COVID-19 SPECIAL: Superpower relations and the region

How South-east Asia views growing US-China power play amid the Covid-19 pandemic

In South-east Asia, the Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated the strategic rivalry of China and the United States. Straits Times correspondents Tan Hui Yee, Shannon Teoh, Raul Dancel, Arlina Arshad and Goh Sui Noi look at how this rivalry is playing out, and the response of countries in the region. Other ST correspondents look at US-China tensions and how Indo-Pacific powers are responding.

(Right) A mask factory in China's Jiangsu province. China and the US seem to be in a contest to provide Covid-19 help, including medical supplies and technical support, to South-east Asia. Malaysian healthcare workers in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is amo
Malaysian healthcare workers in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is among the South-east Asian countries that have received aid from China during the pandemic. PHOTO: EPA–EFE
(Right) A mask factory in China's Jiangsu province. China and the US seem to be in a contest to provide Covid-19 help, including medical supplies and technical support, to South-east Asia. Malaysian healthcare workers in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is amo
Vietnam has tried to balance China’s influence by engaging the United States. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
(Left) Vietnam has tried to balance China's influence by engaging the United States.
A mask factory in China’s Jiangsu province. China and the US seem to be in a contest to provide Covid-19 help, including medical supplies and technical support, to South-east Asia. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

As the coronavirus outbreak in China worsened early in the year, many countries in South-east Asia sent medical supplies to their giant neighbour as a gesture of goodwill and solidarity.

Malaysia sent 18 million gloves in January. The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore donated medical equipment such as masks, hazmat suits, goggles and test kits in February, some dropping off the supplies before picking up their citizens from the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan.

A Thai artist composed a song, Wuhan Press On, while similar words of encouragement were displayed on Thai social media and public places like shopping malls.

During the past month or so, as China brought its outbreak under control and the pandemic spread to the region, Beijing began to repay that kindness as well as repair the damage to its reputation caused by its early blunders in the outbreak. It sent medical supplies and sometimes medical experts to many countries, often with media fanfare.

This Chinese largesse has been received generally with gratitude by the governments, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte singing praises of their donation of test kits, surgical masks, hazmat suits and ventilators. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was no less effusive in giving thanks, saying: "China has been with us from the very beginning, and we sincerely appreciate the assistance rendered by China for Malaysia in our time of need."

Less publicised is the technical and financial support that another major power, the United States, has been providing the region.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has offices in six Asean states and, since the outbreak of Covid-19 in the region, has been providing technical help to these nations in areas such as sample collecting, laboratory testing, surveillance and infection control. Six CDC specialists travelled to Laos, where the CDC does not have an office, to provide epidemiology, surveillance and lab training.

In March, the US announced that it was providing an initial US$18.3 million (S$26 million) in technical and financial support to Asean states to train medical workers and strengthen screening and healthcare systems. Last month, a State Department statement noted that the US had provided US$35 million in emergency funding for Asean states to combat Covid-19.

It would seem that China and the US, strategic rivals in South-east Asia, are in a contest to provide help to the region to combat the pandemic to win hearts and minds.

While such aid is certainly appreciated by the governments and peoples of these countries, much less welcome is the heightened tensions between the two great powers in the South China Sea - as China has acted to consolidate its claims in the contested waters and the US has sought to counter these actions.

China's actions have taken place at a time when the region is battling the pandemic and two aircraft carriers in the US Pacific fleet have been taken out of action because of infections on board.

China has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam in the South China Sea and its recent moves are to consolidate its control over disputed territory, says Dr Chen Gang, assistant director (policy research) at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.

China has also sought to assert its maritime claims in waters near Indonesia's Natuna Islands, which it says are its traditional fishing grounds.

In February, while Covid-19 was still raging within its borders, Chinese fishing boats escorted by the China Coast Guard ventured into waters near the Natunas.

In January, when Chinese fishing boats did the same, Jakarta sent fighter jets and warships to the area and the boats retreated. In February, Jakarta kept silent.

