How Is the Coronavirus Outbreak Affecting China’s Relations with Its Asian Neighbors?

A ChinaFile Conversation

How has China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic—inside and outside of China—affected perceptions of China among countries in Asia? And how might this shape future policy toward China, or the regional policy landscape more broadly? —The Editors


China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the skeptical perception of the country that prevails in many quarters in India.

The Indian state’s rhetoric has been quite measured, reflecting its need to procure medical supplies from China and its desire to keep the relationship stable. Nonetheless, Beijing’s approach has fueled Delhi’s existing strategic and economic concerns. These include overdependence on China for industrial inputs—India’s pharmaceutical sector, for instance, sources a majority of its Advanced Pharmaceutical Ingredients from China. Because of this crisis, the desire to boost domestic production or diversify India’s options will likely intensify.

Another government concern is Chinese entities’ taking advantage of the crisis—and China’s own seeming early recovery—for various objectives: (1) the acquisition of vulnerable Indian companies, (2) increasing its influence in India’s neighborhood, and (3) portraying its system and global and regional leadership role as more effective than others (including the U.S. and India).

Thus, India’s government has announced restrictions on foreign direct investment from countries that share a land boundary with India—a move clearly directed against China. It has also been proactive in its neighborhood with diplomatic outreach, economic aid, technical assistance, and the provision of medical supplies. Delhi’s ability to respond to the competition for influence and over political systems will depend on how India ultimately fares in this crisis, in health, economic, and social terms. Meanwhile, India’s leaders have been very active in engaging their counterparts around the world. To boost its own image—and perceptions of its reliability, in case countries and companies diversify more post-COVID-19—India has lifted or made exceptions to its export restrictions on certain drugs. Indian officials have highlighted Delhi’s assistance to China, and, while acknowledging Beijing’s facilitation, emphasized that most of the supplies India is getting from China are commercially procured. Finally, India is engaging with other countries in the Indo-Pacific, bilaterally and through a Quad-plus mechanism. It will also likely work with others to blunt or balance China’s future influence in institutions like the World Health Organization.

The Indian establishment beyond the state has been far more vocal in its criticism of China. Recently, retired diplomats have faulted China for its initial response and lack of transparency, with some advocating the use of the term “Wuhan virus.” It was particularly striking to see two former foreign secretaries and China hands unusually pointing to the lack of democracy in China as part of the problem.

Still, others have called for cooperation with China, and cautioned against blame games, lest they damage the broader China-India strategic or economic relationship. Others worry about India deepening its relationship with the United States as a result.

In the public sphere, though, anti-China sentiment has gone mainstream in a way usually reserved for India’s other rival, Pakistan. Prime-time news segments, if not entire shows, detail China’s role, and memes are proliferating on social media. They largely blame China for the origin of the virus, and criticize its lack of disclosure, its influence on the WHO, its sidelining of Taiwan, the quality of its medical supplies, and what are seen as its efforts to take diplomatic or commercial advantage of the crisis. While this outcome is not surprising for a country where only 23 percent of those surveyed in 2019 had a favorable view of China, there is little doubt that the crisis has intensified concern.

In March, just a week after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, Pakistani president Arif Alvi met with Xi Jinping in Beijing. Alvi expressed Pakistan’s solidarity at a time when China’s global reputation was at a low point. A week later, the favor was returned when a planeload of Chinese medical facemasks landed in Karachi.

The pattern reflects a wider reality. For decades, China and Pakistan have described each other as “all-weather allies,” but the relationship had actually been a relatively narrow partnership between military officers, diplomats, and intelligence officials. Over the past five years, however, ties grew to encompass a range of political and economic initiatives under the umbrella of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, initially considered a flagship project in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Those past five years have not, however, witnessed a secular improvement in relations between Beijing and Islamabad. Instead, frustrations in their cooperative ventures have demonstrated the partnership’s practical limitations. Nevertheless, Alvi and Xi are not alone in their public commitment to close bilateral ties; nearly all of Pakistan’s top leaders—including the military brass—are politically implicated in CPEC and cannot afford to see it fail.

