- Beijing has been shoring up relations in Southeast Asia with an emphasis on Washington-friendly countries
- Phone calls, virtual meetings and pledges of support aim to sway the region’s delicate balancing act between two powers
China has been scrambling to shore up relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours in recent weeks, with pledges of broad Covid-19 recovery aid and economic cooperation specifically targeted at Washington-friendly countries in a bid to prevent them jumping on the US bandwagon.
As the across-the-board rivalry between the China and the US accelerates towards a fully fledged confrontation, Beijing is ramping up the pressure on neighbouring countries to pre-empt the emergence of a hostile coalition near its doorstep.
Shortly after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed China over its expansive claims to the South China Sea two weeks ago, Foreign Minister Wang Yi moved to placate Vietnam and the Philippines – the most vocal of the rival claimants in the maritime dispute – while President Xi Jinping spoke to leaders in Thailand and Singapore by phone.
While Thailand and the Philippines are Washington’s treaty allies and Singapore has long been a trusted security partner of the US, Vietnam – China’s steadfast rival in the region – has continued to pivot towards the US in the bitter territorial dispute.
As a result, these countries and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are increasingly torn between Beijing and Washington, with their long-tested balancing strategy under its biggest stress test amid the growing risks of an outright confrontation.