Esther N S Tamara

The ASEAN Post – August 31, 2020

Earlier this year, Beijing’s ‘mask diplomacy’ gained traction for its suspected geopolitical intentions as the rest of the world was making do with a dwindling supply of face masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs). Beijing’s swooping gesture of goodwill to the suffering global community was quite an opportunity to seize, and one that allowed China to earn points from the international community. 

For long, it has always been the United States (US) that single-handedly championed foreign aid worldwide, be it in the form of economic, political, humanitarian, development, or military. Of course, China’s mask diplomacy has ticked-off America – especially when the country itself was experiencing a shortage back in March. 

Under the Trump administration, the US has adopted what the President calls an ‘America first policy.’ While this term generally refers to trade relations, it can also be applied to other areas such as foreign policy, so long as it holds American interests above all else. This includes straying away from the traditional liberal practices of multilateralism and international cooperation. Some examples include America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, and recently, the World Health Organization (WHO). 

But when the novel coronavirus hit the rest of the world, is withdrawal truly the best response when fighting a global pandemic? It appears not. America, perhaps begrudgingly, must have realised this too at some point. Withdrawing would only counter its interests and endanger its reputation, which has already been tarnished enough under the Trump administration’s poor handling of the US’ pandemic response. 

Therefore, despite the Trump administration’s proposal to slash the international assistance budget by 22 percent for the fourth year in a row, the US remains committed to its assistance abroad and thus far, is indeed the biggest contributor to COVID-19 aid, globally.  

Since March 2020, there has been a reported amount of more than US$1.5 billion of COVID-19 international assistance from the US, US$76.9 million of which was earmarked for Southeast Asian countries. The funding was allocated for building national public health infrastructure and strengthening capabilities. In the case of Indonesia, the US also sent representatives from its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to train medics in the country.  

In stark contrast to American aid, China’s COVID-19 assistance came in the form of medical supplies and teams of Chinese doctors and medics. According to China Customs, medical supplies exported from March to April were worth an estimated US$1.4 billion. As the world’s largest manufacturer of face masks before the pandemic, China increased its production twelvefold since then to keep up with global demand. 

According to its Southeast Asia COVID-19 tracker, US think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), revealed that Southeast Asia is the particular focus of Chinese pandemic aid. Its large corporations too, like Jack Ma’s foundation, made massive contributions to ASEAN member states – all of which were welcomed by the receiving governments. China donated an estimated 3.5 million surgical masks, at least 250,000 N-95 masks, more than 40 tons of test kits, and other unspecified medical supplies to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta and member countries. 

It should be noted that China’s mask diplomacy also took a hit due to the fact that products donated were found to be of low-quality. Indeed, the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) even recalled masks produced by 60 Chinese manufacturers back in May for failing to meet standards of quality to protect health workers.

However, unlike the thousands of defective masks and other medical kits received by Spain, Turkey, and the Netherlands, worries about faulty products seem to be unfounded in the majority of ASEAN countries, save for Malaysia who is considering procuring kits from Singapore and South Korea instead. 

Whether or not this was intended, the delivery of medical supplies in times of dire need will certainly leave a lasting impression of Beijing as the benevolent neighbour of ASEAN. Japan, another neighbour to the region, also donated to a select list of Southeast Asian countries; although, it does not compare to the amount of Chinese aid.

It should not come as a surprise then, if the US is, perhaps momentarily, displaced from the foreminds of the Southeast Asian public as much of the American aid was overshadowed by China’s. It also does not help that all donations from China was received with much fanfare. 

Statements of gratitude from government officials in recipient countries and media coverage of aid received accompanied the COVID-19 assistance from China – further enshrining the noble qualities of Beijing by the witnessing audience of Southeast Asia’s general public. 

Now, this does not mean that US aid was second to Chinese aid. Certainly, building capacity and public health infrastructure are beneficial in the long-term. Nevertheless, the need for face masks and medical kits during the early months of the pandemic that China was able to provide has overshadowed the funds disbursed by the US. On the contrary, it was ASEAN member states such as Vietnam and Malaysia who were sending millions of PPEs and disposable rubber gloves for American health care workers to use when the outbreak started. 

Several observations emerge from these patterns. 

First, there is no joint effort between the US and China to aid Southeast Asian countries in response to the pandemic. This is an outlier to the previous cases of global epidemic breakouts which saw Washington and Beijing working hand-in-hand in 2002 when SARS hit China, in 2009 with the H1N1 virus, and most recently, in 2014 when both, American and Chinese medics worked together to handle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. 

Regardless of the decoupling of the two countries in the health sector, both are still providing aid to Southeast Asian countries during the pandemic. It is a testament that the region, and ASEAN as its regional organisation, matters to them. This can be seen from Secretary Pompeo’s launching of the US-ASEAN Health Futures Initiative back in April and China’s proposal to establish a COVID-19 Fund with ASEAN in May. 

Second, this means that there is no strategic COVID-19 aid competition between the US and China in Southeast Asia. While China focused its attention in particular on the region, American aid reflected a more global approach reminiscent of the obligatory international assistance that the US has carried out since the end of World War II. 

In this regard, Beijing’s far-reaching mask diplomacy was met by the US Department of State’s repeated emphasis that America has always played a leading role in international assistance, highlighting past contributions of approximately US$100 billion in global health funding and nearly US$70 billion in humanitarian aid in the past decade alone. Both countries are lauding their respective contributions to the global pandemic response, suggesting that that competition for global influence is at the forefront of their minds. 

Third, it should not be interpreted, however, that other forms of competition between the two powers are not manifesting in the region. Truth be told, Washington and Beijing need no longer exploit the COVID-19 pandemic in their race for dominance. There are other issues in the region that present opportunities for both to take advantage of in the quest for global leadership. 

Take the South China Sea dispute for instance. Secretary Pompeo’s recent move to dial-up the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines following Washington’s official rejection of China’s claims for the historical nine-dash line is an attestation that America is stepping up its commitment in Southeast Asia, and will not let China take the lead. 

What does this mean for ASEAN and the region? 

While aid provided by other countries helps to alleviate the pains of public health, it should also call attention to the importance of multilateralism and cooperation in times of hardships – something that is under threat and has been diminishing over time. There is no better time than the present for ASEAN as a bloc to promote these practices and to strengthen its centrality. As hurtful as the COVID-19 pandemic is, it should not side-line the responsibility to maintain regional peace and security in Southeast Asia. 

ASEAN member states must also tread with caution in the face of a downward-spiralling relationship between the US and China. It should not jeopardise the existing beneficial relations that it has with both countries by taking sides. 

China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner and, the US is its primary ally in maintaining peace and security in the South China Sea. ASEAN should resume negotiations with China on the South China Sea Code of Conduct while identifying areas of cooperation with Washington and Beijing that mutually benefit all its 10 member states.

Esther N S Tamara is an Associate Researcher at the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI). She is a graduate of International Relations, Political Science, and Economics from University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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