The Covid-19 outbreak has brought the world to a standstill. The world faces new “Great Depression” and global panic as the virus toll mounts. The kind of undeclared Cold War that had been gathering momentum shows its true face under the tedium of Covid-19, which has already impacted international relations especially in the Asia- Pacific region.
Apart from USA vs. China kerfuffle about the origin of coronavirus, relations among inter regional powers have also become strained. There are anti-Chinese feelings either at the government or at civil society levels. The South-east Asia region as of 16 April 2020 had 21790 confirmed cases and 990 cases of deaths, according to the World Health Organization. There are different variations of the lockdown in the regional states.
Thailand declared a state of emergency. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte was granted emergency powers to combat Covid-19. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen used Article 22 of the Constitution to declare emergency. Malaysia has taken robust control measures. The civil society of Myanmar has termed the outbreak as catastrophic. In Indonesia, the number of cases has been increasing daily.
In Vietnam, lockdowns around Hanoi have been implemented. Vietnam chairs ASEAN this year and the annual meeting has been postponed till 2021. All South-east Asian Governments are upset with this outbreak. However, the reaction of Southeast Asian countries is not anti- Chinese; rather it is anti-West. Thailand was first to blame not China but “dirty Caucasian tourists” for infecting Thailand “because they don’t shower and do not wear masks,” according to the Thai health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul. Hun Sen, the Cambodian Prime Minister, visited Beijing in early February to showcase “unbreakable friendship and mutual trust.”
In his presidential address on March 12, Duterte ,the President of the Philippines, observed that the “Chinese President Xi Jinping was ready to help and all we have to do is ask.” In an interview on March 29, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong said that “blaming China for the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic is unfair.” For sure, the entire South-east Asian region is looking for cooperative solutions.
As regards coronavirus, on February 5, China’s Foreign Ministry listed “21 friendly countries” which had offered “friendly understanding” during the crisis, namely ROK, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Hungary, Belarus, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago. China is also working to control the damage to Southeast Asia. In late February, it discussed the impact of the outbreak with all its South-east Asian partners in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, aiming to reinstate regional unity.
The Vientiane ASEAN-China declaration of February 20 emphasized solidarity and the longstanding tradition of helping each other in difficult times. By emphasising on assistance at all levels, China succeeds in bringing ASEAN member-states closer than they themselves have actually contemplated. Reviewing the situation in East Asia and Pacific, however, one finds it to be mostly troubled.
Out of 21 “friendly nations”, Japan and ROK ~ the only two East Asian powers ~ are also largely upset. Covid 19 affected the North Korean economy too. Hong Kong’s protest movement against China expects a new surge and Taiwan also braces negative economic impacts of Covid-19. The same also escalates the China-Australia contest in Asia Pacific. So, the crucial question of the time is what will be policies of these nations towards China in international relations especially in the post-Covid scenario?
As part of its economic stimulus package, Japan has earmarked $2.2 billion to help its manufacturers shift production out of China. Of this amount, 220 billion yen ($2 billion)is for companies shifting production back to Japan and 23.5 billion yen for those seeking to move production to other countries. According to Daily NK sources inside North Korea, trade with China came to an abrupt halt and a shortage of supplies quickly ensued.
Sinuiju port and borders with China were closed. Rajesh Chandramouli reports that South Korean companies are keen to move out of China to India. The Korean consulate in Chennai has been working with a number of requests, both in preliminary and advanced stages. For Hong Kong, the highest risk sectors included tourism and the service sector.
Though some have suggested that the civil unrest and social movement so prominent in Hong Kong will recede permanently, the reality is that underlying grievances remain vigorous and once the pandemic settles it will re-emerge as a fresh burst. Taiwan’s tourism and aviation industries are struggling, most sectors have faced heavy damage and the government has planned a $2 billion assistance. The global pandemic has crippled the economies of the Pacific island nations.
Papua New Guinea, the Pacific’s most populous country and Australia’s largest aid beneficiary, has already been teetering on the edge of a health crisis, China’s Covid-19 presents a major challenge for Australia in countering Chinese influence in the Pacific. Prior to the pandemic, Australia was in the process of instituting changes in its foreign policy by planning to invest AU $2 billion in Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP).
However, the global pandemic has derailed the plans. Post-Covid international relations will be considerably altered and may come with a significant blowback for China. Tensions between the superpowers like the United States and China is already significantly impacting global trade and multilateral institutions. In spite of China- South-east Asia closeness, some changes may come up. There are a couple of areas where China’s interest is compelled to be endangered.
First, the problems associated with China’s ambitious BRI and OBOR will be aggravated by this pandemic. Second, China’s involvement in RECP is bound to be affected. BRI needs to be examined in the context of the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, which provided a counterpoint to China’s increased penetration into the region through the BRI.
Here Malaysia has a crucial role to play. Malaysia wholeheartedly supported ASEAN Outlook on 23 June 2019. The document stated that the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean were closely integrated in the security and economic structures and need a restrained order. Malaysia insisted on a warship-free zone in the country’s adjoining seas. It was a clear message to both China and the United States.
But Mahathir’s ostensible use of Japan to evade China may undergo a change under his successor, Muhyiddin. What would bee the role of India in the context of its Act-East policy? One prime question is if Japan will now be more interested in India? Can India attract more Japanese investments? Which sectors could attract Japanese FDIs? Shinichi Seki, an economist at the Japan Research Institute, predicted that there would be a shift in the coming days as there is renewed talk of Japanese firms reducing their reliance on China as a manufacturing base.
China has risen to become the largest source of imports for nine of the ten Southeast Asian countries. Also, it is an increasingly important export market for all ten. Will coronavirus turn this relationship upside down? Analysts are unanimous in predicting that the dampened demand will surely translate into an economic slowdown for the entire region.
ASEAN and BIMSTEC countries are very badly affected in the tourism and service sector. Coronavirus should be a gamechanger for nations striving to catch up with the rest of the world. South-east Asia will direct its own transformation. The region can find a silver lining to the turmoil if ASEAN starts to posit India as a serious alternative to China as a united bloc. Prime Minister Modi has taken a lead both at the G-20 and in SAARC advocating international cooperation to defeat Covid-19.
Overall, a moderate approach combined with both assertive and non-assertive posturing is likely to emerge in Asia. Stable relations with India will become a priority, even though Beijing would be mindful of New Delhi’s growing partnership with the US, and India’s rising Indo-Pacific profile. We need to see the world in peace and not in conflict.
(The writer is Director, Centre for South and South-east Asian Studies, University of Calcutta)