Research Assistant, Department of Politics and Public Administration, the University of Hong Kong
While many have observed how COVID-19 is a humanitarian and economic crisis, the pandemic has wider impacts on the regional geopolitical order. Some countries may take years to recover from the outbreak and the recession it entails; while some others would emerge on top of the crisis even stronger than before – Vietnam likely being one of them. Most significantly, this pandemic coincides with a period of Northeast Asia’s newfound interest in Southeast Asia. China and Japan’s roles in Southeast Asia are diminishing, while Korea and Taiwan are proving their worth and displaying their commitment towards the region.
The Rise of Vietnam
As alluded to in the previous article, the pandemic serves as a litmus test for the public health system and crisis management capabilities of Southeast Asian governments [See COVID-19: New Geopolitical Order in the Making] Vietnam has come into the spotlight with an extremely low number of 270 cases and zero deaths (CNA, 2020). To put this into perspective, the ASEAN Post reported over 17 thousand total cases in Singapore as of 1 May 2020, which has a population less than a tenth of Vietnam’s.
During the SARS outbreak in 2003, the World Health Organization declared Vietnam to be the first country to be cleared of the epidemic. Today, Vietnam is applauded for its public health crisis response again. In the previous month the country even shipped 450,000 protective suits to the United States (Reuters, 2020).
Prior to the outbreak, Vietnam has already been called the “Biggest winner of the US-China trade war”. Korea’s electronics giant, Samsung, for example, has shifted part of its production to Vietnam. As companies realize the danger of putting all eggs in one basket, it is likely that supply chains will continue to move into Vietnam.
2020 marks a significant year for the socialist republic as it is Vietnam’s turn to hold the rotational chairmanship of ASEAN, in addition to being elected to the United Nations Security Council last year. Vietnam’s performance in the pandemic would help establish its leadership in Southeast Asia. It would be interesting to wait and observe the reactions of traditional rivals Thailand and Cambodia, as well as ASEAN leaders Singapore and Indonesia.
Japan and China’s diminishing influence
Japan and China have traditionally played a significant role in Southeast Asia, yet both of them are criticized for their responses to this pandemic. In the city Wuhan, which was the epicenter of the outbreak, eight whistleblowers were arrested for “rumour-mongering”. It appears that this crisis has also exposed weaknesses in Chinese economy – 3 major listed companies went down in the same week (SCMP, 2020). The #nnevvy row between Chinese and Thai netizens also prove that China is losing its popularity (Foreign Policy, 2020).
As for Japan, the Shinzo Abe administration came under fire for its passive responses. A nationwide state of emergency was declared on 16 April (Japan Times, 2020), and the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics would be a huge blow to the economy that was already slowing down.
Korea and Taiwan’s ventures into Southeast Asia
The Presidents of Korea and Taiwan have unrolled new Southeast Asia policies respectively. Taiwan’s Tsai Ingwen announced the New Southbound Policy in 2016 and Korea’s Moon Jae-in declared the New Southern Policy in 2017, both being foreign policy paradigms to deepen ties with the 10 ASEAN member states. They are establishing themselves as trustworthy partners in this pandemic, both of them have announced measures to support Southeast Asia in the first week of April. Compared to China’s lack of transparency and Japan’s passivity, Korea and Taiwan are applauded for their efforts and efficiency in combating the pandemic.
Korea was once the country with the second-largest number of confirmed cases, yet their willingness to test large numbers of people have helped them contain the virus rather quickly. Seoul was never in a lockdown and the curve is now flattened (New York Times, 2020)- they even held National Assembly elections on 15 April as scheduled. Korea is now sharing their resources and experiences with the rest of the world – in April 50,000 test kits arrived in Indonesia (The Jakarta Post, 2020).
Taiwan, on the other hand, successfully prevented a local outbreak from happening in the first place despite its close distance to mainland China. Taiwan went from a net importer of face masks to the world’s second largest manufacturer with over 10 million pieces a day. In a second wave of “mask diplomacy”, Tsai announced that they will be giving over a million face masks to support countries in the New Southbound Policy. The increased cooperation between Korea, Taiwan and Southeast Asia will likely perpetuate in the form of trade and investment.
Vietnam is taking the lead within Southeast Asia. China and Japan will be losing their relevance in the region at least temporarily. Even if they were to recover from the crisis, their influence will be diluted by their smaller neighbours Korea and Taiwan. Southeast Asia’s international relations will never be the same again.
CNA (30 April 2020), After aggressive mass testing, Vietnam says it contains COVID-19 outbreak, CNA. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/aggressive-mass-testing-vietnam-contains-covid-19-coronavirus-12689970
Phuong Nguyen (8 April 2020), Vietnam to ship 450,000 protective suits to United States, Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-vietnam/vietnam-to-ship-450000-protective-suits-to-united-states-idUSKCN21Q2BK
Yujing Liu (8 April 2020), Two more US-listed Chinese companies come under financial scrutiny, less than a week after Luckin Coffee’s accounting fraud, South China Morning Post. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/business/china-business/article/3078934/two-more-us-listed-chinese-companies-come-under-financial
Lauren Teixeira (17 April 2020), Thais Show How to Beat China’s Online Army, Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/17/nnevvy-bright-firewall-thailand-china-online-army/
Japan Times (18 April 2020), Japan spends first weekend under nationwide state of emergency, Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/04/18/national/japan-first-weekend-nationwide-state-of-emergency/#.XqwI3GgzY2w
Max Fisher and Choe Sang-Hun (23 March 2020), How South Korea Flattened the Curve, New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/world/asia/coronavirus-south-korea-flatten-curve.html
Rizki Fachriansyah (20 April 2020), COVID-19: Indonesia secures 50,000 PCR tests kits to expedite mass testing, The Jakarta Post. Retrieved from https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/04/20/covid-19-indonesia-secures-50000-pcr-tests-kits-to-expedite-mass-testing.html