After its anti-China Covid jab fake news campaign, the US has to regain Asean’s trust

In the Philippines, among the hardest-hit nations in Southeast Asia, only around 2 per cent of the population completed their initial vaccination protocol as Covid-19 deaths soared in mid-2021. As late as May 2022, only around 12 per cent had received booster doses. The difficulty in overcoming vaccine hesitancy left Filipinos tragically exposed to the virus.

The Pentagon-originated disinformation campaign uncovered by Reuters likely exacerbated the challenges in the Philippines’ vaccination efforts, already hampered by high levels of vaccine hesitancy. It was widely reported that most Filipinos had rejected the Chinese-made vaccines and had swamped the vaccination centres offering Pfizer shots. This contributed to uneven vaccine uptake and delayed vaccination efforts.

Equally concerning was the fact that US diplomats had warned the Pentagon its covert campaign could severely damage America’s already fraying relationship with the Philippines. However, military brass overrode those objections, willing to further undermine a critical alliance for a perceived short-term tactical advantage against China. This calls into serious question Washington’s judgment and commitment as a regional security partner.

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A food delivery driver is inoculated with China’s Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine at a drive-through vaccination centre in Manila. Photo: AP

In the Philippines, the backlash has been swift and severe, with multiple agencies calling for immediate investigations and accountability. For example, Alliance of Concerned Teachers Representative France Castro has urged the House of Representatives to conduct an inquiry into the extent of the damage caused by the Pentagon’s secret campaign.

Similarly, Pilipinong Nagkakaisa para sa Soberanya (P1NAS) spokesman Antonio Tinio demanded that Malacañang summon the US ambassador to Manila to explain this “outrageous conduct” and hold the US accountable for endangering Filipino lives. Tinio criticised Washington’s hypocrisy, noting how the US usually condemns propaganda from Russia and China.

Ultimately, beyond the immediate toll on public health, the US’ disinformation campaign risked long-term damage to America’s credibility and moral standing in Southeast Asia. It is the kind of shadowy meddling in the region’s internal affairs that Washington routinely accuses Beijing of perpetrating. This stark hypocrisy provides ammunition to those claiming that the US has double standards, engaging in the same underhanded tactics it denounces.

In a region already anxious about growing US-China tensions, these revelations will deepen concerns that Southeast Asian nations are becoming pawns in a new cold war. Countries will worry they can no longer take America’s word or motives at face value. Trust, once lost, is not easily regained. Clumsy US attempts to counter Chinese influence could end up repelling regional partners.

The anti-vaccine propaganda also represents an alarming escalation in the expanding disinformation battleground between the US and China. In weaponising a global health emergency that demanded solidarity and cooperation, the Pentagon crossed a dangerous line. It demonstrated a callous willingness to put innocent lives at risk in service of information warfare.

This sets a frightening precedent in an era when pandemics and other transnational threats necessitate collaboration, not zero-sum competition. If Covid-19 vaccines become fair targets for covert sabotage, what is to stop future disinformation campaigns against efforts to combat climate change, prevent future pandemics, or provide humanitarian relief? The stability and welfare of Southeast Asia cannot withstand a psychological arms race with no limits.

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Then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shows boxes of Sinovac Covid-19 vaccines in Manila in March 2021. Photo: Xinhua

The US government must provide a full accounting of this programme, take steps to repair the damage, and commit to higher standards going forward. Continuing to fight disinformation with disinformation will only plant more chaos and confusion, undermining US interests in the region. America’s greatest asset has long been the power of its example and ideals. Subverting that with manipulative propaganda is self-defeating. To truly support the health and well-being of Southeast Asian societies, the US should focus on being a responsible, reliable and transparent partner. Competing with China cannot come at the cost of America’s values and the trust of its allies.

The revelations also underscore the urgent need for a broader reckoning about the rapidly escalating disinformation wars waged by states. The pandemic saw a surge in state-linked influence operations, from Russia’s efforts to promote its Sputnik V vaccine to China’s campaign to deflect blame for the virus’ origins. This serves as a sober reminder to the public that the “infodemic” of lies and manipulated narratives is being weaponised by the big powers themselves – fuelling a global crisis, eroding already strained public trust, and hobbling the collective pandemic response.

Southeast Asian nations, with their young populations and high social media penetration rates, are especially vulnerable to these online influence battles. Disinformation threatens to inflame societal divisions, drown out scientific facts, and weaken democratic institutions across the region. While governments are waking up to the scope of the challenge, much more needs to be done to bolster resilience and mount a coordinated resistance.

Building regional frameworks to share best practices on combating disinformation, investing in digital literacy programmes, and strengthening independent media ecosystems will be critical. So too will calling out state-sponsored disinformation campaigns from wherever they emanate. Staying silent risks normalising this behaviour.

Southeast Asia is a frontline in the battle for the integrity of the information space. How the region confronts this test will shape its political future and the health of its communities. The US’ disinformation campaign was a wake-up call – it is now time for an honest conversation and committed action. At stake is nothing less than the truth upon which societies depend.

Nuurrianti Jalli is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and an Assistant Professor at the School of Media and Strategic Communications, Oklahoma State University. This commentary was first published on ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s commentary website fulcrum.sg.

  

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