COVID-19 Op-ed

US-China rivalry and Southeast Asia amid Covid-19: will human rights suffer?

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Khoo Ying HooiSenior
Department of International and Strategic
Faculty of Arts and Social
University of Malaya

Amid the United States (US)-China rivalry amid Covid-19,
observers have begun to speculate the future geopolitical implications of
this pandemic to Southeast Asia. Some suggest that this may likely reshape
the global order, wherein China’s position is expected to be elevated at the
expense of the US. Some are also skeptical that China has the capacity to
emerge as a dominant global power (Cimmino, Kroenig, and Pavel, 1 June 2020;
Shin, 27 April 2020).Guided by this debate, this commentary would like to
address how the US-China rivalry impact on Southeast Asia on the issues
related to human rights and democracy?Before the pandemic, Beijing’s Belt and
Road Initiative (BRI) was among the central issues in the region popularly
debated under the framework of the expansion of China’s soft power (Gong,
2019; Beeson, 2018), to the detriment of US influence; and how it may have
impacts on human rights. The recent US announcement of giving China 72 hours
to shut its Houston consulate (Griffiths and Gaouette, 22 July 2020)
indicates the enhanced rivalry between the two powers.Amid the Covid-19, the
Chinese government has pivoted to providing assistance popularly known as
“mask diplomacy” (Wong, 25 March 2020), with Southeast Asian countries as a
particular focus. Although there have been criticisms on China’s approach,
Chinese aid and diplomacy have thus far seemed to be better publicised and
received in Southeast Asia than US assistance.Before we move on to answer how
will the US-China rivalry impact on Southeast Asia on the issues related to
human rights and democracy, we need first to understand why there is a
“war” between the two powers on human rights. The US is
conventionally known as a democracy, while China is known as more
authoritarian and autocratic (Ambrosio, 2012). Two reasons for the
disagreement between the two on human rights lie in the different economic
development levels and the divergent cultures and fundamental values. All
these are due to the competing perspectives deeply rooted in the different
historical, ideological, political, and social conditions characteristic of
each country (De Graaff and Apeldoorn, 2018; Yin, 2007). Such differences are
glaring when we compare the approaches of the two countries amid the
Covid-19.Thus far, none of the ASEAN member-states has openly criticised both
countries on their initial handling of the pandemic. Most have demonstrated
diplomacy of solidarity.Prior to the pandemic, the State of Southeast Asia:
2020 Survey Report by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) shows
that 53.6 per cent of ASEAN elites generally choose to align with the US.
However, country-level data present a more complex picture as seven ASEAN
member states choose to align with China: Laos, Brunei, Myanmar, Malaysia,
Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia; while Vietnam, Singapore, and the
Philippines choose to be aligning with the U.S. Such trend is expected to
stay more or less the same in the post-pandemic era.In Southeast Asia, the
economic factor is a key concern in shaping Southeast Asian leaders’
decisions on critical issues that divide Washington and Beijing.The Covid-19
has been devastating for Southeast Asia’s economies. Millions are unemployed.
Widespread perceptions hold that authoritarian system could be better in
handling the crisis better than democracies. This is worrying as people may
look toward a system outside of democracy. How leaders and their citizens
interact with one another during the pandemic provides some clues to the
future exercise of power. For now, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be an
affirmation of the “support” of an undemocratic government in Southeast
Asia.In all, will human rights suffer amid the U.S.-China rivalry in this
pandemic? While it is premature to make any generalisation and conclude that
crisis management works better in a particular government system, there is a
need to urgently address the correlation between salvaging the economy and
the restoration of democracy and human rights.References:

  1. Ambrosio, T. (2012). The rise of the
    ‘China Model’ and ‘Beijing Consensus’: evidence of authoritarian
    diffusion?. Contemporary
    18(4), 381-399.
  2. Beeson, M. (2018). Geoeconomics with Chinese characteristics: The
    BRI and China’s evolving grand strategy. Economic and
    Political Studies
  3. Brian Wong. (25 March 2020). China’s mask
    diplomacy, in The Diplomat. Retrieved at
  4. De Graaff, N., & Van Apeldoorn, B. (2018). US–China
    relations and the liberal world order: contending elites, colliding
    visions?. International
    94(1), 113-131.
  5. Gong, X. (2019). The Belt & Road Initiative and China’s
    influence in Southeast Asia. The Pacific
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  6. James Griffiths and Nicole Gaouette. (22 July 2020). US orders
    closure of Chinese consulate in Houston, in CNN. Retrieved at
  7. Jeffrey Cimmino, Matthew Kroenig and Barry Pavel. (1 June 2020).
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  8. Kawashima Shin. (7 April 2020). Covid-10, China and the world
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  10. Yin, J. (2007). The clash of rights: A critical analysis of news
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    China. Critical Discourse

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