Features | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

What COVID-19 Reveals About China-Southeast Asia Relations 

The management of the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated a regional tendency to be loyal to China — to the point of endangering lives.

By Sophie Boisseau du Rocher for
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What COVID-19 Reveals About China-Southeast Asia Relations 

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, center, poses for a group photo with some of the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ahead of the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting on the Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia in Vientiane, Laos, Feb. 20, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

The COVID-19 outbreak that began in Wuhan in December 2019 will not leave Southeast Asia unscathed. As of April 7, some 15,000 COVID-19 cases have been identified in the region, according to official measures. Many believe that underestimates the true spread of the virus.

Even before case counts began to climb, China’s virtual economic standstill was already quick to take its toll, disrupting trade, travel, and supply chains throughout the region. For example, Singapore’s economy contracted by 2.2 percent in the first quarter of 2020 from a year ago, while Malaysia’s economy is expected to contract by as much as 2.9 percent in 2020, with some 2.4 million job losses. Although some countries may be more severely impacted than others, depending on the depth of their links with China and on the weight of the tourism industry in their GDP, the impact was violent and is likely to be even more devastating as the pandemic spreads further.

Interestingly, this crisis also revealed a new diplomatic and political proximity – heading toward an alignment with or at least, a de facto acceptance of China’s practices and standards. One question rings an alarm bell: Why, despite evidence of the contagion potential of a virus that first hit neighboring China, didn’t the countries of Southeast Asia better protect themselves?

The way certain Southeast Asian countries responded to the crisis is particularly telling, as it might reveal the extent to which they have internalized Beijing’s logic and rhetoric. In other words, as most Southeast Asian governments anticipate China’s potential reaction and adjust their behaviors accordingly, China no longer needs to exert explicit pressure. The COVID-19 crisis has made this trend more obvious, highlighting not only the internalization of this “privileged relationship” but also a more disturbing – but unspoken – reality: Southeast Asian countries’ acceptance of China’s soft power and their dependence on it. This change of tone is indeed good news for China’s proactive diplomacy.

Questioning Southeast Asia’s Reactions to COVID-19

Whether Chinese authorities underestimated or downplayed the severity of the virus and its lethal spread remains an open question. Be that as it may, another question remains on the table: Why, despite warning signals, were the regional states so slow to acknowledge the source of the threat and act accordingly? All the first reported cases of infection, in Thailand (January 13), Singapore (January 23), Vietnam (January 23) or Malaysia (January 25) were people from or having made a recent stop-over in Wuhan. Considering the porous borders and transport connectivity in this part of Asia, why was there no discussion nor formal decision to act and cut the transmission lines of the virus before the largescale arrivals due for the Lunar New Year? Flights from Wuhan were maintained (until early February in Indonesia, for instance). Everywhere in the region, from Davao to Mandalay through Surakarta, celebrations, night markets, and Lion or Dragon Dance performances for local communities as well as tourists were confirmed to celebrate the Year of the Metal Rat. Hotels were ready to welcome the thousands of Chinese tourists that typically visit Southeast Asia during this special time of the year. It was business as usual despite the flow of alarming news coming from Hubei province about an exponential rise of daily cases. Why did nobody publicly question the repercussions of this health crisis on their domestic safety?

Was it because no one had any interest in spoiling the fun and undermining the consumption surge usually associated with the celebrations? Very probably: The substantial revenues from tourists took precedence over other objectives. But some complementary explanations might be suggested, enlightening the very implicit, yet sophisticated, way Chinese leaders exert authority on a region they consider as their backyard through protocols, diplomatic messaging, and vocabulary lauding Chinese prestige and its ability to fight, as well as through measures to control badmouthing and resentment over China on social media.

Southeast Asia and Chinese Rules

The first rule is not to displease or bother China, notably when it is facing a critical period (in this case, during its efforts in tackling the virus). No one summarized this mindset better than an effusive Hun Sen when the Cambodian prime minister declared during his highly symbolic visit to Beijing on February 2  that “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” And even if no one else expressed support to the Chinese leadership so bluntly, most Southeast Asian leaders complimented President Xi Jingping’s ability to deal with the adversity in highly reverential and laudable terms. While receiving Xi in Naypyidaw on January 18, Aung San Suu Kyi deliberately ignored the topic of the new virus so as not to put her guest in a delicate position and cast a shadow over the meeting. Some days later, however, Myanmar President U Win Myint sent a message of support to Xi Jinping, praising the merits of “Xi’s able leadership and those of China’s advanced medical technology.” In a phone conversation with China’s president on February 13, then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad congratulated Xi for his “great efforts.” Singaporean President Halimah Yaacob commended Xi’s “decisive measures” while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong applauded “China’s firm and decisive response.”

For sure, China’s leadership did a great job in confronting the virus from late January on, but to focus only on those efforts exempts the Chinese leadership of responsibility for its initially botched answer, silences debate over questionable measures, and may also have contributed to a false sense of security in Southeast Asia, delaying rational decisions for dealing with the severity of the virus’ spread. Despite alarms, it was not before Wuhan’s lockdown (and even six days after) that Southeast Asian States imposed first travel restrictions from Hubei, to be further extended to the rest of China. Only Vietnam and Singapore, remembering the traumatic experience that occurred with the SARS outbreak of 2002-03, opted for decisive action, blocking entry not only for passengers coming from Wuhan but for all visitors who had been to China in the last 14 days. Furthermore, Singapore began to implement tracking of 2 000 people with a history of travel to Hubei.

