Chinese Military Seeks Image Makeover by Giving Medical Aid to Maritime Sovereignty Rivals
By Ralph Jennings May 25, 2020
China's armed forces are giving anti-COVID medical aid this month to soften their image in four countries that dispute Beijing's military-enforced control over a resource-rich sea.
The Chinese People's Liberation Army sent COVID-19 containment supplies to 12 countries by air force planes, state-run China Global Television Network reported. Among them were South China Sea rim countries Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Armed forces from all 12 nations asked for help, the network said.
Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines dispute features in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea with Beijing. Indonesia has no land dispute but stops Chinese vessels that enter waters near one of its outlying archipelagos. These smaller states normally equate the Chinese military – the world's third strongest – with ships, hangars and aircraft flyovers used to assert control in the disputed waters.
Aid for COVID-19 outbreaks will soften that image, analysts say.
"It has a very positive publicity effect," said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "The impact of this will probably be stronger than, for example, sending a military ship to another country's port, because it relates directly to human health."
A Chinese transport aircraft took medical masks, goggles, protective clothing and waterproof isolation to Brunei on May 12, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The People's Liberation Army held videoconferences with counterparts in Indonesia and Malaysia this month to share experience fighting the disease, Xinhua said.
These Southeast Asian states will accept the Chinese military's aid and see it as China's campaign to look more humanitarian than its longtime geopolitical rival the United States, said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the RAND Corp. research institution. Beijing hopes to best Washington in amounts of aid and speed of delivery, he said.
Brunei as a longer-term receiver of Chinese investment seldom criticizes China over the sea. But Malaysia irked China by filing documentation in December to a United Nations commission about plans to extend its rights in the sea beyond 370 kilometers from its baselines. On April 30 the Philippines rejected China's "illegal designation" of the sea's Fiery Cross Reef as an administrative center.
These countries would speak out again despite medical aid, though mindful of China severing links if too vocal, Grossman said "They can compartmentalize pretty well," he said. "They can accept the aid but still criticize."
The U.S. government had sent about $18.3 million in emergency health and humanitarian aid to Southeast Asia as of March 31 for COVID-19 relief, the Department of State says on its website.
China will not lighten up military movement in the contested sea while giving aid, analysts believe. But it would look bad if it halted medical assistance over a recipient country's criticism, Grossman said.
Non-military donors in China had already sent aid to much of Southeast Asia starting as early as March.
In Malaysia, people feel "positively" about the Chinese assistance or have a neutral view, said Ibrahim Suffian, program director with the polling group Merdeka Center in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian media covered the donations for just a few days, and it's not easily visible to people providing healthcare, he said. Some people still worry about the maritime dispute, Suffian added.
"Over here it is somewhat mixed in a sense that they see the assistance from China medical diplomacy thing positively, and China trying to be a good neighbor and all, but there's also within some quarters some concern about the South China Sea issue recently," Suffian said.
Taiwan and Vietnam make claims on the South China Sea, as well. China has taken a military lead over the other claimants since 2010 by building up some of the sea's larger islets, sparking opposition from around Asia and the United States.
Asian countries prize the sea for energy reserves, fisheries and marine shipping lanes.
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