In Pakistan’s increasingly state-influenced media, there has been a clear push to deflect blame for the pandemic away from China, to trumpet the fact that initial infections came by way of Pakistani pilgrims returning from Iran rather than from Chinese workers and goods, or Pakistanis studying in China. Pakistan’s news outlets have reliably emphasized the generosity of Chinese aid, including medical supplies, technical experts, and cash.

Like most of the developing world, Pakistan is not remotely prepared to grapple with the enormity of the pandemic, either from a public health or economic perspective. Given Islamabad’s incomplete success in implementing a full national lockdown or a rapid expansion of testing, the country’s densely-packed cities and vast population of over 200 million will almost certainly require thousands more ventilators, not to mention personal protective equipment (PPE). Economically, Pakistan was already in dire straits before the pandemic, and digging deeper into debt to China, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and multilateral banks. Alone, Islamabad’s $7.5 billion relief and stimulus package will be insufficient to address the needs of its most vulnerable.

Pakistan is desperate for foreign aid and mercy, whatever the source. Prime Minister Imran Khan has appealed to the West for debt forgiveness. The G20 included Pakistan in its temporary relief plan. Yet Washington’s approximately $9 million in assistance so far pales in comparison to past instances of American generosity, such as during the devastating 2005 earthquake or the floods of 2010.

Expectations for China are clearly higher among Pakistan’s leaders and the public at large. Pakistan has appealed to Beijing directly for relief, both for debt repayment and for power purchases. The open question is whether Beijing is actually ready or willing to prove itself the hero and deliver a truly generous dose of aid that would enable Pakistanis to better weather the storm. This could overcome some of the frustrations that have brewed over the past five years and open the door to even deeper political, economic, and security cooperation in the future. Then again, as Washington has learned time and again (and Beijing may already begin to appreciate), Pakistan’s latest crisis is never its last.

Rather than changing anyone’s mind, the Chinese Party-state’s handling of COVID-19 will entrench existing perceptions of China. In Australia, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and India, views towards China were already at historic lows prior to the crisis. This skepticism of China will only deepen, as these countries recall the initial suppression of information and draconian measures in Wuhan, and observe China’s attempts to rewrite history.

But for countries where public opinion has tended to support closer ties with China, the crisis will consolidate those views. China’s ability to rise from the ashes of Wuhan’s innocents and marshal massive resources to respond to the crisis will awe those countries that already admired China’s prowess. Today, Cambodia, Pakistan, Hungary, and Serbia are praising China’s decisive response and expressing gratitude for medical supplies. And while some mask diplomacy has failed due to a lack of quality controls, the real benefits derived in developing countries from receiving teams of medical professionals and webinars in local language shouldn’t be underestimated.

Overall, this mixed scorecard suggests that China’s reputation will not have improved in absolute terms. But the incompetence of many countries around the world in preparing for and responding to COVID-19 provides China with relative gains on many of the globe’s oldest and wealthiest liberal democracies. In many quarters, China’s initial failures have been overshadowed by the challenges faced in Europe and the incompetence of the Trump administration.

Feelings toward U.S. President Donald Trump that existed before the outbreak intensify this dynamic. In Australia, only 32 percent trust China to “act responsibly in the world.” But fewer Australians have confidence in Trump than in Xi Jinping. When publics today think of which leaders have failed to contain the spread of COVID-19, does Trump or Xi come to mind? True, Trump has regularly had to face journalists, something Xi is yet to allow. Yet, Trump’s relationship with the truth is as tenuous as that of many of China’s officials’ spouting of conspiracy theories.

America has undermined its position and prestige overseas, leaving a relative win for China. China’s long-term coercion of the World Health Organization, for example, is unlikely to leave as lasting an impression as the United States’ loud bullying and withdrawal of funding at a crucial moment.

