This September 21, 2017 photo shows an employee of Essar Ports, India’s second largest private port operator, in the berthing area of the Vizag Terminal in Vishakhapatnam. (Photo: Indranil Mukherjee, AFP)

ASEAN and Covid-19: Sandwiched Between Two Giants

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ASEAN has found itself in a battle of narratives between China and the United States, as they seek to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. The question is how long the grouping can continue to get the best of both worlds when it comes to major power attention.

The video conference between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his ASEAN counterparts on 23 April was as much about ASEAN-US cooperation as it was about major power contest in a time of the Covid-19 pandemic. While fighting the pandemic was high on the agenda, both sides also took this opportunity to put across their geopolitical signals, with China being the elephant in the room. 

Speaking at the meeting, Pompeo called for full and transparent information sharing on Covid-19, saying that “transparency saves lives; suppression puts them at risk.” His message is part of Washington’s diplomatic counter-offensive to hold China to account for its transparency failures. Washington has accused Beijing of suppressing information not only about the coronavirus in the first place but also the extent of its severity later on. 

This battle of narratives between the US and China is being felt acutely in ASEAN. In his Jakarta Post article titled “China returns favour, helps ASEAN” on 30 March, Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN Deng Xijun publicised his country’s medical supplies assistance to some ASEAN countries. He stressed that China has risen “to fulfill its duties as a major and responsible country.” In turn, the envoy criticised “ulterior motives” that “link the novel coronavirus to China and stigmatize China non-stop”. Coincidentally or not, the US State Department released a fact sheet of US contributions the following day, including US$18.3 million emergency funding, for ASEAN member countries to fight the pandemic. The figure has been subsequently increased to US$35.3 million. 

In terms of diplomatic engagement, both major powers were quick to tick the ASEAN box even as they are preoccupied with fighting Covid-19 at home. China has been one step ahead with the convening of the ASEAN-China foreign ministers meeting in February, and video conferences among the ASEAN Plus Three health ministers and leaders in early April. The US has played catch-up with Pompeo’s meeting with his ASEAN counterparts, and a forthcoming ASEAN-US health ministers’ teleconference.

While China is taking tentative steps towards post-pandemic recovery, the US remains engulfed in an unprecedented public health crisis that has claimed more than 59,000 American lives. Beijing therefore has a freer hand to step up propaganda to rebuild its tarnished image following the coronavirus’s onset in Wuhan. As the global manufacturing hub, China is better positioned to deliver critically needed medical supplies to cope with Covid-19. China’s “mask diplomacy” has literally reached the ASEAN Secretariat with the donation of surgical masks, hand sanitisers, and infrared thermometers, to its staff. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently announced that China would further provide 100 million masks, 10 million sets of personal protective equipment and other medical supplies to ASEAN countries, through both “grant assistance and commercial channels”. 

China’s acts of benevolence should be taken with a pinch of salt, even if one takes as a given that such acts seek to score political points at home and abroad for Beijing. Many Chinese medical supplies have been found to be sub-standard, including test kits sent to the Philippines and Malaysia. China’s propaganda is ambivalent about whether such medical supplies are government donations or for commercial sale, hence blurring the lines between Chinese pandemic humanitarianism and mercantilism. 

Whereas China can rely on big numbers of medical supplies to bring ASEAN on board its Health Silk Road, America is promoting its “high-quality, effective Covid-19 aid”. This leverages on its decades-long record of supporting international organisations and ASEAN countries on health issues, and its niche strengths in health research and human capital development. However, the US-ASEAN Health Futures initiative announced by Pompeo at the meeting is scanty in the detail. To move forward, Washington must deliver more than just retrospective tabulations. The US can accrue more diplomatic mileage if it pledges support for the Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund and ASEAN’s future medical supplies reserve. 

China’s acts of benevolence should be taken with a pinch of salt, even if one takes as a given that such acts seek to score political points at home and abroad for Beijing.

Having extended to a pandemic information war, the US-China geopolitical contest continues unabated in traditional domains. At the meeting, Pompeo called out China’s recent aggressive moves in the South China Sea and China’s upstream dam operations on the Mekong River, which he said has catastrophic results downstream. His direct criticism of Beijing was echoed, albeit more softly, by similar concerns expressed Vietnam and the Philippines. Such sentiments are noted in the co-chairs’ statement about the meeting. The statement “recognized views expressed on the immediate need to focus on the fight against Covid-19, while promoting trust, confidence, dialogue and cooperation to maintain peace, security, stability and the rule of law in the region”. While this is a statement of principle, the language is not one of consensus. In fact, it underscores the tenuous nature of ASEAN unity on the South China Sea issue and in the face of deepening US-China rivalry. 

ASEAN is actively engaging both Beijing and Washington to secure their support for the region in coping with Covid-19, in the absence of collective US-China global response to the ongoing pandemic. Instead of bringing America and China closer, the pandemic is driving them further apart; hence, the question as to how long ASEAN can still get the best of both worlds. It is hard to tell. For now, ASEAN’s inclination to keep the regional order open and inclusive continues to hold. The grouping is also embracing multi-directional diplomacy with other Dialogue Partners – including the European Union, Japan, South Korea and Australia – to expand its horizons and opportunities. Hopefully, this open-mindedness will put ASEAN member states in good stead when it comes to turning current disruptions into post-pandemic opportunities. 

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