HADR as a Diplomatic Tool in Southeast Asia-China Relations amid Changing Security Dynamics

The Quincy Institute is republishing this article as part of its partnership with the Asian Peace Program at the National University of Singapore

The South China Sea disputes between China and the Southeast Asian claimant states continue to remain a thorn in China-ASEAN relations. How can ASEAN and China transform their existing diplomatic tools and cooperative mechanisms to ensure that, notwithstanding the existing territorial and maritime disputes, the bilateral relationship remains strong? One way of strengthening the existing bilateral relationship is to increase ASEAN-China cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). 

Southeast Asia is highly prone to natural hazards, including large-scale flooding, typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis. ASEAN’s resources in dealing with such large-scale disasters are limited, despite substantive improvement in regional disaster management. Therefore, international assistance is often necessary to supplement the capacity constraints of Southeast Asian nation-states in dealing with the aftermath of large-scale natural disasters.

China’s responses to natural disasters in Southeast Asia and its overall impact has been mixed. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which devastated the Philippines, China’s initial aid of US$ 200,000 was perceived as being inadequate and subject to strong criticism. In response, Beijing sent additional aid, including a military hospital ship and a non-governmental search and rescue team.  In the aftermath of the deadly floods in Myanmar in 2015, the PLA deployed military aircraft to deliver emergency relief aid, which was facilitated by the long-standing working relations between the armies of China and Myanmar. After the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia in 2018, China did not dispatch its military assets to assist with emergency operations, as the presence of the Chinese military on Indonesian soil is deemed a sensitive issue in Indonesia.

As demonstrated, cooperation between China and individual Southeast Asian states in HADR is influenced by various factors, including domestic politics and the extent of bilateral trust. The mixed results of China’s official response to natural hazards in Southeast Asia indicate that efforts for confidence-building through HADR need to be further strengthened between China and ASEAN.

One clear way in which the China-ASEAN cooperation in HADR can be further bolstered is through formal agreements, along with the incorporation of an effective dialogue mechanism, on disaster relief cooperation. When ASEAN strengthened its own disaster relief mechanisms in the 1990s and 2000s through regional fora such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), China was a key dialogue partner. China and ASEAN are also signatories to several bilateral agreements, which emphasise cooperation, such as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the Joint Declaration of China and ASEAN on Cooperation in the Field of Non-Traditional Security Issues, both signed in 2002, as well as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2003. However, there is a need to strengthen the dialogue mechanism to ensure that the trust deficit between China and ASEAN member states is reduced. There is also a need to strengthen formal agreements on HADR. The ASEAN-China Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Disaster Management expired in 2017. It is time to consider another agreement of this kind to ensure more effective cooperation between the government, military and civilian facets of China and ASEAN in the event of a disaster.

Traditionally, the focus of HADR in Southeast Asia has been on natural hazards. The COVID-19 pandemic points to the need to increase cooperation on other types of disasters. In the mid-2020, during the initial months of the COVID outbreak in Southeast Asia, China acted early to engage ASEAN on collective pandemic response and to offer extensive bilateral support. China’s government and military provided medical equipment, including hundreds of thousands of surgical masks, protective equipment and test kits. As of September 2021, China has delivered nearly 200 million vaccine doses to the region. In comparison, other dialogue partners of ASEAN were relatively slow, largely due to high numbers of domestic COVID-19 cases. Australia, India, Japan, and the United States agreed in March 2021 to collaborate in providing one billion vaccine doses to the Indo-Pacific region, including Southeast Asia. This plan however has been delayed due to the outbreak of the Delta variant in India. Though not without issues and controversies, China’s assistance proved to be crucial in combating new waves of COVID in Southeast Asia, particularly in the absence of a comparable Western response, be it in terms of providing vaccines or medical equipment.

HADR operations can potentially help cement the partnership between China and Southeast Asia. However, it is idealistic to assume cooperation in HADR, on its own, can significantly reduce distrust between the two sides, which is rooted in historical, geopolitical and territorial issues. On the contrary, it is necessary to recognise the complexity of the two-way relations. Tensions arising from power politics and the maritime disputes have indeed alienated China and Southeast Asia at bilateral and multilateral levels on several occasions, such as the ASEAN meeting in July 2012 and the South China Sea arbitration ruling in 2016. As some of the security issues are complicated and deeply rooted, it is more realistic to explore ways to manage rather than to resolve them. Cooperation in HADR can thereby help manage tensions in China-ASEAN relations.

To move forward, instead of seeing HADR merely as a tool for confidence-building, China and Southeast Asia can use it as a tool to solve new security challenges. The pandemic highlights the fact that public health emergencies can lead to extensive humanitarian needs that exceed the resources of the affected country. In addition, the imminent threat posed by climate change has been raised again by the recent COP-26 conference in Glasgow, and Southeast Asia is among the most vulnerable. The growing risks of these disasters and their concurrence point to the need to transform HADR to adapt to the changing regional security environment, featuring greater challenges of complex or concurring disasters, in addition to great power rivalry.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.