But these relative views of China will have a limited policy impact in the short term. The vast majority of Australians want less economic dependence on China, for example. Some level of “decoupling” was already underway, and more is likely, particularly as countries like Australia prioritize sovereign manufacturing in critical areas. But with China edging back towards normal life, and not giving up its position as the globe’s largest consumer market, few political leaders and publics will be in a position to decouple from China without severe economic pain.

It is far from certain who will “win” the international diplomatic stoush sparked by the crisis—if anyone. But if it is China that comes out on top, it will be a public diplomacy battle that the world’s leading liberal democracies have lost, not one that China has won. The beneficiary of this race to the bottom may be the only superpower left standing: China.

The political fallout from China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be more severe in the United States and Europe than in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian governments have avoided pointing fingers and instead shown solidarity with China in fighting the virus. Some, like the Cambodian government, have bent over backwards to win Brownie points from China; Prime Minister Hun Sen visited China during the peak of the outbreak and declared that “the disease of Cambodian citizens is not a disease caused by the virus ‘Corona,’ but a disease of fear.” The Chinese government has thanked Southeast Asian countries and reciprocated with aid. Chinese narratives portray Southeast Asia as standing with China.

By and large, Southeast Asian countries have accepted that they are in the same boat with China when it comes to regional affairs, even in the area of public health. The experience of SARS in 2003, which also originated from China, taught Southeast Asian governments that their fates are tied to their giant neighbor. It is this pragmatism that drives Southeast Asia’s perceptions and responses to China’s handling of the pandemic.

On February 1, Singapore closed its borders to all travelers from China, the first country in Southeast Asia to do so. The Singaporean government took pains to avoid offending the Chinese government with this decision. When announcing the travel ban, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said the ban had nothing to do with nationality but was aimed at limiting imported cases. On February 2, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also said he knew “that China is doing all it can to contain the spread of the virus. . . Even though the virus started in Wuhan, it doesn’t respect nationality or race. It does not check your passport before it goes into your body.” Lee described Singapore’s ban as “purely to protect our public health.” Lee and President Halimah Yaacob penned letters to President Xi Jinping to reaffirm Singapore’s support for China in battling the pandemic. The Singapore government also took measures to censure a surge in anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant sentiment.

These efforts have paid off as the Chinese government appears to have accepted that, as a small and densely-populated city-state, Singapore faces particular vulnerabilities to the pandemic. While the Chinese government has criticized countries that ban travelers from China—in particular, the United States—Singapore was spared. Indeed Chinese media praised Singapore for its initial success in containing the pandemic.

China-Southeast Asia relations are unlikely to be significantly damaged by the pandemic. Support for the Belt and Road Initiative is undiminished as hunger for infrastructure remains. However, two longer-term trends exacerbated by the pandemic are worth watching. First, Southeast Asians’ trust in China has been decreasing. According to a late-2019 survey of respondents from ASEAN states, confidence that China will “do the right thing” is low—16.1 percent. With the pandemic, we are likely to see a further erosion of trust. Second, the pandemic, on top of the U.S.-China trade war, has thrown into even sharper relief the dangers of over-reliance on China. Southeast Asian countries are likely to accelerate diversification from China-centric supply chains. Singapore, which has been sounding the call for supply chain resilience since the trade war, has further stepped up diversification efforts as a result of the pandemic.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet had a full diplomatic agenda with China lined up as it headed into 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has derailed much of it, most notably hopes for a successful state visit by Xi Jinping. The economic impact in these first three months of the year has been disastrous for Japan.

But COVID-19 has also stoked simmering doubts about what Japan will face in the region in the years ahead as China’s influence over its neighbors grows. Japan’s relations with China have been volatile for over a decade, especially since competing sovereignty claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea erupted in 2010, and again in 2012.

The COVID-19 outbreak derailed a careful plan to get back on a steadier footing. High-level summitry had finally begun with Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Japan in May 2018, followed by an October 2018 visit to China by Abe. This year, Xi was ready for his first state visit to Japan and looked forward to seeing “the cherry blossoms bloom,” setting an optimistic tone for the culmination of years of difficult diplomacy. Hesitant to call off Xi’s visit, Beijing and Tokyo finally decided on March 5 to postpone it until the outbreak settled in China.

