In Southeast Asia, US–China Tensions Flare on Social Media

July 20, 2020 Updated: July 20, 2020

Tensions between the United States and China over the South China Sea have erupted into a war of words on social media, in what analysts see as a change in U.S. strategy amid a burgeoning superpower rivalry in Southeast Asia.

After Washington last week hardened its position by explicitly rejecting Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea, U.S. embassies in the region produced an unprecedented flurry of op-eds and statements criticizing Beijing’s actions.

The Chinese regime’s response was fiery, accusing Washington of “defaming China with untrue words so as to mislead the public” in the region.

“We are a battleground now,” Renato de Castro, an analyst with the Albert Del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Relations in the Philippines, told Reuters by phone. “It will be a long game.”

A week ago, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Beijing’s claim to about 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea “completely unlawful” and accused Beijing of seeking a “maritime empire.”

U.S. embassies in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Cambodia followed up with comments on Facebook and in editorials in local news outlets saying that Beijing’s actions fit a pattern of encroachment on others’ sovereignty.

The U.S. ambassador to Thailand highlighted concerns about Chinese dams holding back water from the region’s Mekong river during a drought last year.

The embassy in Yangon drew parallels between the South China Sea and ways it said China was interfering in Burma, citing investments it said could become debt traps, the trafficking of women to China as brides, and the inflow of drugs into the country.

In a Facebook post that twice referred to the United States as “dirty,” China‘s Burma embassy said U.S. agencies abroad were doing “disgusting things” to contain China.

The statements attracted thousands of regional social media comments, many attacking China while questioning the motives of both countries.

“Thank you USA for doing what is the law requires,” commented Chelley Ocampo under the U.S. embassy in the Philippines’ Facebook post.

The war of words marks a strident new tack for U.S. diplomacy in the region, analysts said.

The U.S. statements aimed to tie the South China Sea to local concerns about Beijing becoming “an unequivocal threat to the sovereignty of the Southeast Asian nations,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of an upcoming book on China‘s regional influence.

Meanwhile, the Chinese regime‘s response was consistent with “pugnacious ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy” since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he said, referring to increasingly nationalist Chinese rhetoric.

Strains have become more evident in the South China Sea recently, with U.S. and Chinese navies holding simultaneous exercises in the waterway.

China “couldn’t afford allowing the U.S. to make appreciable gains in turning regional opinion,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“At least some of the Southeast Asian governments … may secretly, if not publicly, welcome the latest Pompeo statement and thereby possibly be emboldened to resist its [Beijing’s] moves in the disputed waters.”

By Poppy McPherson and Karen Lema