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The Geopolitics of the COVID-19 Pandemic: ASEAN’s ‘Solidarity Diplomacy’ from A Cambodian Youth Perspective

The COVID-19 pandemic has added another new geopolitical feature to Sino-American strategic competition in the current context. Through their diplomacy of solidarity among internal members and other dialogue partners, ASEAN states have proved to the world that they are not taking sides in the strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

When the global pandemic is no longer perceived as a public health issue, it becomes an important new feature of current geopolitical tension between superpowers, causing concerns for small states. With the spread of the virus, the world has been discussing not only vaccine research and development, but also the responsibilities for global damage. In this regard, Washington and Beijing have already started a political blame-game over COVID-19 for their political purposes, especially at a time when President Trump’s COVID-19 prevention policy is itself being questioned. At this point, COVID-19 has added another new feature to the superpower rivalry in the current context, causing a more complicated geopolitical issue. This is frankly causing concerns for vulnerable regions and states.

Before the global pandemic, Southeast Asian states were facing a strategic dilemma between the superpowers, given their intensifying competition for regional influence to shape Southeast Asia’s security architecture. In the current context, the politicization of COVID-19 has put ASEAN in a hard position between Beijing and Washington. Some have even questioned ASEAN’s ability to handle this politicized public health issue by claiming that the bloc’s COVID-19 response is ‘united in name, divided in practice’. This article argues that ASEAN’s ‘solidarity diplomacy’ has performed well in this challenging time to uphold the centrality of its rule-based regional order and acquire benefits for the regional grouping’s resilience and recovery in the post-pandemic world.  Thanks to ASEAN’s solidarity diplomacy, the grouping’s members have shown that they are not politicizing the public health issue; rather, they are collaborating closely to fight the global pandemic both with their internal counterparts and other dialogue partners.

Promoting ASEAN’s relevance and centrality for shaping a rule-based regional order in these hard times can be done by its strong commitment to cohesion, unity, and solidarity.  Southeast Asia, an economically dynamic region, has been profoundly affected by the pandemic given the vulnerability of countries in the region to the crisis. However, the respective governments have been pursuing many effective measures through their mobilization of both public and private resources to prevent the community outbreak of the virus. Amidst the pandemic, instead of joining the political blame-game, ASEAN has been working with the U.S. while sympathising with China, the country from where the virus originated. None of the ASEAN states has joined the U.S. and its allies to blame China for the global damage caused by the Wuhan-originated virus. Examples of this are clearly seen by the states’ practices in Southeast Asia. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen made the first sympathetic move by paying an immediate visit to Beijing during the early stage of the virus breakout in Wuhan. His first intention was to visit Wuhan and meet with Cambodian students there; yet the Chinese Foreign Minister politely rejected this plan, and the planned trip was changed to Beijing instead. Further, Cambodia’s decision to allow the Westerdam Cruise Ship to dock in Sihanouk Ville is another move showing sympathy to western people despites the fact that the Kingdom is close to China.

Vietnam chaired the ASEAN Special Summit on COVID-19 on 14 April 2020. Source: AFP.

Meanwhile, Vietnam-China diplomatic relations deteriorated during the military clash over the sovereign claims in the South China Sea. However, during the pandemic, Vietnam donated its medical supplies to China, turning itself from an aid-recipient country to a donor. Bearing responsibility as the Chair of ASEAN in 2020, Vietnam is committed to promoting a cohesive and responsive ASEAN through cooperation with internal members and dialogue partners for the region’s recovery. It accordingly chaired a special ASEAN summit on COVID-19 in April. In the case of Indonesia, in a phone call between Xi Jinping and Joko Widodo, both sides applauded each other on preventive measures. So far, ASEAN has received financial and technical support from both the U.S. and China respectively.

Components of ASEAN’s COVID-19 solidarity diplomacy. Source: Created by author

The rationale behind ASEAN’s solidarity diplomacy is simple. With a cost-benefit calculation, participating in the virus-related political blame-game is not beneficial for ASEAN at all. Instead, it may put ASEAN-China relations into another conundrum besides existing challenges like the South China Sea dispute. China is one of the important economic partners to ASEAN while the U.S.’ role in the region is undeniable. In other words, the U.S. is still in the position of a global leader in terms of its strong military and economic capabilities, while China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project remains significant for ASEAN member states with aids and the provision of loans on infrastructure development. By supporting China’s BRI and its own ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is time for ASEAN to show its unity and solidarity.  The diplomacy of solidarity with its members and other partners will surely help uphold ASEAN’s centrality in shaping the rules-based regional security architecture amidst the uncertainties of geopolitical landscapes caused by Sino-American strategic competition.

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