The coronavirus epidemic has also revealed cracks in economic ties between Tokyo and Beijing, which are still the ballast for their rocky strategic relationship. Longstanding interdependence between the two economies makes disruptions like the COVID-19 crisis—much like the Senkaku/Diaoyu crisis before it—costly for Japanese businesses reliant on the China market. Within Japan, travel restrictions meant tourism from China dropped precipitously in February. Trade in goods also dropped off sharply; imports from China fell by 47.1 percent year over year in February. Exports to China fell only marginally, as demand for electronic components grew. Informal studies revealed that 37 percent of the 2,600 Japanese businesses in China surveyed were anxious to relocate, either back to Japan or elsewhere. The over $1 trillion (108 trillion yen) stimulus package designed to offset the economic impact of the virus includes $2 billion in assistance to companies to return to Japan, and a fraction of that amount for companies wanting to relocate elsewhere.

China’s handling of the outbreak will likely deepen regional concerns about its growing influence, and in Tokyo, skepticism over Beijing’s ambitions remains considerable. For now, with Abe-Xi summitry on hold, Tokyo’s reliance on economic cooperation to smooth the way seems less likely given private sector assessment of the risks as the world tries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Japan remains far from being on the other side of danger, and China’s military behavior in and around Japanese territory during the crisis has not gone unnoticed. There is no sign, in other words, that Beijing has changed its regional ambitions during this health crisis. Globally, Chinese influence at the WHO has also dismayed Japanese policymakers, and is seen as yet one more example of how China’s approach to international organizations often seems at odds with Tokyo’s interests.

But it is the opaqueness of China’s early management of the outbreak that will haunt Japan-China ties going forward. Already skeptical of the Chinese government, the Japanese people are likely to see this as even more evidence that Japan’s well-being is increasingly undermined by decisions made in Beijing.

Predictions that COVID-19 may fundamentally reset how the international community engages with China may prove to be more wishful thinking than an accurate forecast of global change. Different states view geopolitical dynamics in different ways. In Southeast Asia, a region lying at the crossroads of geopolitical competition, economic and domestic political imperatives often trump security concerns in assessing risk from China.

Anger over Beijing’s initial handling of the outbreak hasn’t resonated in Indonesia’s political circles as it has in Taipei, Canberra, Washington, or London. So far, Indonesia is focused on mitigating the internal health and economic effects of the crisis for its 270 million people. Right now, the Indonesian government appears to view the coronavirus pandemic less as a symptom of China’s pernicious authoritarianism and more as a global health emergency requiring enhanced international cooperation.

This is not to say that COVID-19 has not seen an anti-Chinese backlash in Indonesia. Racist claims attributing the spread of coronavirus to ethnic Chinese Indonesians, Chinese workers, and Chinese-made products have spread on social media. Chinese Indonesians seeking refuge in Singapore have been condemned in online vitriol describing them as “disgusting losers and traitors.” But Indonesian social media users do not seem to have joined forces with the self-declared “Milk Tea Alliance,” which has seen Taiwanese and Hong Kong critics of Beijing’s response back Thai tweeters in online spats with pro-China “Little Pinks.”

Of course, if the Indonesian government fails to control the virus, COVID-19’s socio-economic reverberations might inflame broader anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia. But this sentiment would likely be understood through the prism of Indonesia’s own socio-political dynamics, rather than any pan-ASEAN anti-Chinese narrative.

Chinese threat constructs play a pervasive and complex role in the Indonesian national psyche. They meld historical anti-communism, long-held economic resentment toward Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese community, unease about Chinese penetration of the economy, and anger about Chinese incursions in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Moreover, anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia’s hard-line Islamic community is easily manipulated.

Recognition of both Indonesia’s strategic importance in ASEAN and the contested place of the Chinese in Indonesia’s domestic polity is perhaps the reason why Xi Jinping declared that Indonesia would be one of China’s “priorities,” to which Indonesian President Joko Widodo responded by decrying “stigmatization.”

