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

26 April 2020

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, ChinaFile


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.

Written by Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller, Research Fellow, Centre for  Policy Futures UQ