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Relations between China and its Neighbors after COVID-19: Southeast Asia

Since the beginning of this year, the COVID-19 global pandemic has caused catastrophic losses to countries around the world, and it has also profoundly affected the development of the global political and economic structure. For China, the pandemic not only has exerted influence on public safety, health and economic and social development, but also reshaped the surrounding environment to a large extent. To this end, the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University (PKUIAS), held a series of New Buds salons on the theme of “Relations between China and its Neighbors after COVID-19,” inviting young scholars in related fields at home and abroad to discuss this topic. The salon themed “Relations between China and its Neighbors after COVID-19: Southeast Asia” was successfully concluded on July 18. The salon invited six young research fellows from several universities and scientific research institutes from home and abroad to make presentations. Zhai Kun, deputy director of PKUIAS, and Song Qingrun, an associate professor from Beijing Foreign Studies University, made comments. Xu Chuanbo, a postdoctoral fellow of PKUIAS, moderated the salon.

Zeng Weifu, a PhD candidate at the Institute of Asian Languages and Cultures Studies, Mahidol University, Thailand, opined that, at the early stage of the epidemic, ASEAN countries, pressured by the notion of the “democracy and freedom” of European countries and the US, did not take strict protective measures. As the epidemic quickly spread and China's anti-epidemic efforts proved to be successful, the “Chinese model” became the first choice for epidemic prevention and control in ASEAN countries. There is a historical tradition of mutual assistance between China and ASEAN. China has not only provided ASEAN countries with material and technical support in the fight against the epidemic, but also committed to social and economic cooperation between the two sides after the epidemic. More importantly, China has provided ASEAN with a new model of a more complete social governance system, Zeng said.

Zhang Yuju, a PhD student at the Research School for Southeast Asian Studies, Xiamen University, introduced the situation of the epidemic in Myanmar. She also analyzed its impact on China from different angles and discussed the significance of China’s anti-epidemic assistance to Myanmar. She opined that leaders of the two countries have been committed to building a community of shared future for the Chinese and Burmese people. With the help of China, the epidemic in Myanmar has been effectively controlled. Anti-epidemic cooperation has laid the foundation for more extensive cooperation between the two countries in the future and is conducive to promoting social development in Myanmar's armed ethnic minority areas, while creating opportunities for the national reconciliation process in Myanmar, Zhang said.

Liu Xiaofeng, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, University of Hong Kong, explored border control and its impact in Southeast Asian countries during the epidemic. She expressed her belief that the rapidly evolving border control has forced the flow of people and materials to make corresponding changes, bringing risks to the affected countries, such as non-traditional security challenges, sluggish tourism, and a broken industrial chain. As the epidemic fades away, each of the countries will carefully and gradually open their borders. The movement of population may return to its pre-epidemic state. But the industrial chain and trade behavior of certain industries may lead to more stable borders between countries or regions. Speeding up the border flow between China and Southeast Asia and strengthening the integration of industrial chains within the region may be an important way to deal with the impact, Liu said.

Zhang Yifan, a PhD candidate at the School of Philosophy, Renmin University of China, analyzed the development status of local Chinese-funded projects based on his field research in Kyaukpyu, Myanmar. He expressed his belief that the NLD government, which has been under tremendous economic pressure amid the epidemic, will also face the challenge of the general election and would surely come to re-evaluate the economic benefits Chinese-funded projects could bring. Relevant Chinese-funded institutions should still actively strive for the smooth construction of Kyaukphyu Port and the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, and the relaunch of the Kyaukphyu – Kunming Railway. At the same time, they should be prepared to deal with long-term risks, strengthen soft power construction and pay attention to the people’s livelihood, culture, religion and other aspects related to the projects, Zhang said.

Liang Jin, a postgraduate from the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies (IAPS), Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that migrant workers are a major weakness in the work of preventing the spread of the epidemic. Due to insufficient attention paid to migrant workers as a population and their lack of medical protection, the clustered infections of migrant workers in Southeast Asia has become a “loophole” in the epidemic prevention work, which has brought about two impacts on the construction of “Belt and Road”–related projects. One is a labor shortage and the other is the rise of protests against Chinese migrant workers in Singapore, Indonesia and other countries. To this end, Liang suggested that ASEAN countries should pay attention to the role of these groups in the economic and social development of each country and the process of promoting “Belt and Road” projects, introduce systems and regulations related to the flow, management and welfare of these groups, and enhance the protection of their rights, he said.

Ho Xuzhe, a Malaysian postgraduate from the School of International Studies, PKU, said that, since the outbreak of the epidemic, Malaysia has not only carried out assistance represented by “mask diplomacy” in its interaction with China, but also occasionally conflicted with China on its rights and interests in the South China Sea. The reasons for Malaysia's diplomatic “hedging” behavior are not only its long-standing tradition of “balanced diplomacy” to safeguard its own interests, but also the influence of domestic politics. The post-epidemic interaction between Malaysia and China will still be manifested as an interweaving of active and passive diplomacy. In this process, the effectiveness of one country's fight against the epidemic, and who of the people and political leaders will play a greater role in public opinion will be important influencing factors, Ho said.

Zhai Kun and Song Qingrun commented on the presentations of the six speakers. They pointed out that research in Southeast Asia should pay attention to the exploration of new problems, new methods, new knowledge, new theories and new suggestions.

The participants also had online exchanges with the approximately 80 audience members, who came from different universities and institutions. Future online seminars in the New Buds salon series “Relations between China and its Neighbors after COVID-19” will focus on the development of relations between China and Russia, South Korea, Central Asia and other countries and regions.