Indonesia’s national development priorities rely increasingly on Chinese aid, trade, investment, and technology to power its economy, and particularly the president’s signature infrastructure drive.

China has assisted Indonesia with essential medical supplies flown back from Shanghai by the Indonesian Air Force. Meanwhile, a new ASEAN-China COVID-19 Response Fund has been established in collaboration with the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) states (China, Japan and Korea). Beijing has also committed to providing financial and material support through the more established ASEAN-China Cooperation and APT Cooperation Funds.

China’s deep integration in Southeast Asian economies sees it on the front foot in minimizing fall-out from COVID-19 and positing China as an indispensable partner to ASEAN states. Indonesia’s desire to preserve a harmonious relationship with Beijing in order to sustain economic growth and preserve domestic political stability will see Jakarta resist any pressure from Washington and its allies to punish Beijing.

In New Zealand, the first few months of the pandemic were heavily China-focused. In February, the New Zealand government imposed restrictions on international travel such that no one from mainland China (other than New Zealand citizens and permanent residents) was permitted to enter New Zealand. This had an immediate effect on the tourism and international education sectors. A number of tertiary institutions objected. The academic year for New Zealand universities begins in March, so the restrictions meant that students returning or arriving from China were unable to do so, with a consequential effect on the income of those institutions. The Chinese ambassador made a number of public statements challenging the effectiveness and equity of the travel ban. The government arranged a flight to take New Zealand citizens and some others from Wuhan and Hubei back to New Zealand.

The travel ban policy was regularly reviewed by the government but not changed. Iran was added later. Then in mid-March, as the virus spread to other countries, the New Zealand government imposed a complete travel ban so that only New Zealand citizens and permanent residents could enter New Zealand. Since then, far more attention has been paid to developments in Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States than to China, where it is reported that the country is slowly emerging from the crisis.

Views of China have not changed much as a result of the coronavirus and China’s handling of it. Those who before the crisis were inclined to be critical of China have seen their concerns validated. Those who have an interest of whatever kind in China have been more muted in their comments and more sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese people.

New Zealanders have accepted to a degree which would have been unimaginable a year ago restrictions on their freedom of movement and the like in part, I surmise, because the government’s measures have proved to be effective. The rate of infection has dropped, and at least some of the more stringent measures likely will be relaxed in coming weeks. There is a debate, but it is about the balance between protecting human lives and the impact on the economy, not an argument as to who was responsible for this predicament in the first place.

It therefore does not seem very likely that there will be a noticeable impact on future policy towards China. The key elements to balance remain: China is an important trade and economic partner for New Zealand; it is a voice in the region and in the world with whom we have to engage; but it has values and policies very different from our own. The trajectory of COVID-19 in New Zealand will be the main preoccupation. If the situation in New Zealand improves sustainably, then attention will be on the not-so-fortunate countries elsewhere in the world, of which China is now one of many, and which are the source of much of our country’s growth and prosperity.

On the evening of April 14, the Grand Hotel Taipei, a landmark building in Taiwan’s capital lit up rooms to spell out a big “ZERO,” celebrating the day’s achievement of no new confirmed COVID-19 cases. The picture immediately went viral on the Internet, heartening people who’d worn face masks, forgone vacations, and abstained from religious gathering for months, not to mention the frontline medical professionals and supply workers who had worked tirelessly to contain the virus’ spread. As of April 24, Taiwan has reported 428 cases (or 0.00002 percent of the population), much lower than neighboring countries.

While Taiwan, as well as some of its regional neighbors, demonstrated the possibility of flattening the infection curve without resorting to draconian municipal or provincial lockdowns or a suspension of human rights protections, Taiwan’s contentious relationship with the People’s Republic of China’s government underwent a visible shift. Swiftly vanishing was the idea that Taiwan’s economy relied on mainland China to the extent that the island’s assertion of its autonomy, both domestically and internationally, would need to accommodate Beijing’s expectations. Over the years, China has launched a number of incentive policies to increase the inflow of capital, manpower, students, and civil society organizations to cultivate the sense that Taiwan’s own viability was inseparability hinged upon China’s prosperity. The Kuomintang government of 2008-2016 had unilaterally hedged on the China connection nearly as the only way forward for Taiwan. Taiwan’s civil society took notice of this position and its potential political reverberations and the result was the student-led Sunflower Movement of 2014, which successfully opposed further economic integration with China and paved the way for the political ascendancy of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party in 2016.

