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The Battle of Narratives During Coronavirus Crisis and its Impact on China – Tajikistan Relations

“Although Tajikistan tries to balance the influence of great powers on its policies through its multisectoral foreign policy, China has several strategic advantages in its sleeve that can get Tajikistan involved”, – notes Sherzod Shamiev in the article, written specifically for CABAR.asia


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The coronavirus outbreak is having a devastating impact on a global scale and extensive human toll, leading to a near-standstill in international trade, travel, and political interactions.[1] It could be considered as a rare, unexpected event with severe consequences, otherwise termed as a “black swan event,”  which is raising speculations amongst the experts and politicians in how it will change the world and reshape the politics as we know it.[2]

While countries are fighting the outbreak of the coronavirus, there is another invisible “battle of narratives” taking place between the world powers.[3] China is the focus of the battle, defending its interests against US and EU’s allegations. The cost of not defending its interests and reputation is too great at this point. Thus it has mobilized its diplomatic efforts and soft power, and in a short period, China has moved from being perceived as a cause and epicenter of the virus to being a supporter and savior of the countries hit by a coronavirus.[4]

As the battle of the narratives rages and countries demonstrate their diplomatic posturing, many questions arise on how it might impact relations between countries, as they might divide into several camps. For us in Tajikistan, it will be logical to ask how it might affect the China-Tajikistan relations? Although it is early to make predictions, we can go over several possible scenarios at this stage, as at some point in the near future we will get involved in this narrative, whether we want it or not.

The Battle of Narratives

The coronavirus is being politicized and securitized by Europe and the USA on one side and China and Russia on the other.[5] Especially, the leaders of the US and China are airing conspiracy theories of the virus’s origin.[6] At the same Chinese foreign policy demonstrates intriguing dynamics. Being the first-hit and first to rebound, China is now offering support and assistance to hard-hit Europe and elsewhere. China’s colossal measures in containing the virus, initially criticized by Europe, proved to be effective.[7]

Givent the ongoing “battle” Central discussion on post-coronavirus world are mainly dedicated to whether China or the US will emerge as global leader.[8] Countries face the implications of the current crisis such as economic collapse or recession. By adopting the right strategies they could cope and ease the impacts of the crises through coordination and cooperation, however, the battle of the narratives is making it increasingly difficult.

Some consider that this humanitarian relief action is a PR offensive that aims to clear China’s image internationally and domestically. European experts have termed China’s rapid aid as “mask diplomacy,” explaining that it is an attempt to recover its reputation through the delivery of a combination of medical supplies and show its presence on a global stage.[9]

The coronavirus has already created immense problems for China in the economy and on its reputation around the world. The cost of losing the battle of narratives is too great for China, as it will put its reputation along with its projects such as BRI to a considerable risk.

Chinese authorities understand that this crisis is an opportunity to showcase its capacity as a more responsible actor on a global stage, which explains the willingness of China to push its political narrative and protect its reputation. While the United States is further isolating itself and demonstrating skepticism on investing in international multilateral institutions, China is quickly filling the gap. The announcement of US cutting the funding for the World Health Organization in a time of need is the latest link in this chain, others being an exit from Paris Agreement, termination of UNESCO funding, and pulling away from UN-backed Iran deal is illustrating that the US is no longer willing to address all the global problems. China, in this case, is the biggest winner, as it has long offered an alternative by offering itself as a possible force to take responsibility for managing global challenges.[10]China will be at the forefront when it comes to assisting its neighboring and strategic partners, including Tajikistan. Historically aid and loans have served as a key tool for Chinese foreign policy to win political support. For instance during the Mao Zedong period, despite the severe economic difficulties, China was very generous with foreign aid.[11]The battle of narratives is a dangerous game during this difficult crisis, as it creates hatred, and spreads disinformation, which will further divide the countries. 

Why Tajikistan might get involved in the battle of narratives?

