China's influence is looming larger than America's in post-pandemic Southeast Asia. Photo: Twitter

BANGKOK – Southeast Asia is resisting the acrimonious US-China blame game over Covid-19, preferring to maintain close links with both powerful nations without taking sides.

But China, even while serving as the origin of the pandemic that has devastated the region’s economies, appears to enjoy a better image among its hearts and minds.

“Southeast Asian countries are standing on the sidelines of the Washington-Beijing Covid-19 quarrel, not taking sides with one or the other,” Paul Chambers, an international affairs lecturer at Naresuan University in northern Thailand, said in an interview.

“Given that China is the region’s leading trading partner and provider of new foreign investment, and China came out of the coronavirus pandemic earlier than the US, Beijing has an edge over the Washington right now.

“The continuing Covid-19 problems in the US shows Southeast Asians that the US political system is not a good model for dealing with the virus,” Chambers opined.

Southeast Asian nations often try to balance relations with the US and China to avoid endangering extensively interconnected business, military and other links. That balancing act can become lopsided.

Southeast Asian countries along the South China Sea have territorial disputes with China, which claims the maritime area’s resource-rich shipping lanes.

As a result, Southeast Asia is wary of any hostilities as Washington also opposes Beijing’s attempts to dominate the sea. Arguing about Covid-19, analysts say, would not help the situation.

“While a minority of [Southeast Asian] countries might privately concede that China covered up, delayed, and manipulated [Covid-19] data — and continues to do so — even fewer are exercised about it,” said Benjamin Zawacki, author of “Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China.”

“Save arguably for Indonesia and Malaysia, most Southeast Asian countries are either not democracies or not being governed democratically. They are likely to view China’s actions as understandable, relatable, even laudable,” Bangkok-based Zawacki said in an interview.

Chinese tourists watch a traditional Thai dance at Erawan shrine, a popular spiritual landmark in Bangkok, January 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Mladen Antonov

Tourists from China are also extremely valuable to Southeast Asia, which has developed elaborate and economically crucial tourism industries.

When China and other countries locked down most international travel to curb Covid-19, Southeast Asia’s tourist-related businesses suffered sudden huge losses and now continue to face closures and bankruptcies.

These countries now want to project a friendly, welcoming face, hoping China’s tourists will soon return. But the US is bringing its diplomatic brawl over Covid-19 to the region in a diplomatic offensive that aims to discredit China’s role.

Newly arrived US Ambassador to Thailand Michael DeSombre, a political appointee and long-time lawyer based in Hong Kong, began the coronavirus confrontation with a 700-word statement on March 21.

“Chinese authorities actively censored and punished the brave Chinese people who tried to tell the truth,” DeSombre announced, referring to China’s Dr Li Wenliang and others.

“Had these same authorities done the right thing and sounded the alarm about this new disease, China — and indeed the rest of the world, including Thailand — might have been spared the impact on our populations.

“The Chinese people know their government is to blame for this pandemic,” DeSombre said.

US Ambassador to Thailand Michael DeSombre and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha at Thai Government House in Bangkok, April 2020. Photo: Twitter/MCOT

China’s embassy in Bangkok hit back on March 25.

“Michael George DeSombre, the US Ambassador to Thailand, deliberately used the novel coronavirus epidemic to smear and attack China,” wrote Chinese Embassy Counselor Yang Yang.

“Interestingly, on January 25, President Trump tweeted that ‘China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus. The US greatly appreciates China’s efforts and transparency’. Who on earth is lying?” Yang said.

Thailand has instinctively stayed out of the diplomatic spat, hoping it would stop and not escalate inside the kingdom.

“Bullying” through diplomacy often turns off Southeast Asian countries, which publicly project harmony, compromise or indifference instead of loud and perceived as embarrassing confrontation, analysts say.

For example, President Trump’s suspension of “support for the WHO (World Health Organization) provides an opportunity for Beijing to gain better global leadership status,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, political science dean at Ubon Ratchathani University in eastern Thailand, said.

Southeast Asia has also been “focusing on the control of Covid-19, rather than falling into the political game between Washington and Beijing, partly because of the consideration of a post-Covid recession in the global economy,” Titipol said in an interview.

“Therefore, maintaining good relations with Washington and Beijing is crucial.”

Early in the Covid-19 crisis, Thailand’s government and business sector exported face masks to Wuhan, the initial nest of infection in China, to lessen a dangerous shortage there.

China soon reciprocated by helping a suddenly needy Thailand with surgical masks, test kits and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Chinese Charge d’Affaires to Thailand Yang Xin and Thai Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul in Bangkok, March 24, 2020. Photo: Twitter/The Nation

“As many as 100,000 surgical masks, 20,000 test kits, 10,000 N95 respirators and 2,000 personal protective equipment [units] were handed over to Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul” by China on March 18, the Bangkok Post reported.

On May 26, for instance, China’s consulate in northeast Thailand’s Khon Kaen province donated 100,000 masks to its provincial governor in a public ceremony.

Even though the US also provided Thailand with medical assistance, research and supplies, Beijing’s “mask diplomacy” with Bangkok has been highlighted more in the press and among government officials.

Other Southeast Asian countries are also vying for China’s largesse, not least because the Chinese can bring high-tech industrial development to upgrade the region’s manufacturing sectors.

“In Southeast Asia for example, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have been more appreciative and accepting than Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore, highlighting divergent interests and views towards China,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, recently wrote.

Cambodia and Laos have developed particularly close financial and diplomatic ties from Beijing, while also welcoming Washington’s financial support. Beijing has offered medical aid to both during the Covid-19 crisis.

Harsh laws stifle citizens in Cambodia and Laos against criticizing their leaders policies, Covid-19 containment efforts, and relations with the US and China.

A shipment of Chinese medical equipment donations arrives in Cambodia, April 2020. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/Tang Chhin Sothy

The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia have hot and cold relations with China, with strong trade and investment ties but fraught relations over disputes in the South China Sea.

Tiny Singapore, perhaps Southeast Asia’s worst virus-hit country, works closely with the US on regional and military issues.

Thailand, a US Major Non-NATO Ally which has no direct South China Sea dispute, enjoys China’s diplomatic, economic and military support. In recent years, the Thai economy has become highly reliant on Chinese tourists as the industry has driven new economic growth.

Thailand also benefits from massive US military training exercises several times a year, plus other lucrative links. DeSombre suggested in a recent op-ed that Thailand is well-poised to receive new US investment as the US “decouples” its economy from China’s.     

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.

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