Asian Insider: Will new Covid-19 wave swamp South-east Asia | Staying neutral in US-China tussle

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents and commentators.

Dear ST reader, 

We hope you’ve been keeping well. 

In our Asian Insider newsletter this week, we examine the fresh wave of coronavirus infections that is straining healthcare resources and crippling livelihoods in South-east Asia. We also bring you fresh insights from our webinar on the US-China power play and how Asean needs to stay neutral in the tussle.

Reading this on the web or know someone who might enjoy receiving Asian Insider? Our sign-up page is here.

Will the fresh wave swamp South-east Asia?

A fresh wave of Covid-19 infections has hit South-east Asia, fuelled by more virulent variants, slow vaccinations and lax controls. Our correspondents in the region speak to the experts, who warn the explosion of cases could overwhelm poorer countries and lead to grim scenarios already playing out in India and Nepal. 

In Malaysia, new daily cases continue to chart record-highs at over 7,000 infections, with its per capita daily figures already surpassing India's. Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh explores how the government’s balancing act between protecting lives and livelihoods has gone awry.

Read more: Covid-19 lockdowns weigh on South-east Asia's economic outlook

From hero to zero

Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam were once poster children for Asia's Covid-19 fight, as they kept the pandemic under control for most of last year. But a recent surge of cases has blemished that record. Our correspondents look at what went wrong and the next steps to tackle the new wave.

Follow all the stories from our weekly ST Asian Insider packages here

Vaccine diplomacy

The world is crying out for moral leadership in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, writes ST columnist Lydia Lim, as poorer countries struggle to gain access while wealthier nations squabble over and stockpile supply. Richer countries should go beyond just shielding themselves from the virus, she says, because infectious diseases do not respect borders.

Meanwhile South Korea recently furthered its ambition to become a global vaccine hub when it inked vaccine partnership deals with the US. But even Seoul could not persuade Washington to release some of its vaccine surplus to speed up inoculations in the Asian country, writes South Korea correspondent Chang May Choon. 

Read more: Asean leaders make a plea for equitable access to vaccines at Nikkei conference

Staying neutral as US-China tensions rise

Asean unity and neutrality are key to the regional bloc’s role as convenor of regional processes, giving it a vital edge amid rising US-China tensions, Singapore's ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh told a Straits Times Connect webinar on Tuesday. He was discussing the latest developments on the two superpowers’ rivalry, with US correspondent Charissa Yong and China correspondent Danson Cheong, anchor writers for our Power Play series. Read more on the discussion here.

Tired of reading? Listen instead to our podcast on how US-China rivalry can save the planet.

Can China tread more delicately in Sri Lanka?

China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka is building up to be a geopolitical flashpoint, writes associate editor Ravi Velloor, as he delves into the infrastructure investments and signage gaffes which have roused fears the South Asian island is turning into a Chinese enclave and running up a huge debt to Beijing.

China’s tech tycoons step down amid shakeup

Chinese tech tycoons Zhang Yiming, founder and CEO of Bytedance, and Colin Huang, chairman of e-commerce giant Pinduoduo, have quit their posts, sparking concern they have been spooked by Beijing’s move to regulate the sector. While some analysts say stricter rules would reduce risk and root out anti-competitive behaviour, others tell global affairs correspondent Goh Sui Noi that regulation may hamper innovation and growth.

Thai drama stirs up feminist debate

A TV adaptation of a traditional Thai tale has sparked a feminist debate in the conservative country, writes Indochina bureau chief Tan Hui Yee, with audiences divided on whether the heroine’s portrayal supports gender equality or conforms to patriarchal norms. The series has echoes in real life, where Thai women score well in health and educational attainment, but poorly in political empowerment.

Read more Letters from the Bureau.
 

That’s it for today. Until next week, keep safe and keep reading! 
 

Lim Ai Leen 

Deputy Foreign Editor