In this webinar, Dr Chheang Vannarith delves into China’s public health diplomacy by examining China’s Covid-19 assistance and vaccine diplomacy in mainland Southeast Asia.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME
Wednesday, 14 July 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar on “Fighting Covid-19: China’s Soft Power Opportunities in Mainland Southeast Asia” last week, delivered by Dr Vannarith Chheang. Dr Chheang (Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute) is a public policy analyst and government relations strategist. This webinar was moderated by Professor Leo Suryadinata (Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute). Dr Chheang argued that the prospect of China’s soft power in the region will continue to rise thanks to its economic resources and its coalition-building on international issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, there are remaining concerns over China’s strategic intentions.
Dr Chheang began his webinar by giving an overview of COVID-19 cases in the countries of the Mekong region. He observed that Cambodia did relatively well in controlling the pandemic but there has been a significant spike since February of this year. Laos faced a fresh wave of cases early this year and continued to rise during May and June. Dr Chheang said that Myanmar was one of the worst-hit countries in terms of cases and deaths, due to the military coup disrupting the public healthcare system. Thailand has had a similar trend of resurging cases in March and more than 2000 deaths in the country. Lastly, while Vietnam was best in the region in terms of constraining the pandemic last year, Vietnam has experience highly daily infection rates starting from April this year.
Dr Vannarith then commented on the vaccination rate among the different countries, Cambodia taking the lead and Vietnam being the lowest. Dr Vannarith suggested that Vietnam’s slow rate of vaccination could have been due to China’s vaccine donation being controversial in the country: Anti-china sentiment in Vietnam is high due to the South China Sea dispute and the quality of the country vaccine was also doubted.
He added that China’s public health diplomacy was initially through the distribution of face masks, medical supplies and PPE for medical workers to name a few examples. The diplomacy effort now including the donation of vaccines has gained momentum. Cambodia was the first country to receive help from China — which shows their close partnership — and this may have been due to Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen visiting Beijing in February 2020, when criticism was mounting against Beijing. Laos was the second country to receive vaccines from China and has a close diplomatic relationship with China.
In the meantime, Chinese civil society can be seen stepping up to help communities along the Myanmar–China border. For Thailand, Dr Chheang pointed out that the prime minister of Thailand seeks to maintain good relations with China. However, Thailand’s vaccination rate is considered low as it has a better public health system than the other countries in the Mekong region; leadership is the key issue here.
Dr Chheang concluded that China’s public health diplomacy comes along with economic diplomacy and political influence. He noted that China already had ongoing public health diplomatic efforts in the Mekong region through the promotion of eye treatments and Chinese traditional medicine. China’s medical assistance to the region in the fight against the pandemic has accelerated Chinese public health goods and services. Dr Chheang further highlighted that Chinese vaccine distribution in the Mekong is also linked to China’s economic and digital support in the region and establishing the image of China as a responsible regional leader in the fight against the pandemic.
The webinar concluded with a robust Q&A session that discussed issues ranging from comparing Chinese aid to Western aid, the role of ASEAN, and the perception of Southeast Asian elites towards China. Other issues raised include the effects of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea on China’s soft power projection in the region, vaccine nationalism, and the Thai public’s outrage against the low effectiveness of the Sinovac vaccine. 95 participants attended this webinar.