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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


China’s ‘Coronavirus
Diplomacy’ and Southeast Asia
Carlyle A. Thayer
April 4, 2020

We request your response to some questions related to the topic ‘China and health
diplomacy in Southeast Asia in the context of Covid-19.’
Q1. How does China implement health diplomacy in Southeast Asia in the context of
Covid-19? Is this an opportunity for China?
- support Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia: is it related to the situation of the
South China Sea?
- support Cambodia, Laos and Thailand: is it related to the Belt and Road
initiative (BRI)?
- the ASEAN-China special session on COVID-19: is it possible to compete for
influence with the US?
- does China intend to support Vietnam?
ANSWER: After the outbreak of the Novel COVID-19 in Wuhan became public, China
seized the initiative to change the international media narrative that it was
responsible for the global spread of the virus. Chinese officials and propaganda organs
went into overdrive to stress that China had successfully contained the virus and China
would provide leadership and material support to countries affected by COVID-19.
China’s ‘coronavirus diplomacy’ towards its nearest neighbours has taken both
multilateral and bilateral forms. In February, China attended two important meetings.
The first meeting comprised ministers responsible for public health from the ASEAN
Plus Three countries, China, Japan and South Korea. The second meeting comprised
the foreign ministers of ASEAN and China. This meeting issued a Joint Statement
containing nine points of cooperation to address the coronavirus pandemic.
China’s ‘public health diplomacy’ also involved the dispatch of medical specialists as
well as medical supplies and equipment to Southeast Asian countries affected by
COVID-19. In addition, the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba also contributed medical
supplies to affected countries. According to media reports, China donated medical
supplies and equipment to over eighty countries including Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos,
Myanmar, Philippines, and Thailand. China is currently considering providing similar
aid to Brunei and Malaysia.
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Notably, Vietnam has not been included although it was quick to donate face masks
to China. It was only on 2 April that Premier Li Keqiang announced that China was
ready “to provide necessary help and support within its capacity” to Vietnam.
China has multiple motivations for its ‘coronavirus diplomacy’. The first motivation is
to overcome international criticism that Beijing responded too slowly to COVID-19 and
was not transparent in reporting the seriousness of the matter. Chinese diplomats put
pressure on individual countries to issue statements supporting China or, failing that,
to withhold criticism of China.
Beijing’s second motivation is to minimize the negative impact of the coronavirus on
China and its economic relations with its neighbours such as travel restrictions,
disruptions to the supply chain, and tourism.
China’s third motivation is to promote its global leadership while the United States
under President Trump has turned inward. For example, China is providing medical
equipment and supplies to Italy, Spain and other European countries.
Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to depressing China’s economic
growth that was already in decline partly due to its tariff war with the United States.
China’s faltering economic growth also means that it has less resources to support its
Belt and Road Initiative in the near term.
China is ahead of the curve in dealing with COVID-19. Tight restrictions on domestic
movement are being relaxed and there are signs that the Chinese economy is
recovering. This means China will be in a better position to support global economic
recovery than countries still affected by COVID-19.
China’s ‘coronavirus diplomacy’ is indirectly related to maritime disputes with
claimant states in the South China Sea. China does not want to appear weak at this
particular time. Therefore, China has responded to stepped up U.S. Navy freedom of
navigation operational patrols and other U.S. Navy operations by conducting an anti-
submarine warfare exercise and separate flight operations from the Liaoning aircraft
carrier in the South China Sea.
Otherwise it is ‘business-as-usual’ for the China Coast Guard and other Chinese
maritime vessels. They continue to maintain their presence in disputed waters in
order to assert China’s claim to indisputable sovereignty. Incidents that occur – such
as the recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat – are more likely to be the result of
China’s long-standing policy of sovereignty assertion than an opportunistic response
to the impact of the coronavirus on claimant states.
Q2. What results does China want to achieve through medical diplomacy in the
context of Covid-19?
- about US-China strategic competition;
- on the South China Sea dispute (pleasing disputed countries, distracting
public opinion at the same time carrying out construction activities on artificial
islands);
- about the Belt and Road initiative.
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ANSWER: China seeks to achieve two strategic objectives through its ‘coronavirus
diplomacy’. First, China wants to demonstrate its scientific and technological
competence in bringing the COVID-19 pandemic under control and offer its model to
other states that are affected by the virus.
Second, China wants to demonstrate its global leadership at the expense of the United
States. China reacted strongly when President Trump and officials in his
Administration used such terms as ‘Wuhan virus’ and ‘China virus’. President Xi Jin-
ping played the role of statesman in a recent telephone conversation with President
Trump by urging joint cooperation in dealing with the coronavirus. China has also
enhanced its image as a global problem solver by selling medical equipment such as
face masks and ventilators to the United States and other countries.
