“Building Back Better” Together – ASEAN-China Relations in the Post-Pandemic Era

By Ivy Kwek

Ten months since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the world has shown no sign of recovery from COVID-19. Across the world, COVID-19 continues to engulf nations, now exceeding 50 million cases. While initially managed to curb the spread, many Southeast Asia nations are still experiencing spikes in cases, with many lockdown measures still in place.

The economic impact brought by measures to curb the virus is immense. Many have lost their jobs and unemployment figures soared. In Malaysia, the GDP is projected to contract by 5.0% this year, while the rest of Southeast Asia is not faring so well either, with a 3.8% contraction, according to the Asian Development Bank’s forecast.

The pandemic has also not diminished rivalry on the geopolitical front. In fact, it has intensified, with US president Donald Trump blaming China squarely for the virus, while threatening more tariffs and sanctions. Joe Biden, the President-elect, might have a more amicable approach to China relations and could help repair US’s foreign policy in this region, but there are no signs that he will soften the position of the United States towards China.

Such dynamics has put Southeast Asia in a tough position. On the one hand, China is a neighbor and a major trading partner. Many Southeast Asian countries are beneficiaries of the China-led Belt and Road Initiative. On the other hand, the South China Sea remains a contentious issue for some countries in the region. Such dilemma will become more apparent as Southeast Asian states step up cooperation with China post-pandemic.

Southeast Asia will need to be vigilant and work hard to contain the spread and avoid a second or third wave of COVID-19. Access to vaccines would be the immediate priority.

Being more moderately affected by the pandemic than other parts of the world, Southeast Asia might be in a better position to bounce back from the crisis, but that will take bold and concerted efforts from its governments. Governments will need to spend wisely to prop up the economy, and strengthen social protection systems.

In that regard, despite most countries’ focus on a national-centric approach to recovery, it is more important than ever to reflect on how multilateral cooperation can help governments to achieve these national goals. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as the cornerstone multilateral regional architecture of the region, must use its convening powers to conduct regional cooperation with other powers to propel the region forward and out of the pandemic-induced crisis.

ASEAN must seize this opportunity to deepen the economic integration in the region. The ASEAN connectivity plan needs to be thrust into high speed to hasten the infrastructure development. Digitalization, which has been the plan of the ASEAN Connectivity Blueprint, should be accelerated.

Most importantly, ASEAN must strive to help the region to work towards a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient future. This requires governments to invest in the right sectors such as the green economy, technological advancement in line with the Industrial Revolution 4.0, and to strengthen the education and health systems.

In addition, COVID-19 has also taught us a good lesson about the importance of diversifying the supply chains and increasing the resilience of local industry as well as enhancing food security and domestic production of essential items. These are areas where ASEAN can work together with other regional partners.

On the security front, ASEAN must manage tensions in South China Sea and not turn the region into an area for conflict. The drafting of the Code of Conduct on South China Sea, which is expected to be completed in 2021, would be a great milestone.

In that regard, China can play a positive role in helping Southeast Asia recover. China has been a longstanding partner and friendly neighbor of Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia, in particular Malaysia, has good relations with China despite the disputes over the South China Sea. During his visit to Malaysia in September, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said that China will “meet Southeast Asia half way”. His visit, which followed by that of the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in October, goes to show the importance of Southeast Asia in China’s foreign policy.

Given that the COVID-19 nightmare can only be over with a vaccine, much work needs to be done to rebuilding economy and the society. As such, post-pandemic partnerships between China and Southeast Asia should go beyond mask and vaccine diplomacy, but to rebuild the region in the spirit of “Build Back Better”.

China can help Southeast Asia in enhancing its digital infrastructure and the adoption of the “Smart City” concept by investing and sharing its technology. Post-pandemic, there might also be a trend of more intra-Asian trade with near-shoring and the diversification of investment by multinationals. China should also work together with Southeast Asia to strengthen the regional supply chains.

It goes without saying that Southeast Asia and China still need to overcome the hurdle of the lack of trust due to the asymmetrical size, geographical proximity and unresolved disputes. Southeast Asian states welcome with caution collaboration of any kind with any partners, instead of having to choose sides. This is apparent when Southeast Asian states did not join President Trump in blaming China for the origin of the virus, but instead opt for cooperation. For ASEAN-China relations to go further, trust-building will be essential. Indeed, opportunities for cooperation abound post-pandemic, and now more than ever, ASEAN and China must work closer together, for our common future.


– An edited version of this article “Southeast Asia’s future will ride on cooperation” was published in China Daily on 15 December 2020.

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