Early last month, a Vietnamese fishing boat with eight crew members sank after a collision with a China Coast Guard ship near the Paracel Islands that are claimed by both China and Vietnam. Hanoi lodged an official protest and, in a rare move, the Philippines expressed concern over the incident as well as solidarity with Hanoi.

Also, last month, a Chinese survey ship, which was embroiled in a stand-off with Vietnamese vessels last year, returned to waters within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone before moving south towards Malaysia. There, flanked by more than 10 vessels, it shadowed a drillship contracted by Malaysian oil firm Petronas in waters claimed by Malaysia, China and Vietnam. This happened just two days after eight Chinese coronavirus experts had arrived in Kuala Lumpur, waving flags and bearing medical aid.

In response to the Chinese move in the South China Sea, the US sent at least two warships to the area, and held drills with Australia in these waters.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Chinese of "exploiting" the global focus on the pandemic by "intimidating other claimants".

Malaysia's own response was measured, with Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein saying the dispute should be resolved peacefully, as "the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations".

But he also thanked Mr Pompeo at an Asean-US Foreign Ministers' videoconference and expressed confidence that "with the partnership between Asean and the US, we will overcome" the pandemic together. This was possibly a veiled reference to the US' help in the South China Sea that allowed Malaysia to focus on fighting the outbreak.


What riled Vietnam and the Philippines enough to protest strongly - in Manila's case, a diplomatic protest - was China's establishment of two administrative districts on the Paracel and Spratly islands, also last month.

These districts, Xisha and Nansha, come under Sansha city that was created in 2012 on Woody Island in the Paracels as China's administrative base for the whole South China Sea area.

The Xisha district encompasses the Paracels and will be run from Woody Island. Nansha district covers the Spratlys and will be run from the disputed Fiery Cross Reef, where China built an artificial island in 2014 and has a military airstrip and military installations.

The US responded to China's actions by conducting two freedom of navigation operations late last month in the South China Sea.

On May 7 and then last Tuesday, it sent littoral combat ships near to the Malaysia-contracted drillship West Capella. But the China-Malaysia stand-off appears to have wound down as Chinese ships tailing the drillship were seen last Wednesday heading in a different direction from the ship, which has completed its scheduled work, according to news reports.

US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt called at Vietnam's port of Da Nang in March, signalling the US' continued interest to seek support or court countries with shared concerns on China's assertiveness in the region, Dr Olli Suorsa, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Vietnam media.

But the antipathy between the two powers extends beyond the South China Sea to continental South-east Asia in the sub-region of riparian states of the Mekong River, which originates in Tibet and courses through south-western China as the Lancang River, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea.

Beijing has long been criticised for holding Mekong countries ransom through the management of its dams upstream.

Last month, a US government-funded study by consulting firm Eyes on Earth caused a stir when it alleged, based on satellite data, that Chinese dams held water back while countries downstream were suffering from drought.

China's project to make the Mekong more navigable for commercial boats, by deepening the river, has also faced intense opposition from locals because it destroys fish spawning grounds.

In February, the Thai government announced it would drop the project entirely.


Yet countries in the region try not to let their disputes with China affect other parts of their relationship with an important neighbour.

So while Vietnam is robust in its defence of its claims in the South China Sea, it is careful not to allow these maritime tensions to spill over into other aspects of its close ties with Beijing.

Since Mr Duterte came to power, the Philippines has mostly put its territorial disputes with China on the back-burner in favour of closer economic ties, although his government has sought to push back at times against Beijing's assertiveness.

The nub of the matter is that the Chinese juggernaut is important to the countries economically. It is Asean's largest trading partner overall and among the top three trading partners for individual members. It is an important investor in the region too, especially since it launched its Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 to build infrastructure in the region and beyond.

People in the region, however, appear to be less enamoured of China than their governments. Polls in the Philippines show three out of four Filipinos distrust the Chinese, while some Indonesians have accused the Chinese of bringing the coronavirus to their country.

