentators dismissed the delivery, paid for by the Russian Federation’s sovereign fund, as a propaganda stunt.
Moscow reached out to Italy as well. The Russian defence ministry claims to have delivered 15 planeloads to Italy with 60 tons of cargo each, as well as 122 experts, including 66 servicemen “of the radiological, chemical and biological defence troops,” eight teams of doctors, and one full laboratory. But, predictably enough, this initiative also spurred controversy. Italian commentators raised accusations that intelligence operatives came as part of the Russian crews. The European External Action Service pointed at the Kremlin-sponsored platforms such as Sputnik spreading disinformation and exploiting the EU’s apparent reluctance to come to Italy’s rescue, contrasting with Moscow’s benevolence.
The soft power contest is playing out in the western Balkans, not far from Turkey’s borders.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić praised China for sending medical supplies to Serbia and castigated the EU.
“European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairytale on paper,” he lamented. “These are the same people who have asked us to fix our tender procedures to exclude the Chinese so that EU companies would get Serbian money. Now our Serbian money is no longer good enough for them.”
Billboards paid for by a pro-government tabloid appeared in the capital Belgrade thanking the Chinese President, whom they referred to as “Brother Xi”. While Chinese financial assistance is a tiny fraction of the funds the EU disburses in the region, the coronavirus challenge helped Beijing score points against the West. After a phone call between Vučić and Putin, Russian military planes delivered medics, virologists, medical equipment and 16 vehicles to Serbia.
Turkey could not afford to watch Russia and China from the sidelines. After all, it considers the western Balkans part of its neighbourhood. On April 6, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov thanked President Erdoğan for setting aside masks, protective suits, and test kits for North Macedonia. Ankara also committed to send assistance to Bosnia and Herzegovina, after a phone call between the two foreign ministers. Albanian Prime Minister Rama had already turned for assistance to Erdoğan, with whom he shares a special relationship, by late March. It is worth remembering that Turkey won plaudits for sending humanitarian aid after the earthquake in Albania last November. Airborne medical aid consignments from Turkey to all Western Balkan countries kicked off on 8 April.
Humanitarian assistance, through both governmental agencies and private associations, has long been a tool in the hands of Turkish diplomacy. From Bosnia to Somalia to Afghanistan, Turkey has carved a niche and built its soft power through aid. But whether the country is able to capitalise internationally from this crisis ultimately depends on how it does domestically. As the number of cases and deaths rises exponentially, the healthcare system – the pride and joy of the AKP, which takes credit for improving access to previously underprivileged groups in Turkey – is coming under strain.
Flying in masks and test kits to neighbours, as well as to Italy and Spain, is admirable. It also showcases Ankara’s commitment to NATO as the alliance has taken charge of coordinating assistance. But soft power, as Joseph Nye who coined the concept argues, stems in no small part from the quality and performance of one’s own institutions and public policies.