China’s Mask Diplomacy

China saw the coronavirus pandemic as “a window of opportunity to boost its influence” over Southeast Asian nations, the South China Morning Post wrote. By sending medical supplies, vaccines and personnel to Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines, China was able to increase its soft power over them.

China first directed attention to Cambodia last March, donating hazmat suits, face masks and other necessities. The Chinese also sent a team of medical experts to provide education in handling the crisis. A few months later, China provided Cambodia with even more medical materials. China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted Cambodian Health Minister Mam Bunheng as saying: “This assistance is a new testament to the unbreakable friendship, solidarity and cooperation between Cambodia and China.”

That “friendship, solidarity and cooperation” has continued. On February 7, Cambodia received 600,000 doses of Chinese-made covid-19 vaccines. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that China was building testing labs, giving out test kits, and providing vaccines for Cambodia, according to Global Times. “China will continue to provide assistance to Cambodia’s fight against the outbreak as much as it can according to the needs of the Cambodian side,” Zhao said.

China has repeated this foreign policy in so many nations that it has been dubbed “covid-19 diplomacy” or “face mask diplomacy.”

Last April, Laos received over 2,000 test kits from China, in addition to a small group of medical staff to help the Laotians learn how to fight the virus. Xinhua News Agency quoted a hospital worker, saying, “I am grateful to have experienced Chinese medical staff in our country. We can learn directly from them to control the spread of the virus. The assistance makes me feel hopeful.”

This April, Laos received its fourth shipment of vaccines and more medical staff from China. Lao Deputy Prime Minister Kikeo Khaykhamphithoune said the help from China reflects the profound friendship between the two countries.

A similar pattern has developed in both Myanmar and Thailand, where China has provided a continuous stream of coronavirus aid from last spring until now. Last March, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said relations between China and Thailand “will emerge even stronger in this joint campaign against the virus.”

Last July, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to give the Philippines access first when a vaccine was developed. President Xi agreed, and Chinese vaccines first arrived in the Philippines on February 28. Two months later, the Philippines received another half million doses from China.

The South China Morning Post stated that China “has managed to transform the pandemic into a strategic opportunity to assert its leadership role and expand its geopolitical influence.”

It’s a strange turn of events considering the virus originated in China, and the Chinese Communist Party directed its energies to deflecting blame instead of preventing a global pandemic.

Yet instead of blaming China, these countries in Southeast Asia are relying on China for help and looking to China for leadership.

Don’t Be Fooled by China’s Mask Diplomacy

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