For Southeast Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic was not only a public health crisis. It also provided an occasion for China to deepen its engagement in the region by dint of its own successful containment of the virus within its borders, and the resources it possessed to extend help to regional countries battling COVID-19 and its consequences, including economic, on their own shores. While Chinese help was welcomed, Southeast Asia also sought to avoid being beholden to any single external power. To that end, Southeast Asian states have actively pursued such diversification not only through efforts at reinforcing cooperation within ASEAN but also by using ASEAN as a vehicle to engage external powers.
At the end of 2019, Chinese health authorities reported a cluster of pneumonia cases that had emerged in Wuhan, in the province of Hubei, which eventually led to the confirmation of a novel coronavirus. Several weeks later in January, the pandemic struck Southeast Asian shores when the first case outside of China was detected in Thailand. Within a few months, the world found itself in the grip of a global pandemic. By the end of January 2021, there were more than 100 million recorded cases of the COVID-19 infection, with over two million deaths. While the fatality rates are lower than those of previous pandemics of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) strain, it has by far been the most infectious, prompting Singapore foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan to opine that with the pandemic “we are facing a global life and death crisis which requires extraordinary measures.”
Threats posed by pandemics are not new to Southeast Asia. In the last two decades alone, the region had been beset by several transnational health crises, of which SARS and the H5N1 Avian Flu were arguably the most lethal. What is striking about the current climate, however, is the backdrop against which the pandemic is playing out: the COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the further bifurcation of an international order that was already threatening to come undone because of the intensification of Sino-U.S. rivalry and American withdrawal from multilateralism under Donald J. Trump. Southeast Asian states
found themselves increasingly compelled to reassess their relationships with external powers. Taking the present pandemic as a point of entry, this paper considers its impact on Southeast Asia’s relations with China and the U.S.
The paper makes three main arguments. First, it contends that Sino-U.S. rivalry has sharpened over the COVID-19 pandemic by dint of the politicization of this public health crisis by both parties. Second, it argues that China has identified and seized upon opportunities presented by the pandemic to enhance its regional and global standing through continued support for multilateralism and economic engagement through initiatives such as the BRI, in turn creating favorable conditions for the advancement of its foreign policy interests. Conversely, because of the severe deficiencies in how the Trump administration handled the pandemic domestically, the Biden administration will have to prioritize its domestic challenges at the expense of greater bandwidth and resources for foreign policy, especially in Southeast Asia, a region that since the end of the Vietnam War has never featured prominently in Washington’s pursuit of its overseas interests. Third, it posits that while Southeast Asia has doubtless benefited from Chinese support during this crisis, the region remains skeptical of Chinese strategic intent and concerned about overreliance. States have tried to diversify relations with regional powers while strengthening cooperation within ASEAN. The paper first looks, by way of background, at how the pandemic emerged as the latest arena of Sino-U.S. rivalry. It then explores how China has handled the pandemic domestically, where its success has allowed it to expand its influence as a putative provider of “global public goods.” In the interest of brevity, the paper then focuses on ASEAN by documenting collective regional efforts and strategies to navigate great power rivalry in the realm of global public health.