Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, with Indonesian Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investments Minister Luhut Pandjaitan. Photo: Handout

Eager to project Chinese global leadership amid a fraught presidential transition in Washington, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrapped up a five-day tour across four key nations in Southeast Asia. It was a calibrated move to charm China’s neighbors ahead of the Biden presidency, which has promised to restore American commitments to international partners and allies.

The much-ballyhooed trip came on the heels of a six-day tour of Africa the previous week, and was the second of its kind since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

Ostensibly, the visit focused on cooperation in fighting the Wuhan-originated virus, including the expedient provision of affordable Chinese vaccines en masse, but there were clear geopolitical undertones.

It started in Myanmar, which is set to assume the role of country coordinator for Associations of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) relations and co-chair of negotiations over a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. It ended in the current occupant of those two crucial positions, the Philippines, which happens to be a US treaty ally and a major claimant state.

In between, the Chinese chief diplomat visited Indonesia, ASEAN’s presumptive leader and largest economy, as well as Brunei, this year’s chairman of ASEAN. Three of the visited nations, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar, are also among the worst-hit by the pandemic.

The undeclared purpose of the trip was to shore up regional support for Chinese leadership and ensuring minimal resistance to the Asian powerhouse’s geopolitical ambitions, especially in the hotly contested South China Sea.

In an adroit display of Chinese statecraft, Wang sought to leverage growing anxieties over American wherewithal and internal stability as well as the desperate need for vaccines and investment deals to boost recovery in the worst-hit Southeast Asian nations. The Southeast Asian tour destinations is telling.

In Myanmar, China promised early delivery of 300,000 doses of vaccines made by leading Chinese pharmaceutical companies at a discounted price.

Indonesia has already received ten times that amount, 3 million doses, and is set to consolidated its joint production of vaccines with Chinese companies amid a nationwide mass vaccination program which saw President Joko Widodo publicly taking a Sinovac  shot. 

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi with Wang Yi at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw. Photo: Handout

In the Philippines, China has promised large-scale delivery of vaccines as early as next month, cementing a “new era of partnership” between the once-estranged neighbors.

“We are now expecting China Sinovac vaccine to arrive in the Philippines as early as next month. The joint anti-pandemic response over the past year has enriched and strengthened our new-era partnership and vividly illustrated the sibling ties between our two peoples,” said Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian in a Facebook post upon Wang’s visit to Manila.

The Philippines has already secured 25 million doses of vaccines from  Sinovac following a desperate scramble to contain one of the worst outbreaks in the region.

Last year, the Southeast Asian country bungled potential major deals with Pfizer due to opposition from the China-leaning President Rodrigo Duterte, who has openly endorsed Chinese-made vaccines over its Western counterparts.

Wang Yi attends a meeting with Philippine Foreign Affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin in Manila. Photo: Francis R. Malasig/AFP

Ahead of Wang’s visit, Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque, citing “close [bilateral] relations”, expressed hopes for Chinese vaccine donations and discounted deals.

“I don’t know about the terms and conditions but of course, we expect that it will be paid but let’s see, maybe, just maybe, I’m just speculating, China will donate some of it. Let’s see,” Roque said.

“Because their Chinese foreign minister [Wang Yi] is coming, I don’t know what he will say but many of us are praying that perhaps, some of these vaccines can be donated. After all, we do have very close relations with China.”

Another major theme on Wang’s agenda was investment, as Southeast Asian nations seek to boost economic recovery through massive infrastructure spending. In Myanmar, China is a key partner in the development of the Yangon New City, which constitutes one of the three-pillars China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), as part of a broader national development plan.

Ahead of Wang’s visit, the two countries kickstarted feasibility studies on the Mandalay-Muse railway project, another big-ticket project that seeks to consolidate Chinese influence in the heavily isolated Southeast Asian nation.

In Indonesia, the Chinese diplomat met his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, to discuss measures to deepen the economic partnership by tying the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Indonesia’s domestic infrastructure development agenda and broader Global Maritime Fulcrum vision.

The two ministers discussed, among other things, the $400 million Lambakan dam in Kalimantan Timur, while Indonesian Maritime and Investment Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan invited the Chinese diplomat to his home province in North Sumatra for further investments from his “best friend” to “boost the good and sustainable relationships” between the countries.

The situation is particularly desperate in the Philippines, where extended lockdowns have precipitated a more than 10 percent contraction in gross domestic product, the worst in the region. Duterte has actively solicited Chinese assistance for his “build, build, build” infrastructure development project, a key tenet of his economic recovery plan.  

The overarching goal of Wang’s visit was geopolitical, most especially Beijing’s hopes to secure acquiescence to China’s line on the South China Sea from key Southeast Asian players, especially claimants such as the Philippines and current ASEAN leader (Indonesia) and rotational chairman (Brunei). In particular, China wants to prevent any concerted resistance in tandem with US.

As Wang wrapped up his tour, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian made clear the terms of Beijing’s assistance packages amid an ongoing crisis across the region. He emphasized the need for all sides to remain “committed to properly managing differences” in the South China Sea “through friendly negotiation and consultation despite external disruptions”.