Many observers have discussed how China is using its COVID-19 medical aid as a means to improve its soft power, or even to exert geopolitical control overseas. A recent poll of Southeast Asian states might suggest a more mixed picture: While most Southeast Asian countries acknowledged that their powerful neighbor has contributed the most to the region in coping with the pandemic, the very same poll also showed that China’s image has actually deteriorated in the region over the past year.
The State of Southeast Asia 2021 poll, conducted by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on regional economic and political elites, found that a whopping 44.2 percent of the respondents considered China to have “provided the most help to the region for Covid-19,” with Japan, the EU, and the U.S. trailing far behind. Nevertheless, the respondents appear to be skeptical toward China’s prowess in the region. While China is considered by a comfortable majority to be the most influential economic and strategic-political power in the region, more than 70 percent of the respondents consider that to be worrisome. When faced with a binary choice between the United States and China, only 38.5 percent of the respondents preferred China over the U.S., down from 46.4 percent last year, and only three out of 10 countries retained a pro-China majority, down from seven last year. Especially with regards to the South China Sea, 62.4 percent of the respondents see China’s military build-up as a top concern, while only 12.5 percent feel the same way regarding the U.S. presence.
What might explain this discrepancy? One factor might be the timing of the survey. The survey was conducted in November 2020, by which time many of the Southeast Asian countries had kept the virus under control. By this point, China’s “mask diplomacy” in the earlier days of the pandemic still left a profound impression, but factored less in the respondents’ general impression of the country. The pandemic has since moved onto the vaccine stage, and multiple countries – including China, the U.S., India and Russia – are competing on level playing ground over vaccine provision, which has become highly politicized. While China promised to prioritize Mekong countries in vaccine provision as early as August last year, and pledged millions of coronavirus vaccine donations to Southeast Asian countries either bilaterally or through the WHO Covax scheme, the general public in the region are now scrutinizing issues such as the diversification of vaccine provision, avoiding being used as experimental objects, and cost-effectiveness of the vaccines.
Most importantly, against the backdrop of heightened U.S.-China tensions last year and the region’s role as one of the major battlegrounds in the rift between United States and China, Southeast Asians are worried about the prospective that vaccines might be used as a way to exert influence. This might have brought more scrutiny to Chinese vaccines, which are cheaper, but mainly are produced by the state-owned companies like Sinopharm, as opposed to private companies like Pfizer and AstraZeneca. While the state backing of Chinese vaccines means that they can be delivered more efficiently through central planning, it also strengthens the image of a connection between vaccines and China’s national security and interests, and does little to alleviate Southeast Asians’ distrust over China’s possible infringements of sovereignty, which hit a record high at 63 percent in the 2021 ISEAS survey.
The politicized nature of the vaccine issue also makes China’s vaccine a convenient tool conflated with domestic politics and nationalism as well. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decision to vaccinate his country’s population with 600,000 donated Sinopharm vaccines has sparked some public concerns, which he sought to assuage by asking Cambodians to disregard the origins of the vaccine. Thailand’s decision to withdraw from Covax and rely mostly on Sinovac’s vaccines is also controversial, especially against the backdrop of the ongoing anti-governmental protests. In a recent panel on China’s vaccine diplomacy, a Vietnamese expert also expressed concerns over how to reconcile Vietnam’s domestic anti-China sentiment with inoculating its population with Chinese vaccines.
However, it is still too early to rush to a conclusion on whether China’s COVID-19 diplomacy has been successful or not in Southeast Asia. For one, the Chinese government itself has refrained from using terms such as “vaccine diplomacy” and instead stressed the humanitarian nature of its global assistance efforts. That makes it difficult to assess what China’s agenda is in the first place, especially given that curbing the pandemic in neighboring countries is also beneficial for China itself. And even if extending global influence is one of China’s considerations, while China’s image in the region might not have improved in the past year, it has maintained a steady lead in terms of regional influence and acknowledgement for its regional contribution to fighting COVID-19.
Moreover, the respondent composition of the ISEAS survey has always been fluid, and leaves some confounding variables, such as respondents’ political leanings, unaddressed. It may not have presented the whole picture, given the disproportionately high representation of respondents from Singapore and Myanmar, and low representation from Vietnam and Indonesia. The fact that the survey was conducted two weeks after Biden was elected U.S. president meant that respondents were still in an optimistic post-election mood about the effectivity of a U.S. comeback to balance China in the region, which might distort the results especially regarding U.S.-China comparisons. Therefore it is important not to overinterpret its results, especially with regards to cross-time comparisons.
Most importantly, while the world watched in dismay last year as China and the United States exchanged animosity over COVID-19, the Biden administration has promised more international cooperation to address the pandemic, including working with China. Under this scenario, China’s aid efforts are less likely to be perceived as a bilateral issue, but more as part of an international effort against the common enemy of COVID-19. Southeast Asian countries are also less likely to face the binary choices they dread, which is also problematic for Beijing since it amplifies Southeast Asia’s threat perception as a result of geographic proximity and territorial disputes. If this scenario pans out, hopefully we can see global governance restored as a stabilizing buffer zone between Beijing and Washington, which is clearly in the interests of all parties involved.
Yang Lizhong is a research assistant at Intellisia Institute.
Chen Dingding is the founder and president of Intellisia Institute, an independent think tank in Guangzhou, China.