Chinese vaccine diplomacy pays off with strengthened Southeast Asia ties

Foreign Affairs

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a meeting to mark 30 years of formal ties, and appeared to smooth over tense spots in relations — with the help of Chinese vaccine aid, which has focused on Southeast Asia.

All smiles underneath the masks? Philippines Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr., who last month tweeted curses at China over South China Sea disputes, makes nice with his counterpart Wáng Yì 王毅 in Chongqing, China, on June 7. Photo via Chinese foreign ministry.

As U.S. President Joe Biden tours Europe this week, shoring up American alliances with an explicit focus on “confronting the harmful activities of the governments of China and Russia,” China is doing something similar in Southeast Asia, strengthening ties partly to counter the U.S. in the region.

Beijing has been building influence with ASEAN, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for years. Several large developments in the past year include:

Chinese Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅 hosted ASEAN counterparts in Chongqing, China, yesterday and today. The meeting marked 30 years of formal relations between China and ASEAN.

  • Wang highlighted COVID aid, saying “that China had already delivered 100 million vaccine doses to ASEAN nations along with other pandemic-fighting materials and technical help,” and promised more aid to come, per the AP.
  • A joint statement from the two co-chairs of the meeting, Wang Yi and Philippines Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr., said that ASEAN “greatly appreciates China’s provision of vaccines, medical supplies and technical assistance,” and praised the “wisdom of close collaboration on pandemic control and socio-economic recovery.”
  • On the South China Sea, the Global Times says that Locsin noted “some differences between the two sides exist,” but they “should not affect the rising bilateral friendship and practical cooperation in various fields.”
  • Yes, this is the same Locsin who lobbed crude insults at China over South China Sea disputes just one month earlier — he later apologized and said that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had told him that “only the President can curse.”
  • The joint statement also said the parties agreed to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes” in the South China Sea.

More on current China-Southeast Asia relations: