BANGKOK, Thailand -- Southeast Asia is resisting the harsh U.S.-China
blame game over COVID-19, preferring to maintain financial links with
both, but Beijing appears to enjoy a better image among the region's
hearts and minds.

"Southeast Asian countries are standing on the sidelines of the
Washington-Beijing COVID-19 quarrel, not taking sides with one or the
other," Paul Chambers, an international affairs lecturer at Naresuan
University in northern Thailand, said in an interview.

"Given that China is the region's leading trading partner and provider
of new foreign investment, and China came out of the coronavirus
pandemic earlier than the U.S., Beijing has an edge over the
Washington right now.

"The continuing COVID-19 problems in the U.S. shows Southeast Asians
that the U.S. political system is not a good model for dealing with
the virus," Mr. Chambers said.

Southeast Asian countries often try to balance relations with the U.S.
and China to avoid endangering extensively interconnected business,
military and other links.

That balancing act can become lopsided.

Southeast Asian countries along the South China Sea have territorial
disputes with China which claims its resource-rich shipping lanes.

As a result, Southeast Asia is wary of any hostilities because
Washington also opposes Beijing's attempts to dominate the zone.

Arguing about COVID-19 would not help.

"While a minority of [Southeast Asian] countries might privately
concede that China covered up, delayed, and manipulated [COVID-19]
data -- and continues to do so -- even fewer are exercised about it,"
said Benjamin Zawacki, American author of "Thailand: Shifting Ground
Between the U.S. and a Rising China."

"Save arguably for Indonesia and Malaysia, most Southeast Asian
countries are either not democracies or not being governed

"They are likely to view China's actions as understandable, relatable,
even laudable," Bangkok-based Mr. Zawacki said in an interview.

Tourists from China are also extremely valuable to Southeast Asia
which has developed elaborate tourism industries.

When China and other countries locked-down most international travel
to curb COVID-19, Southeast Asia's tourist-related businesses suffered
huge losses which continue to force closures and bankruptcies.

These countries now want to project a friendly, welcoming face, hoping
China's tourists will return soon.

The diplomatic brawl between the U.S. and China over COVID-19 did
spill over to Southeast Asia.

Newly arrived U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Michael DeSombre, a
political appointee, began the confrontation with a 700-word statement
on March 21.

"Chinese authorities actively censored and punished the brave Chinese
people who tried to tell the truth," DeSombre announced, referring to
China's Dr. Li Wenliang and others.

"Had these same authorities done the right thing and sounded the alarm
about this new disease, China -- and indeed the rest of the world,
including Thailand -- might have been spared the impact on our

"The Chinese people know their government is to blame for this
pandemic," DeSombre said.

China's embassy in Bangkok hit back on March 25.

"Michael George DeSombre, the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand,
deliberately used the novel coronavirus epidemic to smear and attack
China," wrote Chinese Embassy Counselor Yang Yang.

"Interestingly, on January 25, President Trump tweeted that 'China has
been working very hard to contain the coronavirus. The U.S. greatly
appreciates China's efforts and transparency'.

"Who on earth is lying?" Yang said.

Thailand instinctively stayed out of the diplomats' fight, apparently
hoping it would stop.

"Bullying" through diplomacy often turns off Southeast Asian countries
which publicly project harmony, compromise or indifference instead of
loud, embarrassing confrontation.

For example, President Trump's suspension of "support for the WHO
(World Health Organization) provides an opportunity for Beijing to
gain better global leadership status," Titipol Phakdeewanich,
political science dean at Ubon Ratchathani University in eastern
Thailand, said.

Southeast Asia has also been "focusing on the control of COVID-19,
rather than falling into the political game between Washington and
Beijing, partly because of the consideration of a post-COVID recession
in the global economy," Mr. Titipol said in an interview.

"Therefore, maintaining good relations with Washington and Beijing is crucial."

Among Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia and Laos have endorsed close
financial and diplomatic support from Beijing while welcoming
Washington's financial ties.

Harsh laws stifle citizens in Cambodia and Laos against criticizing
their leaders policies, anti-COVID efforts, and relations with the
U.S. and China.

