On January 13, 2021, Indonesian President Joko Widodo sat, sleeves rolled up, receiving his first dose of the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine, proudly displaying the packaging to a live TV audience. Chinese vaccines arrived in Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia at a moment of great need: medically, socially, and economically. They came at a moment when the region’s leaders needed to demonstrate they had a plan for the gathering crisis. And China delivered.
The Pandemic: China’s Opportunity
The global pandemic, which began when the virus causing COVID-19 spread beyond China’s borders, could have been a disaster for Beijing’s influence with regional governments. But China found opportunity in adversity. It acted to meet the region’s needs through broad diplomatic and material support, looking outward while the U.S. and its allies were mostly looking inward. China’s ability to respond early, to craft a resonant message, to maintain trade flows, and to show up in person created favorable impressions that have persisted even as the U.S. and others catch up.
First, China was willing to provide medical assistance and vaccines in large numbers while the U.S. and its partners were prioritizing domestic needs. China was the first country to deliver vaccines to hard-hit Southeast Asia, having donated more than 7 million doses across nine Southeast Asian countries by the time the first donation from the U.S. was delivered in July 2021 (Bridge Consulting and the Kaiser Family Foundation provided vaccine tracking data on China and the United States, respectively).
Second, Beijing simultaneously launched an intensive, well-coordinated propaganda campaign using both traditional and social media to portray itself as a “responsible” great power acting with Southeast Asia in a shared battle against the pandemic.
Third, China’s economy helped attenuate Southeast Asia’s painful pandemic-induced recession. In 2020 and 2021, China’s ability to keep its economy open to meet high demand from the U.S. and Europe, especially for electronic goods, fueled strong trade growth and helped pave Southeast Asia’s road to recovery.
Fourth, while ministers from other countries mostly stayed home, China’s showed up. Chinese ministers and senior officials traveled to the region to hold 32 in-person meetings and received Southeast Asian ministers on 23 occasions, including twice in Beijing. In contrast to China’s active diplomacy, the U.S. looked like a bystander.
Today, as Southeast Asia learns to live with COVID-19, some of the gloss has come off Chinese pandemic diplomacy. The lower effectiveness of Chinese vaccines is now clear, as it the fact that over 90 percent of Chinese vaccines to the region were sold rather than donated. The U.S. has overtaken China in providing vaccine donations. And China’s “zero-COVID” policy has hindered both trade and in-person diplomacy and exchanges.
Yet Southeast Asia remembers who was there when it counted. Asked in late 2021, 58 percent of a sample of government, business, and civil society leaders in Southeast Asia rated China’s vaccine support to the region as the highest. Only 23 percent picked the United States. The reward for jumping quickly off the mark seems higher than that for maintaining a steady upward pace.
A Trend Favoring China
Not everything worked for China across the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. Constraining factors on China’s influence in this period included its heavy-handed assertion of maritime claims in the South China Sea, its propensity to over-sell and under-deliver on infrastructure projects, low public trust in China, and ingrained wariness of China in some institutions of state, especially militaries.
Still, China’s natural advantages and regional prioritization mean its influence with Southeast Asia will continue to grow relative to other major partners. Some experts from Southeast Asia warned against assuming that growing Chinese influence would fatally undermine the region’s “automatic and deeply ingrained” instinct for preserving its autonomy. But others were more worried, arguing that “the space for Southeast Asian agency is slowly closing in.”
The risk, perhaps, is less that Southeast Asia will swing decisively to China and more that the region will increasingly accommodate, and defer to, China’s interests. In such a future, we would see more attempts by China to block or limit Southeast Asian cooperation with other parties that Beijing sees as inimical to its interests.
China already routinely employs this strategy, albeit with mixed success. Examples include its pre-election warnings to the Philippines on relations with the U.S., attempts to limit the involvement of third parties in South China Sea Code of Conduct negotiations, and efforts to discourage Southeast Asian countries from signing up to the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
The Lessons for the United States and Partners
The current strategy of the United States and its close partners in Southeast Asia is to help support regional autonomy and resilience, including by providing options for trade, investment, infrastructure, aid, education, and security cooperation. This remains the best, perhaps the only viable, response to rising Chinese influence.
The U.S. and its partners have some advantages and new momentum. Japan’s engagement across the region remains deep and well-respected. Both the Biden administration and the recently elected Australian Labor government are delivering new Southeast Asia initiatives and working to up their game.
The challenge is to drive as many concrete deliverables into the strategy as possible, and to make sure these deliverables receive equal visibility to China’s efforts. Reviewing China’s successes across the early pandemic period offers lessons that can shape these policy choices.
A first and obvious lesson is that the U.S. and its partners simply cannot afford to be missing in action when the next crisis hits, whatever form that takes.
There is also no substitute for a high tempo of political engagement and visits, as hard as this pace is to sustain in busy democracies. Personal diplomacy is essential. Getting the basics right also means focusing on the whole region, not just countries like Vietnam or Singapore that are favored from an Indo-Pacific strategy perspective. Narratives matter; stressing shared principles, like the inviolability of sovereignty, is a better approach than arguing that democracies are superior to autocracies.
Southeast Asia’s highest priority is economic recovery. Trying to compete with China on traditional infrastructure is a poor approach, especially when the region needs help in areas where the U.S. and partners have comparative advantages, such as supporting Southeast Asia’s very challenging clean energy transition (as the G-7 seeks to do), building human capital, and deepening Southeast Asia’s burgeoning digital economy.
China invests heavily in programs to influence elites, such as sponsored visits, media training and exchanges, political party outreach, and scholarships. The U.S. and its partners are responding, including with new or boosted soft power and people-to-people programs. In some areas, such as sponsored visits for officials and short-term professional training, a Quad initiative would add to these endeavors on a scale that matches China at a time when zero-COVID complicates China’s own programs.
Finally, the pandemic years demonstrate that China is winning the information war in Southeast Asia. Turning back the flooding tide of Chinese news content and propaganda is all but impossible, but the U.S. and close partners like Australia and Japan need to find ways of engaging in the information space in Southeast Asia. The intent should not be to attack China but to counter disinformation, better sell the allied contribution to regional prosperity and security, and promote a positive vision of regional order.