The coronavirus pandemic has become humanity’s most mortal and indiscriminate enemy so far in the 21st century. While its nature and potency are fundamentally global, the impact of the virus is mainly local because of the international system of state sovereignty, borders, and divergent national interests. What is needed to manage, contain and overcome the pandemic is more international cooperation. Yet international efforts to fight COVID-19 collectively have been inadequate as individual states fend for themselves in a self-help fashion, putting up borders and restrictions on international trade, travel, and tourism.
Never in the contemporary era has the world been less travelled, when so many global citizens have been confined to stay in their home countries. Similarly, states and societies have never had to rely so heavily on communications technologies at the expense of transport and in-person interaction as distancing measures take precedence to keep the virus away. As a result, the pandemic has alarmingly reinforced the fracture and fragmentation of the post-Second World War rules-based liberal international order, with far-reaching ramifications for future geopolitical outcomes.
“G-2” partnership: A missed opportunity
Front and centre in determining such outcomes on the geopolitical canvass is the relationship between the United States and China. It is easy now to see how the competition and confrontation between the US and China have intensified. Yet it is worth remembering that the initial phase of the pandemic in January-February witnessed bilateral cordiality and goodwill between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping. The ideal response to COVID-19 would have been a “G-2” partnership between the two superpowers, deploying all of their combined medical expertise and resources that can be brought to bear. After all, past outbreaks, such as SARS, Avian Influenza or “Bird Flu,” and Ebola had elicited coordinated global responses, facilitated by the World Health Organization.
The same could have happened with the coronavirus. Strong US-China leadership could have galvanised a global response to systemically mitigate and stop the virus in its tracks. Their bilateral trade and technology war at the time could have paused and given way to an anti-virus war fought by humanity against a lethal and existential threat. But in prevailing circumstances, the pandemic has accentuated patterns of bilateral acrimony and geopolitical rivalry. The US and China are now so constrained by domestic imperatives and irreversibly locked into global competition that their friends, partners, and allies in Southeast Asia and beyond will be increasingly pressured to take one side or the other.
A downward spiral
As a joint response by the two superpowers proved elusive, more dire scenarios have come into play. Diplomatic bilateral relations are at a historical low, with the closures of the Chinese consulate in Houston and US consulate in Chengdu being the latest episode. The worst-case scenario now is open conflict arising from increasing geopolitical tensions between the US and China. Rumblings in the South China Sea, marked most recently by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement calling Beijing’s claims to the maritime area “unlawful,” are a potential harbinger of further escalation. As China further expanded these claims during the virus period, Vietnam and the US have upgraded their partnership for fear of Chinese maritime dominance.
In addition, the economic headwinds China is facing will bring additional challenges for President Xi at home, ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial anniversary next year; while President Trump faces domestic political pressure, an unprecedented public health emergency and a deep economic contraction in an election year. Incentives to boost nationalist inclinations and popularity at home by finding scapegoats abroad are high and not limited to the two superpowers.
Almost inconceivable not long ago, an open conflict between Washington and Beijing could unintentionally spiral out of a minor skirmish or an accident involving the armed forces of both sides, perhaps via third parties such as Vietnam or the Philippines. Manila though appears to be turning into an increasingly distant US strategic partner. In recent months, the US-Philippine relations continued to suffer several setbacks. President Duterte is seeking stronger ties with China. In his latest state of the nation address, he stressed that the United States cannot re-establish a military base in the Philippines and he ruled out confronting Beijing in the South China Sea. This follows an earlier much-noticed statement by ASEAN leaders citing the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of Sea as the proper framework for settling disputes.
Finally, as profound crises often beget cathartic changes, there could be domestic political developments that lead not to war and conflict but end up with structural reforms and adjustments at home in both the US and China realigning their interests abroad into a workable convergence. For example, Trump could lose the election this year, while Xi and the CCP could be incentivized at some point to take a different and more conciliatory tack.
As his polling numbers have plummeted, a Trump loss to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden could revive multilateralism and climate priorities, toning down at least the rhetoric if not the substance in US-China tensions and salvaging what’s left of the liberal international order. On the other hand, China is suffering as well, even though it is the “first-in and first-out” patient of the COVID-19 ward—provided there is no major second wave. Its signature geostrategic Belt and Road Initiative has lost momentum as partner and client countries face economic maelstrom from the pandemic. China’s own economic expansion this year is projected to be around 2-3 per cent, less than half of pre-pandemic forecast. So while the US has fared abysmally in COVID times, China has not re-emerged unscathed, especially in view of potential virus spikes.
A way out for middle and smaller countries
If the pandemic's consequences lead to outright leadership changes and/or adjustments in geostrategic directions, the US-China relationship may be steered away from confrontation towards peaceful co-existence and a revamped international order that satisfies both, with a bigger role for China and enough of a role for the US. The rest would then not have to choose in this second-best scenario. Whatever the outcome, the middle and smaller ASEAN states, Japan and South Korea should do more to stand together and away from the US-China jostle, building on and broadening cooperative vehicles, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, as a third way beyond superpower dominance in their neighbourhood.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok, Thailand.
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