Had there been no Sunflower Movement and the Kuomintang-supported trade liberalization was now in effect, the lack of a robust border might have seen Taiwan overwhelmed by the outbreak. The Democratic Progressive Party has just won itself another term on January 11, a mere two weeks before the Wuhan lockdown. It’s not hard to imagine what might have befallen Taiwan had the Kuomintang candidate triumphed instead.

The current pandemic originated in China, and its government’s heavy-handed silencing of healthcare professionals and subsequent suppression of information led to its global spread. Taiwanese citizens seem to have taken that lesson to heart. A late-February survey on national identity showed more than 83 percent of respondents identified purely as “Taiwanese,” as opposed to “Chinese” or “both Taiwanese and Chinese,” a record-high result over the past 30 years. Mainland officials have publicly accused the Taiwan incumbent government of promoting an independence agenda during the pandemic. But if the results of the survey continue to hold true, Beijing will need to think twice before initiating another round of routine condemnation.

Taiwan has banned the entry of Chinese nationals since early February, halting cross-strait travels. The past two months have been a rare experiment in how Taiwan might survive without Chinese visitors and their tourist spending. So far, Taiwan has stood up to the test, and the post-COVID cross-strait relationship will never be the same again.

One of greatest strengths of China’s Nepal policy is its robust public diplomacy. China has built a very positive image in Nepal. Kathmandu often sees controversy over issues related to big countries, but rarely is that true of issues related to China. America’s $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant to Nepal occasioned heated debate, whereas China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has scarcely been questioned, apart from a few voices concerned over how Nepal will repay China’s loans.

China’s domestic issues do not play much of a role in shaping Nepalis’ perception of China. In Nepal, there is hardly any discussion of the concerns about human rights, transparency, and accountability that have dominated discussion of China’s handling of the outbreak elsewhere in the world. Instead, political parties and government officials believe Nepal should replicate China’s model should they face a large-scale outbreak.

Still, were China to apply pressure in the realm of freedom of expression in Nepal, it would likely be met with resistance. In February, The Kathmandu Post, an English-language newspaper, published a reprint of an article that had previously run in the Korean Herald, arguing China’s government had mishandled the coronavirus outbreak. The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu then issued a statement contending that the “piece, along with an adjoining picture, deliberately smeared China’s fight against the novel Coronavirus and viciously attacked China’s political system.” 17 Nepali editors responded with a statement objecting to the embassy’s statement. This was the first time in recent memory that China’s embassy faced this kind of backlash. Ordinarily, Nepali media—except in a few cases—refrain from producing or disseminating content critical of China.

It’s still too early to draw a conclusion about Nepal’s perception of China post-COVID-19. Along with Nepal, South Asian countries are seeking assistance from big countries such as India, the United States, and China in their fight against the pandemic. Nepal has received support from India, the U.S., and Germany, as well as China.

But, Nepal’s government is purchasing a large portion of essential medical supplies from China, and China is providing more assistance than other countries, overall. China is very cautious about its positive image in Nepal. Amid reports of flawed testing kits in some countries, according to Nepal government officials the Chinese government has asked Nepal to buy testing kits only from those Chinese companies approved by Beijing.

In March, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi tweeted, “We are praying for Nepal and trying our best to coordinate some medical materials to help our Nepali friends. You will never be alone.” Social media users appreciated the line “you will never be alone,” and thanked her for pledging to provide support. If other big countries cannot provide assistance, China is sure to fill the void. If China contains the spread of the virus within its borders and provides support to other countries, its footprint in South Asia will likely grow. That would increase countries’ dependence on China. But for the moment, it’s too early to say whether that will come to pass.

