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China Uses Money, Diplomacy to Push Back Against US in Southeast Asia

China's State Councilor Wang Yi meets with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Guilin
China's State Councilor Wang Yi meets with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Guilin

The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has wrapped up his second series of meetings so far this year with Southeast Asia leaders to discuss vaccine distribution, help with post-pandemic recovery and other offers that experts say could sway countries in the pivotal subregion toward China and away from growing U.S. influence.

Wang met last week in China with counterparts from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, China’s state-owned media, Xinhua News Agency reported. China “stands for the interests of many developing, small and medium-sized countries,” Xinhua quoted him saying. The group of countries Wang references would cover much of Southeast Asia’s 655 million-population spread over 10 nations.

The foreign minister had visited Brunei, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines in January just before U.S. President Joe Biden took office. China pledged then to help Southeast Asian nations with COVID-19 vaccines, infrastructure and trade.

China hopes to shine again, analysts say, in a part of Asia where most governments do not take sides in the superpower relationship after a spate of U.S. moves aimed at controlling China’s expansion in a sea disputed by four Southeast Asian countries. Countries along the Mekong River fret separately over China’s control of water flows from its upstream dams.

“Foreign Minister Wang Yi is trying to send the strongest signals that China remains the partner within the region,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo. “They really would like to send the strongest of signals that Southeast Asian countries should be deferent to Beijing before they are deferent to Washington.”

The heat is on, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin held talks last month with their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo to reaffirm partnerships as China grows more assertive. Days later, Blinken and Austin met the foreign and defense ministers of South Korea.

U.S. officials say they sent Navy ships to the South China Sea 10 times last year, adding B-52 bombers at least once, as a way of showing the disputed waterway remains open to international use rather than exclusive Chinese control.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest Beijing’s claims to about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that is prized for natural resources. China has the strongest armed forces among the six claimants, prompting the others to look toward the United States for support.

Wang told his Singaporean counterpart last week the two countries should jointly oppose “vaccine nationalism.” Xinhua reported. The term describes governments that make deals with pharmaceutical companies to treat their own populations at the expense of other countries. China has already sent its Sinovac vaccines to Indonesia and the Philippines.

Southeast Asian economies that slumped last year due to lack of tourism and export demand hope China can bring relief, experts say.

Washington has offered COVID-19 relief aid to Southeast Asia, including $18.3 million in emergency health and humanitarian assistance in the first quarter of 2020. But the U.S. government lacks an equivalent of China’s trillion-plus dollar Belt-and-Road Initiative for building transport infrastructure throughout Eurasia through 2027 — including projects in some of the countries that sent ministers last week to see Wang.

Wang told his Malaysian counterpart last week that China would offer “high-quality” Belt and Road cooperation to bring more “tangible benefits” during the pandemic recovery, the Chinese foreign ministry website says.

“China just needs to deliver on its Belt and Road projects in all these countries and that’s enough to prevent the economies from going under,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“The Chinese market was singularly unharmed” last year, Chong added. Much of the world economy was shaken by anti-pandemic business closures.

Southeast Asian countries will look to China more than to the United States for any help in working with one of their members, Myanmar, after a February coup and violent protests, Chong said. Wang told his Singapore counterpart that China supports wider Southeast Asian efforts to “resume stability in Myanmar,” Xinhua reported. Chinese business interests in Myanmar go back decades.

Officials in Southeast Asia further hope China will reopen to travel, including for students, said Shariman Lockman, senior foreign policy and security studies analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.

Malaysia and the Philippines probably raised the South China Sea issue with Wang last week “because it’s one of those things that you have to mention,” Lockman said.

“Diplomacy is partly form,” he said. “If you don’t mention it, he will think you don’t care about it and they can get away with things, so you have to say ‘oh, by the way.’”

The Chinese foreign minister for his part probably “soft pedaled” any past actions that make China look like a “great power,” Chong said.