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China’s Health Silk Road

ISSUE 2020
No 31
Release 02 October 2020
By LIM Menghour*

What is China’s Health Silk Road?

A ‘Health Silk Road’ (HSR) is a new concept being developed under China’s grand strategy of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to enhance global health cooperation. In 2017, China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to implement a BRI programme that mainly focuses on health. WHO has become the first global organisation under the United Nations to have signed such an agreement with China.

The idea of translating the HSR into reality has been further necessitated after the world is plagued by the Covid-19 pandemic. China has shown its willingness to contribute to the international cooperation in combating the pandemic via the establishment of this HSR. From the Chinese perspective, this new initiative is aimed at strengthening and/or renewing the health-centric links between countries and civilisations along the BRI routes. The concept of the HSR includes standardising the monitoring systems, instituting regular data-sharing agreements, and establishing regular programmes to exchange best practices. It could be considered as a fundamental project to achieve universal health coverage through infrastructure, access to medicines and human resources. It also serves as a platform to share and promote best medical experiences and practices. The HSR will run in parallel to the multiple Overland Silk Road corridors and the Maritime Silk Road of China.

Why Does it Matter to the World?

The HSR could be regarded as a new approach to improve global health governance for now and in the future. Through the HSR, China may demonstrate to the world that its model of containing the coronavirus has worked, thus boosting its international image and engagement as a leader in the global health crusade. To fight against the Covid-19 pandemic globally, China has been working hard to deliver the most-needed medical supplies, such as face masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to over 130 countries and international organisations across Africa, Latin America, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Europe under its Belt and Road framework.

The attempt to help all nations to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is meant to demonstrate China’s immense resources and, at the same time, to enable the global supply chains to stay afloat. In other words, the HSR can be considered as a new strategy and/or diplomacy that promotes global health governance and helps elevate China’s status as the leading global power in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as future global health crises.

Moreover, the HSR could be considered as a significant tool in revitalising weakening international institutions and cooperation based on multilateral standards. The current global health crisis has suggested that the world needs a strong, reliable and resourceful global leader. The United States, under the Trump administration, has apparently embraced a limited multilateralism in recent years. In addition, the European countries, severely disrupted by the virus spread, have scrambled resources to get their economic activities back to normalcy. Against this backdrop, China has apparently been at a more advantageous position in projecting its global influence and its narrative of promoting international cooperation based on the multilateral approach in a time of public health crisis.

Benefits of Health Silk Road to ASEAN and Cambodia

The HSR will be of great benefit to ASEAN. Upon this initiative, global health governance will be established in line with the multilateralism approach. ASEAN could capitalise on this framework to control the spread of the Covid-19 and address the regional socio-economic impacts arising from this virus and the future ones. For instance, in April 2020, China donated medical supplies to the ASEAN Secretariat in a show of solidarity to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and pledged to step up cooperation in sharing medical and health information and best practices to enhance emergency preparedness and response to the disease in Southeast Asia. The HSR could be proved to be relevant to each individual member state and to ASEAN as a whole. By the same token, the establishment of HSR meets the call for ASEAN Member States to structure a Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and to enhance public health cooperation in addressing the current and future public health challenges. The HSR may eventually contribute to promoting ASEAN’s sustainable development agenda in the region.

As for Cambodia, the HSR will further strengthen solidarity between the two nations and promote mutual cooperation and support to address the adverse impacts arising from global health crises. For instance, China has continued to assist Cambodia in its efforts to contain, detect, and respond to the disease by sending medical teams and donating medical supplies to the country since March 2020. Hence, the HSR will further reaffirm the shared commitment and vision of the two countries, particularly on the building of the Cambodia-China community of shared future. Under this framework, Cambodia will be able to develop her public health sector and propose a more effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic and other future health issues.

Nevertheless, the HSR could add more complexity to the geopolitical dynamics of the Southeast Asian region. China may face more challenges in realising its HSR ambitions, since the US and some of its allies may perceive the HSR as a tool constraining their roles and influence in the region and beyond. As a consequence, they may take further confrontational actions to prevent Beijing from successfully achieving this strategy. Under this scenario, ASEAN could be trapped in the US-China geopolitical rivalry, and Cambodia could be once again accused of tilting towards China.


The HSR may become a new mechanism in improving the current global health governance and revitalising the important roles of international institutions, which have been weakened over the years. Cambodia, ASEAN, and potentially the rest of the world will gain significant benefits from this initiative. However, to minimise the potential fallout of the HSR, China should execute the project based on the principles of openness, inclusiveness, and transparency in order to build trust with the countries that support the initiative. At the same time, ASEAN and Cambodia need to adopt a more open and flexible policy that could allow the regional countries to integrate with the other global initiatives including those of the US. By doing so, they could mitigate any attempt to create geopolitical tensions.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.