Southeast Asia, and much of the rest of Asia, is not on the cusp of a friendlier era of relations with China as a result of Beijing’s domestic and international handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, attitudes seem to be hardening around a two-fold assessment that existed on the eve of the pandemic: China is the most influential regional economic and politico-strategic power, but on both counts large majorities (71.9 percent and 85.4 percent, respectively) worry about this influence. A Pew Research poll conducted in 2019 found favorability ratings for China among Asia-Pacific countries to be considerably lower than those for the U.S., though favorability for the U.S. had slipped too. Southeast Asia’s top China worries include economic dominance and political influence and coercion, strong-arm tactics in the South China Sea and the Mekong, and use of economic tools and tourism to punish foreign policy choices. Now in its mishandling of the coronavirus response, China has acted in ways that exacerbate these long-standing concerns.

Beijing’s delayed response to the pandemic, suppressed data, and outlandish allegations against the U.S. have created new suspicions. The direct impacts of COVID-19 on China (mainly revised downward economic growth projections) and the spillover onto Asian economies (e.g., reduced tourists, disrupted supply chains) are adding to the region’s core worries about China’s economic strengths.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Asian countries such as Japan, Australia, and even Singapore have strengthened measures to control inward investment from China and prevent technology leaks from their economies and educational institutions—all in an effort to prevent excessive or threatening P.R.C. economic and technological dominance. Japan has even offered its companies a small but symbolic economic incentive to diversify production away from China. Nor is there any surprise that Beijing has recently managed to alienate Indonesia by its assertive actions in the Natuna Sea. China’s actions have even prompted the Philippines to officially and openly back Vietnam in its latest skirmish with China in the South China Sea. Asian countries have pursued their own pandemic assistance diplomacy to protect their ties to regional partners. Japan has been especially adept at regional outreach, garnering confidence from 61.2 percent of ASEAN survey respondents that it will “do the right thing to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance.”

More broadly, the impact on future policy toward China and regional international relations is exacerbating what I have called the region’s “four contestations” over the balance of power; regional relationships; order in the form of rules, norms, and institutions; and narratives. The United States should find little solace in this state of affairs, as its own handling of the pandemic is reinforcing Asia’s anxieties about Washington’s reliability.

In sum, amidst the ongoing pandemic, we can expect Asia’s fundamental worries about China to wax rather than wane. And we can expect regional international relations to be increasingly contentious over the distribution of power, the strength of bilateral relationships, choices of rules and institutions, and Chinese versus U.S. narratives of blame and culpability. Today’s precarious balance on all these fronts points in the direction of uncertainty, fluidity, and disorder. Hold on tight!

Any assessment of how COVID-19 is impacting China-Asia relations must take into account three wars within the coronavirus war: China’s narrative war, the legitimation wars within the Southeast Asian nations, and the war for ASEAN’s relevancy. How the wars proceed and intersect with each other will determine not only relations between China and the Southeast Asian nations, but also the regional policy landscape more broadly.

China’s ruling Communist Party has pursued legitimation at home and abroad since the international media began reporting its delayed initial response and a “cover-up” of the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite its success in containing the spread of the virus domestically, China’s image has been tarnished in Asia and beyond. To improve it, neutralize potential backlash, and expand its influence, China has endeavored to shape the narrative of the pandemic, quickly launching its “mask diplomacy” while dispatching doctors and health experts. Whatever motives we may impute to the diplomatic op, it is undoubtedly a constructive act, especially to badly-hit countries.