The battle of narratives and the blame game, between the US and China, is rising sentiments around the world, including in Tajikistan. Although Tajikistan tries to balance the influence of great powers on its policies through its multisectoral foreign policy, China has several strategic advantages in its sleeve that can get Tajikistan involved. The first strategic advantage China has over the other great powers is its economic power in the region. As the largest investor in Central Asia, China’s involvement marked a turning point in economic development and infrastructure building throughout its Post-Soviet history.[12]

Chinese investments provided a boost needed to upgrade the aging infrastructure of Tajikistan including roads, power grids, tunnels, etc.[13] In his speech at the Belt and Road Forum President Rahmon haled the cooperation “The BRI efficiently connects the involved countries and regions and helps landlocked Tajikistan access international markets and realize rapid economic growth.”[14] BRI clearly offers many benefits for Tajikistan in terms of improved infrastructure, financing, and increasing economic activity of the country. However, such close cooperation brings about some risks in terms of mounting debts, trade imbalance (22% in 2018), and dependency on China. In the past, Tajikistan has paid off parts of debts to China by ceding mining rights and swapping natural resources for infrastructure money.[15] Chinese Exim Bank owns 52 percent of Tajikistan’s external debt, which was about $2.8 billion in 2019.[16] Despite the debts and other issues, the relations between China and Tajikistan are at an all-time high, and it is unlikely to change in the near future.

Secondly, China has accumulated considerable political clout in the region through its BRI project, increased military cooperation, and membership in SCO. Furthermore, in 2017, China-Tajikistan relations have elevated to the level of strategic partnership and expanded its activities in the spheres of finance, agriculture, water resources, energy, mining, etc.[17] China is perceived as a single actor that has most effectively consolidated its position in the region and the one that has a clear outlook for the future. Even before signing up for the BRI, Tajikistan has actively supported China’s policies in various ways including diplomatically, as in case of signing the petition on China’s treatment of Uighurs.[18] This case is not exclusively a matter of retorical support from Tajikistan. Country’s parliament aggreed on signing the extradition deal with China, that may affect not only suspects and convicted felons, but also Uyghur refugees seeking asylum.[19]

And finally, China thorough its vast economic activities and development program can influence its beneficiaries through conditionalities. Chinese conditionality takes a different form from what has traditionally been discussed, because they are imposed in non-explicit terms, otherwise called as unorthodox conditionalities. Conditions are embedded in project financing requirements.[20] The overreliance on Chinese loans in the long term perspective creates a power asymmetry that becomes larger between China and the recipient country. For instance, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and many other recipient nations, as a result of extensive borrowing, have adjusted their policies, including in the diplomatic arena, closer towards China.[21] The recent announcement that Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have aligned their National Development Strategy for the period up to 2030 with BRI is a clear sign of this.[22] Another instance is One-China policy on which Tajikistan has agreed on. According to One-China policy the recipient nation must recognize Beijing as the only legitimate government of all China, and refrain from from relationship with Taiwan[23]. This is the example of how Chinese conditionalitites goes beyond domestic policy adjustments, directly influencing foreign policy.

These strategic dimensions also influence how the international community, and particularly the recipients, react to political events in China. These strategic dimensions of China over Tajikistan might play a role when it comes to signing petitions, supporting China’s policies on a global level including the support for the battle of narratives. Furthermore, China has promised to assist Tajikistan with fighting the coronavirus.[24] It has already sent two shipments of anti-epidemic cargo and also they have provided consultations on containment of the virus.[25] As for now strategic partnership that two countries share has been fruitful and this has led to even deeper cooperation and coordination on various issues.

The impact of the global battle of narratives on China-Tajikistan relations

The current crisis followed by the oil price plunge and a coming recession has put many economies including Tajikistan in a difficult position. With the Russian economic slowdown due to the pandemic and oil price crash, many migrants lost their jobs and were forced to come back home with empty pockets. Chinese recession also has a significant impact on all of the Central Asian economies. Tajikistan, in particular, is heavily dependant on Chinese FDI, development aid, and infrastructure project financing.  Chinese economic downturn will also force it to concentrate on its economy and domestic politics. It is a logical step to assume that the FDI, and project financing from China to Tajikistan will be halted while it deals with its internal problems. However, Tajikistan in terms of geography, value system, and alliances is closer to China, and dependent on it economically and in providing security in the region. Regardless of who wins the battle of narratives, the relations between China and Tajikistan are less likely to change.

The security and cooperation between the two countries are supported through SCO. In a sense, SCO is used by China as one of the organizations for reconfiguring the geopolitical landscape and shifting it towards a multipolar world.

