By Alan Chan

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia--A string of mysterious deaths claiming the lives of at least 13 envoys in China is a matter of grave concern and should raise red flags among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

This should be especially worrying as blood has already been drawn for two ASEAN states - Myanmar's ambassador to China U Myo Thant Pe died of a suspected heart attack on Aug. 7 in the Chinese city of Kunming while Philippines' ambassador to China, Jose Santiago "Chito" Sta. Romana died in April while undergoing quarantine for COVID-19 as per Beijing's strict quarantine regulations.

In September German ambassador Jan Hecker died less than two weeks into his Beijing posting. In February Ukraine ambassador Serhiy Kamyshev died shortly after a visit to a Beijing Winter Olympics venue, bringing the body count this year alone to four.

In the history of international diplomacy, ambassadors and high commissioners have often fallen victim to motivated killings and personal ailments but what is happening in China follows a larger disturbing trend that has seen diplomats being targeted by China and Russia.

Havana syndrome

This first emerged in 2017 with US diplomats serving in Havana, Cuba reported a variety of strange symptoms ranging from pain and ringing in the ears to cognitive difficulties. Since then complaints have surfaced in China, India, Europe and elsewhere.

The U.S. Department of State has referred to the events as "Anomalous Health Incidents", and other top officials have described these as “attacks” with the cause of these incidents being speculated to be the use of some new weapon, speculated to be using microwave technology, against diplomats and government officials by agents of foregin powers opposed to the U.S.

While US officials have never accused Russia or another power of being responsible, but some officials, particularly in the Pentagon, said they believed there was evidence of the involvement of Moscow’s secret services, and many victims concurred.

Beijing taking a leaf from Moscow’s playbook?

The unusually high number of deaths among diplomats in China is certainly questionable at best and sinister at worst. China already openly intimidates and threatens its ASEAN neighbours over the South China Sea, which Beijing claims as its own almost in its entirety. It has repeatedly violated the maritime and airspace of claimant nations and deploys its maritime militia and fishing fleets to harass and exploit the area's resources.

China has also been known to apply pressure against ASEAN states over issues surrounding Taiwan - Beijing's goal is for ASEAN members to adopt its "One China" principle, under which they would recognize Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory and has undertaken a variety of measures to achieve this.

It has also been caught red-handed engaging in influence operations through the media, academic, associations and a variety of other channels to influence the populations of ASEAN, with Freedom House flagging Malaysia’s vulnerability in particular.

A logical extension

Considering what we already know about China's approach to foreign policy, knocking off uncooperative and troublesome diplomats to achieve its ends is certainly not far-fetched. This could serve to intimidate countries that it seeks to pressure while giving it enough plausible deniability. After all, older seasoned diplomats might be vulnerable to certain health conditions could they not?

In the case of Myanmar, it could even be China delving into the internal politics of the ASEAN state, knocking out those who the military junta regime decides are problematic by posting them to China where they can be disposed of. This is also deeply unsettling.

In any case, the all seeing and all pervasive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is certainly aware of the movements of not just the diplomats posted on its territory but on the movements of almost everyone in China, whether local or foreign. The implication is that nothing happens without it knowing and naturally without its approval.

Unfortunately we must not give the CCP the benefit of doubt. This regime is one that will stop at nothing to achieve its ends and if bumping off diplomats serves its purpose, you can rest assured it would not be a difficult decision for it to make.

What ASEAN states can do however is to carefully record and report any suspicious activities affecting their diplomats and formally lodge protests and publicly denounce any form of harassment or odd occurrences. Failing to raise the alarm could prove to be deadly.