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(March 10, 2020) Geopolitics in the time of the coronavirus

The remarkable 'immunity' of China-friendly mainland South-east Asian countries to Covid-19 underscores the politicisation of public health issues If the saying holds that China's sneeze metaphorically inflicts a cold on the world, then mainland South-east Asian countries should be stricken with acute pneumonia by now. But such is not the case.


Located next to China, where the capital city of Wuhan in Hubei province is ground zero for the new coronavirus outbreak, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand are geographically on the front lines as it were, more exposed than most, via travel and trade, to the rapidly spreading contagion.


As the Covid-19 disease spreads beyond 100 countries with a rising death toll of nearly 4,000 from more than 110,000 infections, countries as far flung as Italy, Iran and South Korea are the ones in the spotlight, caught in the throes of a very public crisis, with spiking numbers of infections and deaths and government announcements on lockdowns and travel restrictions.


But in China's four neighbours, the situation is radically different - little or no cases of infection and a strangely subdued response to a global crisis.

STRANGE STATISTICS


The lack of news about outbreaks, however, is not the result of some special immunity to the coronavirus. Instead, the reactions and responses of these four countries reflect their choice to "suffer with" rather than "suffer against" China in view of their giant neighbour's influence in mainland South-east Asia.


From the time China alerted the World Health Organisation to several cases of the yet unnamed disease at the end of December last year to yesterday, Laos and Myanmar have yet to report a single case, while Cambodia has registered just one confirmed case. As healthcare infrastructure in these three countries is limited, many suspect a woeful lack of testing and a deliberate neglect as explanations why numbers are so low.


Sharing porous land borders with China, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have built up over the years dense trade and investment ties with Chinese nationals who frequently visit by air and by road. While it is hard to believe that Covid-19 is not more prevalent in these poorer countries, it is understandable how their governments would not want to incur the ire of Beijing or, to put it more positively, want to chalk up brownie points with China's leaders.


In the case of Myanmar, China's cooperation is vital in dealing with the ethnic conflicts in its northern states. Beijing is also underwriting the construction of a US$6 billion (S$8.3 billion) rail between Kunming in Yunnan province to the Laotian capital of Vientiane, worth the equivalent of one-third of the land-locked country's gross domestic product (GDP), part of the China-Indochina-Peninsula Economic Corridor connection to the Belt and Road Initiative.


Cambodia is arguably the most salient among China's client states. Its coastal Sihanoukville province is dominated by Chinese business interests and visitors, virtually a Chinese enclave bordering the South China Sea. While Thailand's medical industry and healthcare professionals are better equipped to handle the 50 cases that include one fatality so far, its government has also gone out of its way not to impose travel restrictions on Chinese visitors from outside Wuhan.


Well into the third month of Covid-19 crisis, Chinese visitors to Thailand can still enter the country easily with visas on arrival. Chinese visitors comprised nearly a third of Thailand's 36 million tourists last year, when tourism receipts contributed 12 per cent of GDP. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has generally kowtowed to Chinese preferences and geopolitical posture, dating from May 2014 when he staged a military coup and brought Thailand closer to China at the expense of relations with Western democracies.


Vietnam, which has prickly relations vis-a-vis China, is not in this club. Travel restrictions to keep out Chinese visitors and health measures to monitor nationals who have gone to China or came into contact with Chinese people have been stepped up. These moves are more in line with those taken by other countries, including those that have criticised China's handling of Covid-19 such as Australia and the United States.


A TEST OF FRIENDSHIP


The upshot is that Covid-19 has taken on longer-term geopolitical ramifications. It has become politicised and polarised because it emanates from a giant Asian superpower that is aggressive and ascendant in pursuit of global supremacy.


Unsurprisingly, China has been calling in its chips, and will likely remember how it was viewed and treated during the Covid-19 outbreak and spread.


Just as everyone was staying away, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen conspicuously demonstrated his solidarity and allegiance by visiting Beijing on Feb 5, posting on his official Facebook page: "A friend in need is a friend indeed." Two weeks later, China hosted a foreign ministers' meeting with Asean in Vientiane on Feb 20 to solicit regional solidarity on virus management. Had Covid-19 originated in a smaller country with no global ambitions like China's, international reactions to it would have been less frenzied and controversial. But China is big and powerful, its role so enmeshed in the world economy that few countries can be left unaffected when it is afflicted with such a contagious and deadly virus. By comparison, global reactions were less intense and critical when the H1N1 flu, which was first detected in the US in 2009, went on to infect more than 1.6 million and killed over 280,000 across 214 countries.


As the Covid-19 outbreak continues to spread worldwide, stoking fear along the way as it claims more victims, it is likely to carve a new geopolitical fault line between those aligned with China and those that are not.


Most countries now have no choice but to undertake more restrictions and precautions to stem the outbreak. But mainland South-east Asia will likely be an exception. The relatively muted responses of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand are likely to be maintained. Even if their nationals face more ravages from the virus, their governments will want to be seen as suffering with, not against, China.


LONGER-TERM SIDE EFFECTS?


As for China, how countries responded to the outbreak in its later stages may not be as important as the decisions taken early on. In the present polarised environment, fanned by US-China rivalry, it is perhaps inevitable that everything, including science-based issues of public health, becomes a potential test of friendship if not fealty. When the present crisis is over, the question remains - will Beijing still maintain on its ledger what countries did in the early days of the outbreak, counting the tougher immediate actions as a slight?
Given the reports of racism associated with the outbreak, the Chinese people's reaction bears watching too. Depending on how things play out and how China's state media choose to report them, the danger is that China's citizens may come to see adverse global reactions towards their country not as a legitimate and reasonable response, but as yet another way of keeping China down.


Regrettably, Covid-19 has the potential of longer-term side effects long after the epidemic has run its course, by worsening geopolitical tensions and rivalry, reinforcing Chinese nationalist sentiments and entrenching existing divides, not least in South-east Asia.


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