The SCO could play an important role in containing the current crisis. However, it could also drag its member states to support its unofficial leader, China, in the battle of the narratives.
Beijing has also increasingly extended its influence into the security sphere in Tajikistan. The security relations have become stronger especially in recent years with China and Tajikistan conducting frequent joint military exercises, and through building 11 outposts and training centers for Tajikistan’s border guards, etc.[26] The growing military to military cooperation can be noted through the recent delivery of humanitarian assistance for Tajikistan’s army by the transport plane of the People’s Liberation Army of China.[27]It is logical for China to be engaged in the security of Tajikistan, as it has poured billions of dollars in investments to Tajikistan and throughout Central Asia.[28] BRI is a connectivity project and numerous built infrastructures connect to other infrastructure links and constitute a transport belt that stretches throughout Eurasia. Tajikistan and China have mutual interests in the implementation of the BRI projects, as it breaks the connectivity deadlock for Tajikistan and adds a transport link for China, thus the cooperation in the military sphere is expected to expand further to secure the vital strategic assets and the border with Afghanistan.  

The summer of 2020, in particular, is predicted to be a period of hibernation for many BRI projects. Due to the mentioned political and economic constraints, China won’t be able to provide large loans[29] to Tajikistan and much of the developing world. If the economy of China takes off faster than expected, Chinese policy banks will still be much more careful in issuing loans by identifying the profitable projects and rejecting financing of the “white elephant”[30] projects.

China through its aid during difficult times will be seen as a savior for many developing countries. Previously it lacked the soft power to rally them under its umbrella. Through its diplomatic efforts and coordination with countries in need, China will develop much needed soft power, which will further make the developing countries such as Tajikistan more dependent on it.

Tajikistan will be increasingly in need of help from multilateral organizations,  to diversify its sources of aid and loans. As China faces domestic pressure amid the economic slowdown, writing-off debts as before will be less likely. China will have to restructure the debts owed to it by Tajikistan and implement a debt-moratorium, as coronavirus has decimated the developing economies.[31]However, the loans and aid also have their own risks. As, we have mentioned above these loans and aid are sometimes tied to conditionalities and the same principle of conditionalities is used by World Bank and IMF.

When the interests of these actos diverge, they both can use their own ways of conditionalities to gain leverage over the other, limiting the country’s political maneuver.

Conclusion

The battle of narratives is still taking shape and we don’t know in what direction it might turn. The propaganda, fake news, disinformation and conspiracy theories will only escalate the rivalry and confrontation. The countries like Tajikistan, that has strong relations with all the powers that are engaged in the battle of narratives, will have to shield themselves from propaganda messages in social media, TV channels, YouTube and etc. The civil society and governments could work together to create fact checking tools and identify the targeted messages and address them.  

However, as we have mentioned at the beginning of the article, three factors namely: economic power, political clout through military cooperation and SCO, and conditionalities explain why Tajikistan will be in Chinese polarity. Although the partnership between China and Tajikistan is beneficial for both, Tajikistan needs to balance the dependence on China by engaging with other great powers and their projects. The battle of narratives has begun long before coronavirus pandemic. However, this crisis has illustrated how quickly the events as this can catalyze the existing fears, biases, and perceptions that influence the relations between states.


This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.


[1] Brian Wong, “China’s Mask Diplomacy,” The Diplomat, March 25, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/chinas-mask-diplomacy/.

[2] Jenna Ross, “Black Swan Events: Short-term Crisis, Long-term Opportunity,” Visual Capitalist, March 22, 2020, https://www.visualcapitalist.com/black-swan-events-short-term-crisis-long-term-opportunity/.

[3] Zhang Bei, “’Battle of narratives’ unhelpful in global fight against COVID-19,’” CGTN, April 05, 2020, https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-04-05/-Battle-of-narratives-unhelpful-in-global-fight-against-COVID-19-Pr2ZrVwMEw/index.html.  

[4] Vince Chadwick, “’The politics of generosity’: Brussels aims to counter Chinese narrative on coronavirus,”Devex, April 7, 2020, https://www.devex.com/news/the-politics-of-generosity-brussels-aims-to-counter-chinese-narrative-on-coronavirus-96944.

[5]  Wong, “China’s Mask Diplomacy.”

[6] Lyu Jinghua, “US, China Should Pursue Peace, Not Military Brinkmanship,” Defense One, May 12, 2020, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2020/05/us-china-should-pursue-peace-not-military-brinkmanship/165322/  

[7] Bei, “Battle of narratives.” 

[8] Patrick Wintour, “Coronavirus: who will be winners and losers in new world order,” The Guardian, April 11, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/11/coronavirus-who-will-be-winners-and-losers-in-new-world-order.

