Chinese medical workers in face masks on a deployment overseas. Photo: Facebook

MANILA – Following high-profile deployments of medics and medical equipment to virus-hit nations in Europe and the Middle East, China is now ramping up its “face mask diplomacy” closer to home in neighboring Southeast Asia.

As US politicians call for China to be held accountable for spawning the Covid-19 pandemic, including payment of “reparations” for economic damage, Beijing is diplomatically leveraging its “Health Silk Road” to pre-empt similar calls in Asia.

In late March, Beijing delivered 40 tons of medical equipment to Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest and among the region’s worst Covid-19 impacted nations.

Media reports characterized China’s delivery of masks, swabs and test kits with boxes emblazoned with China’s flag, more as a public relations exercise than an emergency aid intervention.

Similar scenes have played out across the region, as Southeast Asian governments graciously participate in Chinese embassy-organized events to effectively celebrate the delivery of desperately-needed medical assistance.

With US President Donald Trump’s administration still focused on containing its Covid-19 outbreak, the most lethal worldwide, and the virus-hit Pentagon suspending deployments to the region, China is effectively using the provision of medical assistance to seize the post-Covid-19 high ground.

Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB) and customs receive medical supplies provided by China at Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Jakarta, March 26, 2020. Photo: Xinhua/Du Yu/Twitter

US officials have warned that the motivations behind China’s “face mask diplomacy” are not altruistic and could have big strings attached as Beijing potentially seeks post-pandemic payback in the form of concessions and deals. 

“On the surface, I think the question partners should ask is, ‘Is this an altruistic measure?,” said R Clarke Cooper, the US State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs, in a recent interview with Foreign Policy magazine.

“As we’ve said on things like infrastructure investment, foreign investment, and arms sales, is caveat emptor—buyer beware,” Cooper said in the interview.  

He also warned acceptance of Chinese aid could deter future cooperation with the US.

“There is a concern that we would not want any significant US defense articles or sensitive systems to be at risk of exposure or exploitation” to China, the top American official said.

Michael George DeSombre, US Ambassador to Thailand, wrote in a recent op-ed critical of China that “when the crisis finally abates, we should take stock of the outcome and evaluate the costs of this breakdown” in international collaboration and the effects of suppressing virus-related information.

He wrote “a government’s duty is to save lives, not save face” in critical reference to China.  

But it’s not clear America’s message is resonating with Southeast Asia’s worst-hit nations, including among its traditional strategic partners.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable meeting at the White House April 3, 2020. Photo: Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images/AFP

The Philippines has applauded China’s provision of medical aid, with President Rodrigo Duterte twice personally thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping for his support in nationally televised addresses.

China has donated 100,000 testing kits, 10,000 personal protective equipment suits (PPEs), 10,000 N95 grade masks, 100,000 surgical masks and deployed a team of 12 Chinese medical experts to assist the Philippines, which is struggling with one of the region’s worst outbreaks.

“I don’t know if I have to say this but I have a sort of a note from President Xi Jinping expressing his full support for us at this time…” Duterte said in mid-April.

“It’s not their fault it came from [Wuhan] – who would really want to invent a microbe to kill humankind, including your own [people]…So he says that they are ready and I would like to thank President Xi Jinping for his support,” Duterte added.  

It’s not immediately clear if that message was delivered at Beijing’s behest, but it adheres to China’s narrative on the origins and trajectory of the pandemic as it seeks to deflect responsibility for the global spread of the deadly virus.

During the early stages of the pandemic, many Southeast Asian countries, with the notable exceptions of Singapore and Vietnam, kept their borders open to Chinese visitors despite early reports of the epidemic.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly shunned imposing travel restrictions against China while playing down Covid-19’s threat. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s government was roundly criticized for prioritizing economics over public health before finally closing the kingdom’s borders.  

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (C) and officials at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, January 29, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Anusak Laowilas

Those positions reflect the region’s economic dependence on Chinese trade, investment and tourism. China is the region’s largest trading partner, a relationship is bidding to expand through its US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

While now no doubt wary of opening themselves to a possible new wave of Covid-19 infections, many regional government’s will look to China for economic relief as the region slides into coronavirus-driven recession.

Whether China will be able to answer that call in light of its own economic problems is altogether unclear. China reported -6.8% growth in the first quarter of this year, the lowest clip in decades.    

In the Philippines, hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers have boosted a shadowy multi-billion-dollar online casino industry, which in recent years has flooded government coffers and spurred economic growth.

Shortly before imposing a month-long lockdown on Manila, Duterte openly called on China for assistance: “To the Chinese government, to the people, especially to President Xi Jinping, thank you for the consoling words and maybe, I hope that it would not reach to that point but maybe we will need your help.”

The Filipino leader has kept largely mum on China’s recent aggression in the South China Sea, including deployment of coast guard forces to the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal and ramped up militarization of the Mischief Reef in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Instead, Duterte has shifted blame to the US, accusing it of trying to lure away medical professionals and nurses from the country during a time of need.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shows the way to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a file photo. Photo: AFP

“They’re calling anybody as long as they’re nurses, telling them to go to the embassy where their visa is processed in one day, and they fly the next day,” Duterte said.

“The problem is this: these Americans, you could have relied on your own human resources. This means you should rely on your own people. Now you’re getting from the Philippines. If there will be a shortage, we’ll be sorry,” the Filipino leader said last week in a national address.

The Trump administration has come under heavy criticism for its perceived as paltry Covid-19 assistance to the region, announced at $18.3 million with earmarks for lab-testing and infection control. The US has also been criticized for competing with allies for medical equipment and blocking the export of US-made face masks.

That low aid figure stands in stark contrast to previous US administrations which provided as much as $3.5 billion in health assistance to Southeast Asia for various health causes and research. While Trump prioritizes “America First”, China is using “face mask diplomacy” to make even deeper inroads into the virus-hit region.