The Philippines -- a U.S. treaty ally -- and Vietnam, Brunei, and
Malaysia have hot and cold relations with China, often disputing
rights to the South China Sea.

Tiny Singapore works closely with the U.S. on regional and military issues.

Thailand is a Major Non-NATO Ally, has no direct South China Sea
dispute, and enjoys China's diplomatic, economic and military support.

Thailand also benefits from massive U.S. military training exercises
several times a year, plus other lucrative links.

Early in the COVID crisis, Thailand's government and business sector
exported face masks to Wuhan, the initial nest of infection in China,
to lessen a dangerous shortage there.

China soon reciprocated by helping a suddenly needy Thailand.

"As many as 100,000 surgical masks, 20,000 test kits, 10,000 N95
respirators and 2,000 Personal Protective Equipment [units] were
handed over to Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul" by China on
March 18, the Bangkok Post reported.

On May 26, China's consulate in northeast Thailand's Khon Kaen donated
an additional 100,000 masks to Provincial Governor Somsak Changtrakul
in a public ceremony.

Even though the U.S. also provided Thailand with medical assistance,
research and supplies, Beijing's "mask diplomacy" with Bangkok
appeared to be highlighted more.

"Once China sent us the genomic sequencing of the COVID-19 virus, our
labs moved quickly to develop in-house testing procedures," wrote
upmarket Bumrungrad Hospital's COVID-19 Command Center head, Dr.
Korpong Rookkaphan, in an advertisement to attract customers.

Southeast Asians meanwhile are keeping their eyes on China's ability
to more pour money into their countries through aid, loans and

For the first time, China's investment applications in Thailand during
2019 beat Japan's -- signaling four times more money than the Japanese
were planning to bring, reportedly $8.4 billion from Chinese.

Before COVID hit, Bangkok was hoping that splash of cash would help
nullify a smoldering U.S.-China trade war.

Other Southeast Asian countries are also vying for China's financial
interest because the Chinese can bring high-tech industrial
development to upgrade the region's ability to produce automobiles,
advanced computers, medical equipment and drugs, farm products,
robots, planes, fuel, chemicals, weaponry and Internet monitoring and

"In Southeast Asia for example, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand
have been more appreciative and accepting than Vietnam, Indonesia and
Singapore, highlighting divergent interest and views towards China,"
wrote Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University Political Science Professor
Thitinan Pongsudhirak.

A continuation of loans from China also ensures some Southeast Asian
countries must remain polite toward Beijing.

"Land-locked Laos has taken a $5.9 billion loan from China's
Export-Import Bank [in 2016] for railway construction over five years
until 2021, when construction is planned for completion," linking the
southern Chinese city Kunming with Vientiane, capital of Laos, Mr.
Thitinan said.

In 2018, that loan amount was "more than half of the GDP of Laos,
which holds only 30 percent of the company that was set up to carry
out the concession."

That North-South Economic Corridor was to continue south to Bangkok.

Other Chinese-financed, planned transportation routes include an Upper
East-West Economic Corridor to go from southeast Myanmar, across
central Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and reach the South China Sea.

An almost parallel Lower East-West Economic Corridor would run from
Myanmar through Bangkok and into southern Cambodia and Vietnam,
emerging through Ho Chi Minh City and the Vietnamese coast.

One of the first post-coronavirus boosts from China would be to
Southeast Asia's financially crippled airlines.

Seats would suddenly be filled with mainland Chinese tourists anxious
to travel again.

"There were 57 million mutual visitors between China and ASEAN (the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations) last year [in 2018] and nearly
4,000 flights shuttle between ASEAN and Chinese cities every week,"
boasted China's Ambassador to ASEAN, Huang Xilian, in 2019.

Indicative of that interconnectedness, ASEAN plus China, Japan and
South Korea agreed in April to set up a joint fund to deal with

Washington's biggest victory over Beijing's influence in Southeast
Asia came after Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong seized power in 1949.

America demonized Mao's country as evil communists obsessed with
toppling the region's regimes.

That U.S. grip on much of Southeast Asia weakened when Vietnam,
Cambodia and Laos fought America in nationalistic, communist wars
until all three achieved victory, and included for a while the
domestic policies of Indonesia which tilted toward China until a
U.S.-backed coup in Jakarta.