Asian countries more receptive to China’s coronavirus ‘face mask’ diplomacy

While China’s campaign to mend its international image in the wake of its handling of the health crisis has been met with scepticism and even a backlash from the US and its Western allies, Beijing has been quietly gaining ground in Asia.

Teams of experts have been sent to Cambodia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Pakistan and soon to Malaysia, to share their knowledge from the pandemic’s ground zero in central China.

Beijing has also donated or facilitated shipments of medical masks and ventilators to countries in need. And despite some of the equipment , the supplies have been largely welcomed in Asian countries.
China has also held a series of online “special meetings” with its Asian neighbours, most recently on Tuesday when discussed his country’s experiences in combating the disease and rebooting a stalled economy with the leaders of the , Japan and South Korea.
Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang speaks to Asean Plus Three leaders during a virtual summit on Tuesday. Photo: AP

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang speaks to Asean Plus Three leaders during a virtual summit on Tuesday. Photo: AP

Many Western politicians have publicly questioned Beijing’s role and its subsequent handling of the crisis but Asian leaders – including Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – have been reluctant to blame the Chinese government, while also facing criticism at home for not closing their borders with China soon enough to prevent the spread of the virus.

An official from one Asian country said attention had shifted from the early stages of the outbreak – when disgruntled voices among the public were at their loudest – as people watched the virus continue its deadly spread through their homes and across the world.

“Now everybody just wants to get past the quarantine,” he said. “China has been very helpful to us. It’s also closer to us so it’s easier to get shipments from them. The [medical] supplies keep coming, which is what we need right now.”

The official said also that while the teams of experts sent by Beijing were mainly there to observe and offer advice, the gesture was still appreciated.

Another Asian official said the tardy response by Western governments in handling the outbreak had given China an advantage, despite its initial lack of transparency over the outbreak.

“The West is not doing a better job on this,” he said, adding that his government had taken cues from Beijing on the use of propaganda in shaping public opinion and boosting patriotic sentiment in a time of crisis.

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“Because it happened in China first, it has given us time to observe what works in China and adopt [these measures] for our country,” the official said.

Experts in the region said that Beijing’s intensifying campaign of “mask diplomacy” to reverse the damage to its reputation had met with less resistance in Asia.

“Over the past two months or so, China, after getting the Covid-19 outbreak under control, has been using a very concerted effort to reshape the narrative, to pre-empt the narrative that China is liable for this global pandemic, that China has to compensate other countries,” said Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based academic and former policy adviser to the Philippine government.

“It doesn’t help that the US is in lockdown with its domestic crisis and that we have someone like President Trump who is more interested in playing the blame game rather than acting like a global leader,” he said.

Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst with the foreign policy and security studies programme at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said that as the US had withdrawn into its own affairs as it struggled to contain the pandemic, China had found Southeast Asia a fertile ground for cultivating an image of itself as a provider.

Beijing’s highly publicised delegations tasking medical equipment and supplies had burnished that reputation, he said, adding that the Chinese government had also “quite successfully shaped general Southeast Asian perceptions of its handling of the pandemic, despite growing evidence that it could have acted more swiftly at the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan”.

“Its capacity and will to build hospitals from scratch and put hundreds of millions of people on lockdown are being compared to the more indecisive and chaotic responses seen in the West, especially in Britain and the United States,” he said.

Lockman said Southeast Asian countries had also been careful to avoid getting caught in the middle of the deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Washington as the two powers pointed fingers at each other over the origins of the new coronavirus.

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“The squabble between China and the United States about the pandemic is precisely what Asean governments would go to great lengths to avoid because it is seen as an expression of Sino-US rivalry,” he said.

“Furthermore, the immense Chinese market is seen as providing an irreplaceable route towards Southeast Asia’s post-pandemic economic recovery.”

Aaron Connelly, a research fellow in Southeast Asian political change and foreign policy with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, said Asian countries’ dependence on China had made them slow to blame China for the pandemic.

“Anecdotally, it seems to me that most Southeast Asian political and business elites have given Beijing a pass on the initial cover-up of Covid-19, and high marks for the domestic lockdown that followed,” he said.

“This may be motivated reasoning, because these elites are so dependent on Chinese trade and investment, and see little benefit in criticising China.”

The cooperation with its neighbours as they grapple with the coronavirus had not slowed China’s military and research activities in the disputed areas of the – a point of contention that would continue to cloud relations in the region, experts said.

Earlier this month an encounter in the South China Sea with a Chinese coastguard vessel led to the sinking of a fishing boat from Vietnam, which this year assumed chairmanship of Asean.

And in a move that could spark fresh regional concerns, shipping data on Thursday showed a controversial Chinese government survey ship, the , had moved closer to Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.
The survey ship was embroiled in a months-long stand-off last year with Vietnamese vessels within Hanoi’s exclusive economic zone and was 158km (98 miles) off the Vietnamese coast.
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