Foreign observers have noted the rise of nationalism in China and renewed support
for Xi Jin-ping’s leadership as a result of the successful containment of the coronavirus.
Thus, resolute action in the South China Sea to defend Chinese sovereignty enhances
the legitimacy of the Xi regime.
China’s ambitious Belt and Roan Initiative (BRI) will slow in the short term due to
China’s declining economic growth and disruption in BRI recipient countries due to
COVID-19. It is in China’s interest to get its domestic economy functioning and to
revive disrupted supply chains. While it is likely that many BRI projects will be scaled
back China will continue to pursue its BRI ambitions.
Q3. What is ASEAN's dependence on China in the context of Covid-19? Is China's
support substantial or symbolic ?
-What and where does ASEAN need to mobilize to overcome Covid-19?
ANSWER: China and ASEAN have long cooperated in dealing with public health
matters because of their shared land borders and geographical closeness. Quite
clearly China has self-interests at stake. China needs ASEAN states to recover from
the coronavirus so supply chains and travel restrictions on Chinese workers and
tourists return to normal.
Chinese material assistance to ASEAN states in response to COVID-19 is important
because they all suffer from a shortage of medical supplies and equipment to deal
with the coronavirus. But having said this, Chinese medical assistance is not sufficient
to mark a turning point in the struggle against COVID-19. In this sense, Chinese aid
should be viewed as a highly symbolic demonstration of solidarity. After all, several
ASEAN states and private institutions have donated face masks and other medical
supplies to China.
The response to the coronavirus by ASEAN members has been on a national basis. For
example, travel restrictions and border closures were implemented in a piecemeal
fashion. ASEAN as a multilateral institution has not yet fashioned a coherent regional
approach.
ASEAN needs adopt a regional approach to such issues as treatment of labourers
stranded outside their home country, reciprocal medical treatment for ASEAN citizens
working or studying in another ASEAN country, and coordination of travel policy (air,
rail, over land and sea).
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Q4. How does China's medical diplomacy affect the regional situation?
- relations of ASEAN countries with China;
- in resolving the South China Sea dispute, BRI;
- in US-China strategic competition.
ANSWER: Because the United States is the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, and
because the U.S. will be holding a national election in November, it will be internally
focused for the remainder of the year. Organizing an ASEAN-U.S. Leaders’ Meeting
this year appears highly unlikely.
China’s ‘coronavirus diplomacy’ has demonstrated that China’s engagement in
Southeast Asian affairs has become more important because of the vacuum created
by a lack of United States leadership. China will be viewed as a constructive player in
ASEAN’s multilateral setting, while the U.S. will be viewed as a country only looking
after its interests through transactional diplomacy.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown ASEAN’s heavy schedule of meetings across all
sectors into disarray. The 36th ASEAN Summit, for example, has been postponed to
June.This disruption means that the implementation of ASEAN’s programs of
community-building, connectivity etc. will slow and that planned new initiatives will
be delayed or postponed.
China will take advantage of the hiatus in U.S.-ASEAN relations opportunistically by
pressing ASEAN members to cooperate even more closely not only to deal with COVID-
19 but to plan for post-pandemic recovery.
Q5. What does Vietnam need to do?
- to mobilize support against Covid-19;
- lesson in relationship with China (be alert or request assistance);
- as ASEAN chairman: helping ASEAN overcome COVID-19 (Philippines is
requesting ASEAN to support rice ...).
ANSWER: First, Vietnam must successfully contain the coronavirus at home so the
economy can be revived.
Second, Vietnam must take advantage of the opportunities to welcome the relocation
of foreign manufacturing industries from China and to encourage more foreign
investment in Vietnam.
Third, Vietnam must move forward to embrace the 4th Industrial Revolution and
reorganise domestic enterprises to take advantage of new technologies. The
coronavirus pandemic led many people to work at home. What are the lessons
learned that can be adopted to improve productivity post-coronavirus?
Fourth, as ASEAN Chair, Vietnam must also give priority to a whole-of-ASEAN response
to the coronavirus pandemic and coordination with ASEAN’s dialogue partners. This
involves perfecting policy responses and implementation. This will be a test case in
meeting one of Vietnam’s main objectives as ASEAN Chair: ‘increasing ASEAN’s
institutional capacity and effectiveness’.
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At the same time, Vietnam has to work with relevant international institutions like the
World Health Organisation.
Vietnam and China have sufficient bilateral mechanisms under their comprehensive
strategic cooperative partnership, especially the Joint Steering Committee, to
cooperate and manage issues that arise. Regarding the South China Sea, in 2011 China
and Vietnam adopted the Agreement on the Basic Principles Guiding the Settlement
of Maritime Issues. The key issue here is confidence and trust. Therefore, Vietnam
must continue its policy of “cooperation and struggle” with China.
Additionally, Vietnam, especially as ASEAN Chair, must work doubly hard to enlist the
support of dialogue partners to support ASEAN to restore balance in ASEAN’s relations
with China. The most important priority is to convince President Trump to re-engage
with ASEAN by attending leaders’ meetings and the East Asia Summit.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “China’s ‘Coronavirus Diplomacy’ and Southeast


Asia ,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, April 4, 2020. All background briefs are
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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