Making predictions about the impact of COVID-19 on Asia’s strategic environment is a risky endeavour. With international borders locked down, economies near standstill, and infections still rising in parts of the world, it’s hard to anticipate the challenges we will face in the next few weeks, let alone a year from now. But a few months into the first global pandemic in a century, perhaps we can at least think about how it looks through different lenses of security. These are the way the virus represents a threat to human security, the challenge it poses to economic security and the way it has exacerbated and aggravated pre-existing trends in geopolitics.
First and foremost of course COVID-19 is a devastating threat to regional and global public health. Although the virus has inflicted a heavy global toll with millions infected and hundreds of thousands dead, Asia appears to have fared better than much of Western Europe and the Americas. Asia-Pacific nations have had a range of experiences tackling the COVID-19 virus. Some - notably South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand - have been more successful than others. Categories such as democratic vs authoritarian, rich vs poor, big vs small do not seem to provide a simple guide to success. What is clear however is that states have relied overwhelmingly on individual, national-level responses and there has been little in the way of coordinated or deep regional cooperation. For all the oft-stated importance of the ASEAN-centred architecture, or regional groups like the East Asia Summit or APEC, they have been largely irrelevant to the immediate pandemic response.
Second, following the immediate public health emergency, another crisis looms in the form of a deep global recession. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the global economy will shrink by around three percent over the next year, the first contraction seen since 2009. World trade is estimated to drop by 15 percent as supply chains are disrupted and economies shuttered. This will have particularly devastating impacts in the developing world, where governments lack the social safety nets to protect the most vulnerable. The World Bank has estimated almost 50 million people will fall back into extreme poverty.
The pandemic has also given new energy to debates about how best to organise the global and regional economy. Critics of globalisation and advocates of decoupling have seized on COVID-19, pointing out how dependent many countries are on distant supply chains even for essential medical equipment and drugs. Doubtless all governments will want to reduce their vulnerability, but the danger is that in doing so we’ll also see a swing towards a much broader protectionism. ‘National security’ will be invoked by all manner of industries and interest groups seeking special protection and favour from their governments. It is vital to recall the lessons of the 1930s and avoid retreating into economic nationalism, autarky and ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policies. Closer economic integration and free movement of goods and services have been key to growing prosperity around the Asia-Pacific over the last four decades.
That’s why it is especially welcome to see groups of small and middle powers standing up to support free and open trade. Here there are some interesting ad hoc groupings have emerged, including the recent joint statement by Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and UK trade ministers, a Singaporean convened initiative around the operation of ports, and recent meetings of the US, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand to share experiences from pandemic responses and commit to the supply of medical equipment and food.
Finally, the pandemic has consequences for the geopolitics – the ‘traditional’ security agenda - of the region. One view is that it will simply accelerate underlying trends in the balance of power that are moving in favour of Beijing. China has been quick to claim the success of its approach to controlling the virus and has been able to move back to something like normal sooner than many other countries. As nations seek to rebuild their damaged economies China’s market and its investment will be more important than ever. In contrast, the Trump administration’s chaotic and incompetent response and its reluctance to take on a global leadership role (as the US did in the fight against Ebola) has only further underscored doubts in the region about American credibility.
But declaring a win for China at the US’s expense is premature. Another perspective is to argue both China and the United States will emerge from the current crisis with their reputations damaged. China’s initial mishandling of the virus was partly responsible for its dramatic spread. Beijing’s behaviour as the region has been rocked by COVID-19 has also won it few friends. Its coercion in the South China Sea, use of disinformation and peddling of conspiracy theories, and its heavy-handed ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’ in response to calls for an investigation into the cause of the pandemic have further hurt its image. To many in the region, neither Washington nor Beijing offers much in the way of appealing leadership.
The problem for small and middle powers is that US-China relations look only likely get worse, no matter who wins the presidential election in November. This will increase the pressure on those countries that want to advance their economic and security goals but without having to choose between one or other of the great powers. If Beijing and Washington can’t find ways to work together, it will also make it harder to reform or strengthen the institutions that are essential to produce meaningful solutions to human security, economic, environmental and geopolitical challenges.
Some have argued the 2020s could represent a middle power moment, an opportunity for the ‘rest’ to shape a new global order. But building or repairing cooperative architecture is hard work and requires resources and visionary leadership, both of which are in short supply right now. Perhaps the best we can hope for in the short term is for cooperation to evolve cautiously on an issue-by-issue basis, based around new ad hoc groups or ‘coalitions of the competent’. The “first mover” group is one such example of a diverse group nations looking to share the lessons they have learned tackling the virus. But as we look out further and try to anticipate the post-COVID-19 strategic landscape, it’s hard not to be worried about what looks like being a much colder, more complicated and competitive region than we have seen in a long time.
David Capie is Associate Professor of International Relations and Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. A revised version of this article appeared in a collection of papers commissioned by AusCSCAP and available at: https://asialink.unimelb.edu.au/stories/surveying-regional-perspectives-on-covid-19