Coronavirus News Asia

Where US and China will clash after the plague

SINGAPORE – With the world at a standstill, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare an increasingly tense rivalry between China and the United States, the most dangerous dimensions of which could play out in Southeast Asia, a region at the heart of the superpowers’ strategic tensions and rival economic strategies.

On one hand, China has strived to position itself as a global leader in a time of crisis, pursuing a campaign of “face mask diplomacy” in Southeast Asia and beyond with certain success, despite being the initial source of the novel coronavirus that has since cause the most debilitating global disruption seen since World War II.

On the other, US President Donald Trump administration’s widely viewed as inept response to the pandemic, both domestically and internationally, has sown crucial doubts about American leadership, including its failure to work with both allies and adversaries to mount a credible and effective global response to the health emergency.

The superpowers have sparred in a war of narratives and nomenclature to apportion blame for the contagion-caused death and disruption, with a firebrand Chinese spokesperson at one point alleging the US military planted the virus in China and the Trump administration earlier insisting on referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese” virus. 

Those rising contagion-linked tensions have put Southeast Asia, a region struggling to contain its own outbreaks of the disease, on new edge.

“At a time when US-China cooperation is needed most, finger-pointing and squabbling by Washington and Beijing have left the rest of the world decidedly unimpressed,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “Covid-19 has dealt a severe blow to the image of both China and the US.”

Both the US and China have seen their images hit by their responses to the Covid-19 crisis. Image: Twitter

Decoupling of the world’s two largest economies was already well underway before the pandemic struck, with the Trump administration consistently casting China as a major threat to American economic and security interests.

With a US presidential election on the horizon, decoupling narratives will likely gain post-pandemic traction, particularly in sight of the acute US shortages of medical equipment that is produced largely in China and Beijing’s strategic, if not cynical, distribution of the supplies to reward allies and squeeze rivals.

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