When the Chinese Embassy in Manila rolled out on YouTube a music video meant to spotlight China's efforts to help the Philippines curb the spread of the virus, it drew irate responses from Filipinos because the title, One Sea, was seen by many as a subtle reminder that there is just one South China Sea and China owns it.

In Thailand, after the Chinese Embassy uploaded to its Facebook page a Chinese-produced animation mocking the US' response to the pandemic, it drew criticism from Thais, with one calling it "low-grade propaganda".

Chulalongkorn University academic Wasana Wongsurawat says Thais, who oppose the military-backed government, do not buy into the common refrain that China is a good friend of Thailand. They see China more as an ally of the regime, she says.

Some of the disaffection is economic. Fishermen resent being pushed out of their fishing grounds by the Chinese, while small and medium-sized business owners are unhappy with cheap Chinese goods crowding out theirs.

The penchant of Chinese companies to bring in their own workers also creates unhappiness. In March, a clash reportedly broke out between protesters and security forces in Sulawesi, Indonesia, over the arrival of 49 Chinese workers at a nickel refining mine in the south-east corner of the island.

Despite the governments' geopolitical anxiety and their people's grouses, however, China's clout in the region is not about to diminish.

Indeed, the Economist Intelligence Unit said in a report on geopolitics after Covid-19 that China is likely to emerge from the crisis as a bigger global player in political as well as economic terms. This is despite the expected backlash from its rivals in the US and Europe.


States in the region have sought to strike a balance between China and the US, as well as regional powers such as Japan and India.

Vietnam, for example, carefully calibrates its interaction with Washington while keeping an eye on Beijing's interaction, wrote ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Le Hong Hiep in March when the USS Theodore Roosevelt called there.

Its decision to receive the aircraft carrier amid intensifying US-China rivalry indicates Vietnam's strategic autonomy and helps it "send consistent signals to both great powers", said Dr Hiep.

Its message to the US is that it is willing to continue engaging the US in the South China Sea if doing so suits its interests.

To the Chinese, it is that a more assertive stance from Beijing will push Vietnam further into the arms of the US no matter how important Hanoi views its long-term relationship with China to be.

However, noted Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales in an article this month in The Diplomat: "Vietnam will not align itself with the United States against China."

Once a staunch US ally, the Philippines has tilted towards China in recent years as its government has turned more authoritarian.

As for Indonesia, a recent poll by the East West Centre think-tank on Covid-19 responses from commentators in the region drew this response: "Indonesia historically has mixed feelings towards China and Chinese and will want to seek a balance to Chinese overreach."

However, on the US, an Indonesian respondent said: "Should US pressure from Sino-American rivalry come to erode Indonesian autonomy, it is possible that the relationship will weaken."

Thailand, which under military rule (2014-2019) was more pro-China, repaired relations with the US as it held elections last year, especially military-to-military ties.

Still, precipitated by the policies of the Donald Trump administration, US prestige in the region is in palpable decline despite its continued political and military presence, notes Professor Johan Saravanamuttu, adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Says Manila-based political analyst Richard Heydarian: "For better or worse, China will be in a tremendously powerful position to shape the world."

This is particularly as the US and other "traditional sources of power" have been too preoccupied dealing with their own coronavirus outbreaks that China has been getting little pushback in flashpoints like the South China Sea.

Prof Saravanamuttu wrote in a recent article on the East West Forum website: "If Malaysia and its Asean neighbours are now in a more fluid and disrupted multipolar world, it would be logical to continue to engage earnestly with China, albeit with a cautious eye on its ambitions in the South China Sea."

• Additional reporting by Elizabeth Law and Charissa Yong


JAN-FEB: South-east Asian countries, including Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, donate medical equipment such as gloves, masks, protective suits, goggles and test kits to China as the Covid-19 crisis deepens there.

FEB: Chinese fishing boats escorted by the China Coast Guard are seen by Indonesian fishermen in waters near Indonesia's Natuna islands.