In Malaysia, as in other Southeast Asian countries, public perceptions of this have been mixed. The Chinese Embassy and Chinese foundations and firms have made huge donations of medical supplies not only to hospitals and government agencies but also to various social and cultural groups of different ethnic backgrounds. Some have deemed the donations a public relations exercise to sway public opinion; some have expressed unease about Beijing’s discourse in projecting itself as a “protector” during this global crisis; while others have welcomed China’s concrete help with open arms. The finer aspects of China’s diplomacy have not been lost on Malaysian observers. The Chinese Ambassador described China’s gifts as a reciprocal act, acknowledging Malaysia’s generous support when China was fighting the pandemic domestically. Meanwhile, China Global Television Network (CGTN) named Malaysian Health Director-General Noor Hisham Abdullah, the public face of Malaysia’s response to the pandemic, as one of the world’s “top doctors” in the fight against COVID-19, alongside the U.S.’s Anthony Fauci and New Zealand’s Ashley Bloomfield.

This diplomatic mileage, however, has been undermined by China’s actions on another front. Around the time of the CGTN announcement, the Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 was spotted tagging a Malaysian exploration vessel off the coasts of Brunei and East Malaysia. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 had appeared in the waters off Vietnam earlier in the week. China’s activities in the South China Sea are leaving the impression that Beijing is taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation to advance its territorial interests in the disputed waters.

Southeast Asian states, on the other hand, are fighting not just a pandemic war, but also a political war: They are fighting legitimation battles at home. In Malaysia, the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) government replaced the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition through a political coup in late February. Short of democratic mandate, the primary pathway for the all-Malay PN government to justify its rule is through “performance,” namely, the ability to perform and deliver core governance tasks. This explains Malaysia’s swift and firm response (a nation-wide Movement Control Order (MCO) after a spike in new COVID-19 cases in late February), its visible actions (deploying the police and armed forces to enforce the MCO), and its open embrace of China’s “mask diplomacy” (while engaging other external actors, e.g., the UAE and South Korea).

Meanwhile, in Cambodia, development-based legitimation and strong-man authoritarian rule underpin its leader’s coronavirus-related decisions. Hun Sen offered to visit Wuhan to underscore Cambodia’s solidarity with China. He then allowed the cruise ship MS Westerdam to dock at Sihanoukville, after the ship had been denied entry by several countries. Slapping back criticism of Cambodia’s human rights record, Hun Sen asked, “How can we talk about respecting human rights if the right to life is not respected?” The China factor takes another direction in the case of Vietnam, where nationalist legitimation cum performance justification drives Hanoi’s own mask diplomacy and assertive maritime actions, challenging but without completely confronting Beijing.

When asked about Southeast Asian governments’ restraint in openly commenting on China’s handling of COVID-19, an elite Southeast Asian told me the focus “is to bring the virus down and re-start the economy” as soon as possible, “otherwise recovery will not be easy.” He added: “China is very important in all these equations.” This is not surprising. China has been ASEAN’s top trading partner for more than a decade, and last month ASEAN replaced the European Union as China’s largest trading partner, further underscoring how ASEAN and China are interdependent. The IMF, in a report released earlier this month, forecasted that only emerging Asia will see a positive growth rate in 2020, as the global economy undergoes its “worst recession since the Great Depression” of the 1930s. As ASEAN and China recover, they will need each other to restore their supply chains, trade, and industrial cooperation. Hence, Southeast Asian countries are likely to leverage—not reject or confront—China’s greater activism, while insisting on an open and balanced regional order. Hence, the third variable, the war for ASEAN’s relevance, is crucial in determining regional policies in the coming years.

ASEAN’s relevancy war involves not only its 10 member states, but also its circles of dialogue partners. These include not only China but also the other members of the Plus Three (Japan and South Korea), Plus Six (India, Australia, New Zealand), and Plus Eight (United States and Russia) mechanisms. To be relevant, all regional institutions must be resilient enough to reinvent themselves when new challenges arise, while allowing partner states to continue cooperating and managing conflict, thereby ensuring a stable and durable regional order. The recent online Special ASEAN Summit and the Special ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit, which established the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund aimed at boosting existing emergency stockpiles, were a good start. All dialogue partners, however, must invest and do their part to ensure the open, inclusive, and balanced nature of ASEAN-led mechanisms. Ultimately, it is not just ASEAN which is battling for its relevancy in this unprecedentedly challenging time; all the other powers are too.