In South-east Asia, the Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated the strategic rivalry of China and the United States. Straits Times correspondents look at how this rivalry is playing out, and the response of countries in the region. We also look at US-China tensions and how Indo-Pacific powers are responding.
How region views growing US-China power play
As the coronavirus outbreak in China worsened early in the year, many countries in South-east Asia sent medical supplies to their giant neighbour as a gesture of goodwill and solidarity.
Malaysia sent 18 million gloves in January. The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore donated medical equipment such as masks, hazmat suits, goggles and test kits in February, some dropping off the supplies before picking up their citizens from the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan.
A Thai artist composed a song, Wuhan Press On, while similar words of encouragement were displayed on Thai social media and public places like shopping malls.
Singapore-Beijing ties keep a steady course at 30-year milestone
They may have been in countries thousands of kilometres apart, but that did not stop 30 musicians from Singapore and China earlier this month launching into a sprightly performance together to mark 30 years of bilateral relations.
Clasping their erhu, they harmonised on Facebook as a virtual ensemble, showing the “deep friendship between the peoples of both countries”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said when he shared a video clip of the song in a post.
If not for the Covid-19 pandemic, the musicians could have been performing in a grand theatre, for the year 2020 marks a significant milestone in the relationship between Singapore and China – it was 30 years ago that both sides established diplomatic relations.
China signalling it is ‘done giving face’ to US
Anyone wanting to know what the official position of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is need only tune in to the 7pm daily news broadcast, Xinwen Lianbo.
Last Wednesday, viewers had a bit of a treat when the regular newscaster artfully used these and other four-word Chinese phrases to describe what China thinks of certain American politicians: “distorted in thinking”, “derelict in duty”, “like monkeys wearing hats”, “lies-spreading rumour-mongers”.
“For those who exude perverse, evil influence, history will come after them to settle the score, as will the world,” he said in his smooth baritone voice.
US keen for Asean to stand up to China moves
Amid deepening tactical and strategic competition with China, the United States wants Asean to stand up to what it calls “outside coercion” in the regional bloc’s own backyard.
The US is moving across a broad front, from technology to tariffs to visas, in what some analysts call “full-spectrum competition” with China.
As relations reach a low point, the question of where it leaves South-east Asia re-emerges. Seeing the two global powers at loggerheads makes the South-east Asian region nervous. The region needs both – but not at each other’s throats.
Moves to mend Sino-Japan ties hit by Covid-19
Far from turning the tide in long-frayed Sino-Japan relations, the Covid-19 pandemic and China’s regional moves are threatening a fragile trust that had begun to emerge between Asia’s two largest economic giants.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Japan, which was scheduled for last month, has been indefinitely postponed.
Experts note that Japan’s security ally, the United States, has been taking an increasingly hardline stance against China. Domestically, Japan has begun to question Chinese reciprocity, while accusing Beijing of reckless aggression in regional waters at a time when global cooperation is needed to fight Covid-19.
Australia in a bind after calls to probe origins of coronavirus outbreak
Australia has struggled in recent years to balance its relations with the United States, its closest ally, and China, its largest trading partner – but the Covid-19 pandemic is making this delicate task even harder.
As tensions increased between Beijing and Washington over the origins of the outbreak, Canberra has struggled to find a position that satisfied both.
Instead, the Morrison government appeared to side with Washington and called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. But this has led to a damaging slide in relations with Beijing.
India aims for even keel with China as ties with US grow
India has avoided being drawn into the US and China power rivalry even as it seeks to keep ties with Beijing stable amid border skirmishes and other run-ins.
Ties with the United States, on the other hand, have been less complicated, remaining on an upward trajectory amid the pandemic.
China and India have an undemarcated border with disputes along several parts. The two countries decided to delink border problems from the rest of the relationship, but skirmishes often erupt, straining ties. Indian and Chinese soldiers have been involved in incidents in Ladakh and Sikkim.