[9] Erik Brattberg and Philippe Le Corre, “No, COVID-19 Isn’t Turning Europe Pro-China (Yet),” The Diplomat, April 15, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/no-covid-19-isnt-turning-europe-pro-china-yet/.

[10] Sandra Maksimovic, “Global battle of narratives: Will propaganda about the pandemic change the world order?,” European Western Balkans, April 21, 2020, https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2020/04/21/global-battle-of-narratives-will-propaganda-about-the-pandemic-change-the-world-order/.

[11] Wan Fang, “How unconditional is China’s Foreign Aid?,” DW, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/how-unconditional-is-chinas-foreign-aid/a-43499703.

[12] “China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its impact in Central Asia,” Voices on Central Asia, January 19, 2018, https://voicesoncentralasia.org/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-and-its-impact-in-central-asia/

[13] Joachim Stark and Manuel Ahrens, “Economic Reform and Institutional Change in Central Asia: Towards a New Model of the Developmental State?” (Gottingen,2012), https://www.econstor.eu/handle/10419/58058.

[14] Ren Qi, “Tajik leader hails broad benefits of Belt, Road,” China Daily, April 26, 2019, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201904/26/WS5cc26932a3104842260b8863.html.  

[15] [15] Mattlin Matt and Nojonen Matti, “Conditionality and Path Dependence in Chinese Lending,” Journal of Contemporary China 24, no.94 (2015): 713.

[16] Payrav Chorshanbiev, “Razmer dolga Tajikistana pered Kitaem previsil $1,5 mlrd. Eto bolee polovini vneshnego dolga strani,”Asia-Plus, October 29, 2019, https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/economic/20191028/razmer-dolga-tadzhikistana-pered-kitaem-previsil-15-mlrd-eto-bolee-polovini-vneshnego-gosdolga-strani.   

[17] Charlotte Gao, “China and Tajikistan to Establish Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” The Diplomat, September 1, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/09/china-and-tajikistan-to-establish-comprehensive-strategic-partnership/.

[18] Gao, “China and Tajikistan.”

[19] Dushanbe and Beijing sign extradition deal with Uyghurs in mind, Asianews, March, 25, 2015 http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Dushanbe-and-Beijing-sign-extradition-deal-with-Uighurs-in-mind-34319.html

[20] Michal Hudec, “China’s Emergence in Central Asia,”( Bratislava,2018): 8. 

[21] Matt and Matti, “Conditionality,” 718.

[22] Marlene Laruelle, ed.,“China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact in Central Asia,” (Washington D.C.: The George Washington University, 2018), 6.

[23] Li, Xiaojun, Does Conditionality Still Work? China’s Development Assisstance and Democracy in Africa, Chinese Political Science Review, 2, 2017  https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41111-017-0050-6

[24] “China will stand with Tajikistan till COVID-19 elimination: Chinese FM,” Xinhua Net, May 6, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-05/06/c_139034188.htm

[25] “Китай продолжает оказывать Таджикистану помощь в борьбе с короновирусом,”Avesta Information Agency, May 12, 2020, http://avesta.tj/2020/05/12/kitaj-prodolzhaet-okazyvat-tadzhikistanu-pomoshh-v-borbe-s-koronavirusom/

[26] Stephen Blank, “Sino-Tajik Exercises: The Latest Chinese Encroachment Into Russia’s Sphere of Influence,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 25, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/sino-tajik-exercises-the-latest-chinese-encroachment-into-russias-sphere-of-influence/

[27] “Народно-освободительная армия Китая передала гуманитарный груз для борьбы с коронавирусом Вооруженным силам Таджикистана,” Tajikistan24, May 05, 2020,

https://tajikistan24.com/narodno-osvoboditelnaja-armija-kitaja-peredala-gumanitarnyj-gruz-dlja-borby-s-koronavirusom-vooruzhennym-silam-tadzhikistana/

[28] Stephen Blank, “China’s Military Base in Tajikistan: What does it Mean?,” The Central Asia -Caucasus Analyst, April 18, 2019, https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13569-chinas-military-base-in-tajikistan-what-does-it-mean?.html

[29] Plamen Tonchev, “The Belt and Road after COVID-19,” The Diplomat, April7, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/the-belt-and-road-after-covid-19/.

[30] * A “white elephant project” is a phrase which is used in reference to a financial endeavor which fails to live up to its expectations. 

[31] Tonchev, “The Belt and Road.”

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