CHIANG MAI – Covid-19’s “new normal” is creating opportunities for actors ranging from state intelligence agencies to underworld casino operators, a mix of health surveillance, commercial opportunism and geostrategic competition that is fast-shaping Southeast Asia’s new Cold War context.
While the US publicly pillories China’s Belt and Road designs for the region as sovereignty-eroding “debt traps”, Beijing is now seeking to leverage the pandemic in less public and potentially more nefarious ways to expand its power and influence in the strategic region.
In particular, China is trying to tap and leverage into expanding health surveillance in regional countries for not altogether clear reasons, according to officials familiar with the situation.
It comes at a time when Asia has been identified by at least one privacy watchdog, Britain’s Verisk Maplecroft, as the world’s surveillance hotspot, where the risk of privacy breaches is rising from Covid-19 health surveillance and the related retention of citizens’ private data.
Among the worst-scoring Asian nations in the Verisk Maplecroft’s Right to Privacy Index were Thailand, Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Cambodia, India and the Philippines.
Thailand, a long-time US strategic ally and a crucial link for China’s Belt and Road ambitions across mainland Southeast Asia, is reportedly being squeezed to share its collected data with Beijing.
As ever, Bangkok is carefully balancing its great power relations, but recent pressure by China is putting the kingdom in a tight spot, diplomats and analysts say.
Thailand has stood out for its comparatively successful handling of Covid-19, with just 3,569 cases and 59 deaths as of October 1 from a disease that originated in nearby China and has since devastated the globe. Following the lifting of draconian lockdown restrictions in March, Thai health authorities launched tracing apps known as “Thai Chana” and “Mor Chana” to track Covid-19 carriers and contain local outbreaks.
Thais and others in the closed down kingdom have been required to scan a Quick Response (QR) code to check in and check out of shopping malls, grocery stores, entertainment venues and holiday resorts, among other public places.
The Thai Chana app was developed by an information technology team at the state-owned Krung Thai Bank and then deployed nationwide by the government’s Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration, or CCSA, the agency leading the nation’s so far successful fight against the disease.
As of mid-June, the Thai Chana platform had more than 24 million users in a nation of 69 million. In April, Mor Chana, or “doctors win”, was launched as a parallel contact tracing app featuring Covid-19 self-assessment features, location tracking via GPS and Bluetooth Low Energy technology, and an alert function if an identified infected person is nearby.
Health experts agree that such contact tracing is pivotal to the success of virus containment efforts. But China’s security agencies resident in the kingdom are now keen to tap the wealth of personal data that Thai Chana and Mor Chana have compiled and could be used to monitor and surveil for purposes other than health control, Thai officials told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.
Chinese envoys have recently pressed their Thai counterparts to share the app’s information, ostensibly to control domestic outbreaks of Covid-19 in China as Chinese tourists are soon expected to resume trickling into Thailand under a sharply limited reopening program to foreign travelers, the Thai officials said.
China’s security agencies have reportedly requested personal data of not only Thai citizens but also foreign residents in the kingdom, the officials said. The agencies are said to have informed Thai authorities that any decision to allow Chinese tourists to resume travel to Thailand would be contingent on sharing Thai Chana and Mor Chana information.
Thailand’s Covid-ravaged economy is highly dependent on tourism, accounting for around 18% of gross domestic product in 2019 before the pandemic struck. Chinese tourists accounted for around 30% of all tourists who visited the kingdom, an economic fact Beijing appears to be leveraging for other aims.
The Thais have so far responded that it would be too difficult to gather all that information in a single application, as the details were being stored in many different databases, sources familiar with the situation told Asia Times.
China’s security agencies are looking beyond Thailand to expand their post-Covid reach into Southeast Asia. In neighboring Myanmar, local journalists and civil society workers openly talk about Chinese “journalists” and “academics” who frequently approach them for information that seems to go beyond the scope of normal journalistic or academic activities.
Among them are journalists accredited with major Chinese dailies and academics who claim to be affiliated with think tanks and institutions of higher learning based mainly in the southern province of Yunnan, which borders on Myanmar.
The journalists and activists say they feel uncomfortable with the manner in which they are being approached as it appears personal and even intrusive. Questions have been asked in particular if any foreigners are involved with their publications or NGOs.
To be sure, China is not the only country that’s involved in engaging Myanmar media and NGOs to advance their agendas, though not to gather sensitive, security-related information.
The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece newspaper, made that very point in a curiously worded article on September 22.
“Under the guise of protecting ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’, some US NGOs, supported by US politicians and US intelligence agencies, ignore China’s development record and fabricate stories about China,” the paper quoted a person called Xia Qian as saying, adding that it was not his real name.
The Global Times also quoted another Chinese source, identified only by his surname Zhao who reputedly lives in the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw, as saying that Western-funded NGOs “play a role in discrediting China-aided or invested infrastructure projects by releasing reports that are not always written by accredit scholars or researchers.” (sic.)
“Some of them,” Zhao added without being elaborating, “even openly and bluntly support activities that aim to split China’s sovereignty.”
In July, the Chinese and American embassies in Yangon, the old capital where all foreign missions are still located, traded barbs, accusing each other of foul play in their Covid-19 era relations with, especially, Myanmar.
In a statement issued on July 18, the US embassy drew parallels between China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea and repression in Hong Kong with large-scale Chinese investment projects in Myanmar that Washington warned could become debt-traps.
“That is how modern sovereignty is often lost — not through dramatic, over action, but through a cascade of smaller ones that lead to its slow erosion over time,” the US embassy said.
The Chinese embassy responded in a statement of its own, saying that the US showed a “sour grapes” attitude towards “flourishing China-Myanmar relations.” US agencies were doing “disgusting things” to contain China and had shown a “selfish, hypocritical, contemptible, and ugly face,” it said.
The US statement was “another farce on a global tour by the US authorities to shift attention on domestic problems and seek political gains,” according to the Chinese Embassy statement.
Although not spelled out in plain words, those “domestic problems” were no doubt a reference to the fact that the US has had more Covid-19 related infections and deaths than any other country in the world, hence the attack on Beijing’s economic, political and security-related forays into Myanmar.
Be that as it may, the intelligence war in Southeast Asia is heating up at the same time as shadier, private Chinese interests are cashing in on the pandemic’s emerging new normal and rising state surveillance.
Take, for instance, the remote Thai-Myanmar border town of Mae Sot, a once-bustling trading town which has been virtually closed for business since March.
While border trade has dried up with restrictions on border crossing, no group of local businessmen has been as innovative in staying afloat than the Chinese nationals running much of the area’s riverine gaming industry.
In March, Mae Sot shopping malls and department stores began to require customers to register their names and phone numbers to trace potential carriers and spreaders of the virus.
Soon thereafter, Chinese businessmen who previously ran the border casinos moved to buy the notebooks from the store owners, according to local businessmen in Mae Sot.
Before long, hundreds if not thousands of people who had patronized the Mae Sot stores received SMS messages on their mobile phones inviting them to gamble online.
The fallout of this entangled contest of health security, state surveillance and geopolitical intrigue is likely to have even longer-lasting effects on the region’s political and economic stability than the virus itself.
What began late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan has turned into a protracted conflict of deeds and words that few, if anyone, could have foreseen in the early days of the pandemic when it was viewed merely as a public health issue.