This handout picture taken and released by the Myanmar State Counsellor Office on January 11, 2021, shows Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw. Photo: AFP / Thar Byaw / Myanmar State Counsellor Office

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked this week on a four-country Southeast Asia tour, taking him to Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. For many countries in the region, China’s top diplomat was the first high-level foreign official they received early this year. Prior to this, Beijing fired the opening salvo of what portends to be a very busy year for Chinese diplomacy by dispatching Wang on a five-nation Africa tour.   

Promoting its vaccines, restarting stalled infrastructure projects, and deepening ties with neighbors are high in China’s agenda, especially as tensions with the US are likely to be carried into President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

Southeast Asia is a critical link in the Belt and Road Initiative, where China’s trade, investments and influence are growing.

Before 2020 ended, Beijing was able to close an investment deal with Europe, another major diplomatic coup. This could provide some respite from the US-China trade and technology war and soften the blow of a possible economic decoupling from the US.

Beijing must have also sensed the deep political divide in the US, which may constrain its rival’s foreign policy and diminish its role in an increasingly uncertain world. With the Covid-19 pandemic largely under control at home and its economy on track to recovery, China is going on the offensive. 

In Myanmar, Wang Yi was the first foreign dignitary welcomed by Naypyitaw since the November elections. On Monday, he extended Beijing’s congratulations to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which won by a landslide.

China’s continued political and diplomatic support is crucial as Myanmar continues to try to play down charges of genocide against its Muslim Rohingya minority. Aside from offering its vaccines, Beijing is eager to implement projects under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, including the strategic Kyaukpyu port and special economic zone in western Rakhine state facing the Indian Ocean. 

In Indonesia, Wang’s visit on Wednesday coincided with the rollout of Sinovac vaccines, with no less than President Joko Widodo taking the first shot on national television. With the largest caseload in Southeast Asia, the mass inoculation program could arrest Covid-19’s spread and set the stage for recovery for the region’s largest economy.

China pledged cooperation in the purchase and manufacture of the vaccine. It also promised investments in the country’s tourism, finance and digital economy, as well as greater market access for Indonesian agricultural exports.

Beijing is keen to fast-track the completion of joint infrastructure projects such as the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway. The two sides are finding synergies in their respective connectivity visions – Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.   

In the Philippines, Wang on Friday reciprocated the visit made by Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin to Tengchong, Yunnan, last October. While bilateral relations have improved in recent years, concerns about policy continuity with elections scheduled next year in the Philippines present a serious challenge.

China is expected to accelerate the completion of ongoing infrastructure projects to showcase the gains of friendly ties and burnish its image as a reliable development partner. The pandemic affected the timelines of many projects, although two bridges that will span the Pasig River in Metro Manila may go online this year. 

In an online forum on Philippines-China economic relations early this week, Finance Undersecretary Mark Joven noted the rise in Chinese official development assistance to the country since 2016. Low-interest loans for railways, irrigation, flood control, and a dam and grants for bridges, an agricultural technology center are among the projects being financed by Chinese aid. 

Health cooperation will also be high in the agenda. Despite the controversy over the use of smuggled and unapproved Sinopharm vaccines, Manila is poised to source part of its vaccine requirements from China. A grant to support possible pandemic response measures is also being processed. 

Manila is also likely to court more Chinese investments and increased opportunities for its fruit growers and exporters.

Wang’s visit to Southeast Asia early in the year may set the tempo for China’s neighborhood diplomacy toward the region. While this may not dissipate concerns over irritants like the South China Sea and concerns over growing exposure to Chinese markets and investments, Beijing’s health outreach and economic pledges will undoubtedly be welcomed by regional countries raring to kickstart their recovery from the slump brought by the pandemic.

Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.