The second rule is a fear of retaliation. “China will recognize its friends” could summarize the mindset of Chinese diplomacy. Those who offered “friendly understanding, support, and help” to China during the crisis will probably be granted special advantages, for instance. What appears clearly from official declarations is that most countries within Southeast Asia have been asked to consider the “negative impact” on investment and the economy before taking such measures as a travel ban. Chinese ambassador to Indonesia Xiao Qian declared “in this situation, we need to be calm. Don’t overreact and cause a negative impact on investment and the economy.”

Some evidence of a response to potential economic coercion was incidentally given by Southeast Asian officials. The most explicit demonstration was to be found in the Philippines during a debate at the Parliament. The health secretary, Francisco Duque, refused to deny Chinese tourists’ entry to the country because he thought “diplomatic relations with China might sour as a result and there will be serious political and diplomatic repercussions.” He further explained that “if we do this, then the concerned country – China in this case – might question why we’re not doing the same for all other countries that have reported cases of the new coronavirus. It’s very tricky.” Such concerns were undoubtedly shared by other governments.

The Promotion of China’s Narrative in Southeast Asia

Although China posed a threat to Southeast Asia by mishandling the initial outbreak of the crisis, no blame was publicly expressed in the region. As a matter of principle, the very question was perceived as nonsense: “Why would we need to be afraid of tiger’s dung since we are not scared of the tiger?” asked Hun Sen. To challenge China over COVID-19 was not even allowed, as many social media posts were censored under the pretext of fake news laws to avoid an uptick in China-bashing and potential discrimination toward Chinese communities. But wasn’t “fake news and rumors” the precise term used by Chinese authorities to silence those trying to raise the alarm in Wuhan?

The same process we saw in China may happen in Southeast Asia (except that most Southeast Asian countries have limited health capabilities to respond to a pandemic): angry voices emanating from civil society toward governments that have failed to take strong action to fight the virus (in a bid not to offend China, among other reasons) may end up in jails for “subversion” or being sued with repressive methods on charges of conspiracy or incitement. It is a concern in Thailand, where Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared a state of emergency and also in the Philippines after the Congress passed the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” on March 24, giving President Rodrigo Duterte broad emergency power to contain the virus for the next three months. Section 6 (6) of the Act makes the government “the arbiter of what is true or false” – a near copy-paste of China’s stance. That’s also a worrisome trend after the thousands of killings in Duterte’s war on drugs.

Can Southeast Asia still contradict China? The question seems justified as we observe the support and promotion of China’s propaganda narrative, with no doubt nor questions allowed. Some countries are even showing a strong commitment to follow Beijing’s path in fighting this unprecedented crisis with disinformation tools if necessary. The attempt to rewrite the story to China’s advantage, to praise the Chinese way of tackling the pandemic (implicitly suggesting that authoritarian regimes are better equipped to defend their people than messy democracies, deliberately ignoring the examples of Taiwan or South Korea) or to accuse the United States and the Western world of creating and spreading the virus (as former Chinese Ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian suggested) is familiar to those who know the efficiency of China’s propaganda apparatus. Xinhua News Agency is no less active in this global battle over public opinion: it has been promoting the book “A Battle Against Epidemic,” a panegyric to Xi’s exceptional handling of the crisis.

This propaganda machinery had long been targeting Chinese public opinion; it now has broader ambitions and needs some communication relays. The support of allies to defend “China’s truth” is therefore appreciated. Some countries were bolder than others. Thailand was first to blame “dirty Caucasian tourists” for infecting Thailand “because they don’t shower and do not wear masks,” according to the declarations of Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul. Hun Sen, who visited Beijing in early February to showcase “unbreakable friendship and mutual trust,” welcomed the MS Westerdam cruise ship as another demonstration of support to China as “steadfast friends.” In his presidential address on March 12, Duterte reminded his fellow citizens that “Chinese President Xi Jinping was ready to help and all we have to do is ask… so the Chinese government, the people, especially to President Xi, thank you for the consoling words.” In an interview with Fareed Zakaria on March 29, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong said that “blaming China for the spread of the COVID 19 pandemic is unfair,” adding, “It’s most constructive now… to look ahead and to make up.” For sure, the whole world is expecting cooperative solutions but if the condition of success is to twist reality “the Chinese way,” it may add to the difficulty of finding a constructive global solution to the pandemic.

Lastly, the Vientiane ASEAN-China declaration of February 20, emphasizing solidarity and the long-standing tradition of helping each other in difficult times, is another case in point. ASEAN member-states adopted different responses and opted for bilateral cooperation at best; ASEAN institutions convened meetings without concrete output or potential implementation since bureaucracies are quarantined. The one meeting with China was – and still is – the most publicized, benefiting from the cancellation of the 36th ASEAN Summit and of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit. By stressing assistance at all levels and the sharing of best practices through cooperative mechanisms, China succeeds in bringing ASEAN member-states closer than they themselves have actually achieved.

The game is not over but what the coronavirus crisis demonstrated is that Southeast Asia is inching closer to the Chinese system via little, imperceptible keystrokes. The big picture is showing a region that has learned to manage its giant neighbour, but at its own risks.

A crucial question has yet to be answered. Many interviews in Southeast Asia allude to the lack of trust when dealing with China. Will this crisis transform or deepen this feeling? Even if it is premature to take a position, since the spread has certainly not hit its maximum, it is a question worth asking. The real test has yet to come.

Sophie Boisseau du Rocher is Senior Research Fellow at Center for Asian Studies, IFRI (French Institute of International Relations), Paris.