America First versus Wolf Warriors: Pandemic Diplomacy in Southeast Asia

The Covid-19 pandemic has opened a new front in the U.S.-China competition for influence in Southeast Asia. And for the most part, the region seems unimpressed. The coronavirus pandemic began in China and was made worse by its early missteps. But Beijing managed to avoid widespread condemnation in most Southeast Asian states thanks to its early and very public campaign of “mask diplomacy.” That goodwill has been seriously undermined by China’s ham-fisted diplomacy and renewed tensions in the South China Sea. While Southeast Asian governments have not complained as much as some European officials about China’s aggressive demands for gratitude or the quality of some of its donations, their press and publics have.

The United States has been in no position to take advantage of China’s missteps despite its long-standing global leadership on public health. The White House’s early Covid-19 denialism and subsequent missteps led to an explosion of infections in the country, which are still not under control. Chinese media and diplomats were happy to draw comparisons between Beijing’s own relative success in “flattening the curve” and Washington’s struggles. The administration’s insistence on picking rhetorical fights with partner-nations over what to call the virus fueled worries that the United States was not interested in exercising global leadership in response to the pandemic. President Donald Trump’s pledge to withdraw U.S. support from the World Health Organization only reinforced those conclusions.

Mask Diplomacy and American Absence

By early February, China was pivoting from fighting the virus at home to providing international assistance with a focus on Southeast Asia. During a Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on February 20, Beijing agreed to share more health information and best practices with Southeast Asian states. In mid-March, China began sending supplies and experts to train local medical teams in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. It provided similar assistance to Laos, Myanmar, and Brunei in April, and to Singapore in May. Relief packages were delivered with pomp and circumstance through calculated public diplomacy operations. This led to Beijing’s aid efforts being dubbed “mask diplomacy.” While China has reportedly donated an impressive amount of medical supplies in Southeast Asia, the financial value of these donations is unclear, which makes direct comparisons to U.S. assistance difficult.

Washington did not announce its first tranche of international Covid-19 assistance until late March. The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged to provide $274 million globally, but only $18 million of that was earmarked for Southeast Asia.

U.S. officials held a virtual meeting with Southeast Asian counterparts on April 1, after which ASEAN officials thanked the United States for its support in responding to the pandemic. But there was no hiding the fact that China, which had spent the previous months consumed with its domestic response to the outbreak, had somehow been weeks ahead of the United States in offering aid and seemed more generous to boot. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, declared that urgent domestic needs meant that U.S. international assistance would not include medical supplies. The State Department paired these modest pledges with an accounting of how much global health assistance the United States had provided over the last 20 years. Whatever its intent, this only reinforced narratives that Washington was turning away from its prior global leadership.

China paired its early “mask diplomacy” with high-level outreach. Between March and April, President Xi Jinping and State Councilor Wang Yi contacted numerous counterparts in Southeast Asia. During a March 12 televised address, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte gushed, “You know President Xi Jinping, for all of his goodness to us, wrote me a letter and said that he is willing to help. All we have to do is to ask.” Three days later, Wang Yi spoke to Duterte’s foreign secretary, Teodoro Locsin, and promised that China would do “its utmost” to help the Philippines. And when Xi called President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on April 4, he declared that Indonesia was a priority nation for China and promised more collaboration to fight the pandemic.

Wolf Warrior Diplomacy Gets in the Way

Despite the early goodwill that China’s “mask diplomacy” generated in Southeast Asia, things began to go sideways in April. Beijing generated some bad press in late March by announcing the establishment of two new research facilities in the disputed Spratly Islands. Then at the start of April, a China Coast Guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the Paracels. This not only provoked an outcry in Hanoi, but also an unusual statement of support from Manila. And rather than de-escalate, pugnacious diplomats in Beijing and its embassies doubled down on nationalist rhetoric. These so-called “Wolf Warriors” have become more vocal throughout the Chinese diplomatic corps over the last several months, peddling jingoistic rhetoric at home and lashing out at critics abroad in a sign of Beijing’s hypersensitivity amid the pandemic.

The subsequent two months provided a steady stream of escalation on-the-water followed by belligerent and tin-eared messaging from Chinese officials. This included the deployment of a Chinese survey vessel in Malaysian waters, which capped off a months-long standoff over oil and gas drilling; a list of new names for 70 South China Sea features, most of which are pieces of the seabed belonging to Vietnam; the inauguration of new administrative districts to govern the Chinese-claimed Spratlys and Paracels; the revelation that a People’s Liberation Army Navy ship had recently directed its targeting radar at a Philippine Navy vessel; and a music video using the South China Sea as a tortured metaphor for Chinese “mask diplomacy” in the Philippines, which unleashed a torrent of online criticism. Chinese diplomats in Thailand also waded into an online spat between Thai and Chinese netizens, which led Thai citizens to gleefully declare their sympathy for Hong Kong and Taiwan under the banner of an online “Milk Tea Alliance.”

As China’s Wolf Warrior diplomats grew more combative, the pace of China’s “mask diplomacy” slowed. Large donations of medical supplies to Southeast Asia appeared to taper off by early May. At the same time, the United States finally began to increase its diplomatic outreach. Trump called Duterte on April 20 and Jokowi on April 25, promising to supply the latter with ventilators, which arrived in early June. He spoke to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin of Malaysia on May 8. On April 26, Secretary Pompeo joined his Southeast Asian counterparts for a Special ASEAN-United States Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Coronavirus Disease 2019, more than two months after China had done the same. Rather than the pandemic, most press coverage focused on Pompeo’s decision to raise the South China Sea and China’s damming of the upper Mekong River.

The State Department and USAID have also finally stepped up their Covid-19 assistance to the region. By early June, the United States had committed $1 billion to support the global response to the pandemic, including $77 million for Southeast Asian states. This makes the United States by far the largest source of bilateral Covid-19 aid to the region (multilateral institutions are providing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding but mostly through loans rather than grants). More than one-quarter of this U.S. assistance is earmarked for the Philippines ($19 million), followed by Cambodia and Myanmar ($13.5 million each). How this stacks up to the overall value of China’s donations of supplies is difficult to gauge.

It is still too early to determine all the ways that the current health crisis, and the economic turmoil to follow, will affect the long-term U.S.-China competition for influence in Southeast Asia. The impacts will not be uniform; Vietnam, for instance, will likely be far more eager than others for U.S. support to push back against China. There will also be differences between elite and public opinion, as already evident in the online reactions to China’s “mask diplomacy” and other recent developments in the Philippines and Thailand. But on balance, the United States’ and China’s responses to the pandemic appear to be reinforcing the worst assumptions about both in Southeast Asia. Beijing’s Wolf Warriors reveal an insecure, belligerent China whose assistance rarely comes without a price.

These developments could present a strategic opportunity for the United States, but one Washington has been slow to seize. The United States cannot rebuild influence in Southeast Asia simply by highlighting China’s bad behavior. The recent increase in health assistance and high-level diplomacy are good steps. But they are not enough to reverse a narrative of mismanagement and global retreat cemented by the early U.S. response to Covid-19. The United States can still work with allies and partners to pursue a long-term, more effective agenda in Southeast Asia—one covering public health, development assistance, trade and investment, and regional security. That is the only way to rebuild American influence; otherwise, it won’t matter how badly China stumbles along its way to regional preeminence.

Gregory B. Poling is senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kim Mai Tran is a research associate with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Kim Mai Tran