With coronavirus spreading in the Red Sea region, USIP’s Patricia Kim says Red Sea states don’t want to be forced to choose between major powers. “When things like the COVID-19 pandemic peak in fragile places,” says Kim, “this definitely requires cooperation between the United States and China.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: Well, the United States Institute of Peace has for six months been closely looking at China's impact on conflict dynamics in the Red Sea arena. That is the title of their latest report. Again, a six months study undertaken by a group of top U.S. experts, some former policymakers on Asia and Africa, Middle East and it is looking at some of these issues and also in the midst of this came the coronavirus pandemic. So, let's get some sense of what they are finding and what we should know. Patricia Kim is with us, senior analyst for China at the United States Institute of Peace. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Patricia Kim, welcome. Thanks for being here today.

Patricia Kim: Thank you, Tim. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Tim Farley: First of all, the question about what China is trying to do in the region, I wonder how much of it is being impacted by what we've been seeing play out with the coronavirus pandemic, because clearly it was at the start of this, and one wonders if President Xi has suffered any kind of loss of confidence at home, are you able to tell? Can you give us a sense of that?

Patricia Kim: Sure. So, let me take one step back and just situate the report. So, basically our report that you mentioned looks at China's growing presence and influence in the Red Sea arena, which includes the Western and Eastern sides of the Red Sea from Egypt to the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. And what we do is see what kind of impact China is having in this region. And of course, we also look at China's response to COVID-19 in the region as well. And since the outbreak, China has essentially stepped up its efforts to position itself as a global leader in fighting the pandemic and in the Red Sea arena, specifically, beginning in March and then in April, China has really stepped up sending medical supplies and, in some cases, medical professionals to countries in the region, especially to the African side of the Red Sea. And while China's response has received a lot of praise from the region, it also faced some backlash when there were reports of coronavirus-related discrimination against Africans living in Guangzhou. So, China is dealing with a diplomatic crisis as well in the region.

Tim Farley: How can we assess the propaganda battle, if nothing else or the rhetorical battle between the U.S. and China over who's to blame? President Trump saying they were not being forthcoming with their figures, it all started in a lab, I mean, there's a lot of stuff there that is being dismissed by experts as having taken place, intelligence saying there's no evidence that this was started intentionally or otherwise in a lab in Wuhan. But there are questions about whether China told the truth and Chinese government officials had at one time attached the outbreak to visiting U.S. troops or some U.S. personnel who were in China. This battle of propaganda, it seems to be maybe distracting from the idea that there is an actual crisis here.

Patricia Kim: Right, so as you say, you know, there are a lot of open questions about how this virus first unfolded, where it originated and how different countries handled them, and so there certainly needs to be an apolitical investigation into all of this once countries have dealt with their outbreaks so that we can understand better and deal with these pandemics in the future. As you say, I think there's really been a hit to U.S.-China relations over the virus. But you know, I would say that U.S.-China relations have been on a downward trajectory for many years. And the Chinese government’s mishandling of the outbreak, especially in the early days with suppression of information and whistleblowers and disinformation campaigns around the origins of the virus has certainly deepened the mistrust that many U.S. experts and policy policymakers have had of the PRC political system.

Tim Farley: Patricia Kim with us, senior analyst for China at the United States Institute of Peace. It also seems to me, Patricia, that there's this noise, this rhetorical fight that goes on, distracts from the essential target, the Belt and Road Initiative, for example, which is the grand strategy that Beijing has. They want to pretty much have a global footprint. They would like to be in a lot of places. And that continues apace. And the United States in its sort of unilateral dealings with China does not in any way seem to be interfering with China's ability or desire to have an overwhelming amount of influence in that particular region, just to sort of add to the country's influence.

Patricia Kim: Sure. So, what we do find is that China's economic footprint as well as its diplomatic and military footprint is certainly growing in the Red Sea region. And so, this is something that the United States needs to pay attention to, and in many ways, it has, China's growing presence has been largely welcomed by the region as well. So, when we went out there, what we kept hearing from regional experts and officials is that they're very keen to partner with China, that they see China's economic presence as essential for their region. And so, you know, that was one of the key findings of our report.

Tim Farley: Do they feel they are being over, they would be overwhelmed by China, or is it just that the Chinese economic influence would actually help boost them?

Patricia Kim: Well, we've heard, you know, mixed views. I think, you know, there is a lot of concern about growing debt with China and the quality and sustainability of Chinese projects. But at the same time, we also heard that that China's economic offerings are seen as critical for advancing their country's continued economic development. And without this development, long-term stability and peace in the region it's difficult to achieve. And so what we heard over and over is that they're keen on partnering with China. At the same time, they don't want to partner with China exclusively. They're also very interested in engaging with the United States and so that they hope that the United States would continue to diplomatically engage as well as increase its commercial engagement in the region.

Tim Farley: Patricia Kim, senior analyst for China at the United States Institute of Peace. The report notes that there are three broad categories of recommendations. One is the U.S. should help Red Sea states better manage China's growing presence and engagement by strengthening civil society and democratic norms. Number two, the U.S. should mitigate the risks of military conflict with China. And number three, the U.S. should find ways to cooperate with Beijing in areas of mutual interests. Any of those, the priority, does one lead to another?

Patricia Kim: Yeah. So I, as I would say our assessment in the report is that China is likely to remain a significant player in the region and the fact is Red Sea states do not want to have to choose between the United States and China. And so we determined that it's important that the United States help Red Sea states better manage China's growing presence and engagement by doing exactly the things that you just summarized such as strengthening civil society and democratic norms, as well as looking for ways that the United States can cooperate with Beijing in areas of mutual interest, like stemming global pandemics or securing strategic waterways and supporting regional mechanisms to mitigate the various regional conflicts that are going on. And what we determined is that U.S. policy towards China in this region as well as around the world will need to strike a balance between competition and cooperation.

We will need to compete to stay engaged and relevant in regions like the Red Sea arena where we have strategic interests, we need to push back where we see China eroding democratic norms and values and demand accountability from Beijing where it's appropriate. But at the same time, we need to find ways to engage in practical cooperation with China because the fact is when things like global pandemics, like the COVID-19 pandemic peaks in fragile places like the Horn of Africa, it will require significant humanitarian and economic assistance if we don't want to see failed states and a destabilized region. So this requires, this definitely requires cooperation between the United States and China to coordinate efforts and contributions.

Tim Farley: Is it your sense that this administration is interested in moving in that direction?

Patricia Kim: Well as I said, I think it's, it's a difficult period in U.S.-China relations right now. We've been on a downward trajectory. This outbreak has exacerbated that. I think both sides are pointing fingers at each other. And so it's a difficult period, but having said that, you know, we need to find ways to practically engage. And that is the primary recommendation of our report.

Tim Farley: We will continue to watch and listen and thank you for the report. Patricia Kim, thanks for being on POTUS today.

Patricia Kim: Thank you.

Tim Farley: Patricia Kim is senior analyst for China and the United States Institute of Peace. They have just undertaken a six months study, which is now in their report, “China's Impact on Conflict Dynamics in the Red Sea Arena.” It obviously encompasses more than just that, but we wanted to get that conversation with Patricia on the record and she is tweeting @USIP.

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