Wuhan was China's virus epicentre. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

FEB 20: Chinese and Asean foreign ministers hold a special summit in Vientiane, Laos, to discuss cooperation on the coronavirus outbreak.

MARCH-APRIL: China sends medical supplies such as masks, protective suits, test kits, ventilators and infrared temperature sensors to the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. It also dispatches teams of medical experts to the Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

Bangkok's airport, where anti-virus curbs are in place. PHOTO: REUTERS

MARCH 5: The USS Theodore Roosevelt arrives in Vietnam - only the second United States aircraft carrier to make a port call there since the fall of Saigon in 1975. The five-day visit by the Roosevelt and its military personnel marks 25 years since the former foes normalised diplomatic ties.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt. PHOTO: REUTERS

MARCH-APRIL: The US donates protective equipment to Thailand on March 9. From March 26, it provides technical assistance and financial support of an initial US$18.3 million (S$26 million) to all Asean countries except Singapore.

MARCH 28: The Philippine Health Ministry says it has discarded test kits from China as they were only 40 per cent accurate. It clarifies a day later that the kits came from a private source in China and that those from the Chinese government were on a par with global standards.

APRIL 1: The Asean Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies and US officials hold a videoconference.

APRIL 2: A Vietnamese fishing boat sinks after colliding with a China Coast Guard vessel near the Paracel Islands claimed by China and Vietnam. Vietnam lodges an official protest the next day. A few days later, the Philippines issues a statement in support of Vietnam.

APRIL 14: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attends a virtual Asean+3 special summit on Covid-19 together with Asean, Japanese and South Korean leaders.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. PHOTO: REUTERS

APRIL 16: China's Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey ship, flanked by more than 10 vessels, begins shadowing a drillship contracted by Malaysian state oil firm Petronas to explore for oil off the Malaysian coast.

APRIL 18: China announces two new administrative districts on the Paracels and Spratlys. Hanoi and Manila issue protests.

APRIL 19: US President Donald Trump speaks with his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte, after which the US offers a further US$5.3 million in pandemic support, bringing the total to over US$9 million.

Bangkok's airport, where anti-virus curbs are in place. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. US President Donald Trump (left) and his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte. Indonesian President Joko Widodo. American warship USS Barry. Wuhan was China's virus
US President Donald Trump (left) and his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte. PHOTO: REUTERS

APRIL 20: The US and Australia begin a joint military drill in waters close to the Chinese survey ship and the Malaysia-contracted drillship.

APRIL 23: Asean foreign ministers and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hold a special meeting on the coronavirus via videoconference. A State Department statement says that as of April 22, the US has provided US$35.3 million in emergency funding for Asean states to combat Covid-19.


• The Chinese Embassy in Manila rolls out a music video on YouTube meant to spotlight Beijing's efforts to help the Philippines check the spread of Covid-19. But its title, One Sea, upsets Filipinos who interpret it as a subtle reminder that there is just one South China Sea, and China owns all of it.

• Mr Trump speaks on the phone with his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo, who asks for medical equipment including ventilators. Mr Trump later tweets that the US will provide this. An Indonesian statement says the two leaders also agree to strengthen economic cooperation and trade.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

APRIL 28 & 29: The US conducts two freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. China says it expelled one of the warships; the US denies it.

MAY 1: China announces a ban on fishing from May 1 to Aug 16 in the South China Sea, drawing criticism from Vietnam.

MAY 7 & 12: US littoral combat ships sail near Malaysia-contracted drillship West Capella.

Bangkok's airport, where anti-virus curbs are in place. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. US President Donald Trump (left) and his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte. Indonesian President Joko Widodo. American warship USS Barry. Wuhan was China's virus

MAY 13: The China-Malaysia stand-off appears to wind down as Chinese ships tailing the West Capella seem to head in a different direction from the drillship, which has completed its work.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 17, 2020, with the headline How South-east Asia views growing US-China power play amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Subscribe