Geopolitical Scenarios for Asia after COVID-19
March 31, 2020
What will the longer-term geopolitical impact of COVID-19 be on Asia? A few weeks into the crisis the early prognostications were generally bullish on China’s hegemonic opportunism and pessimistic about the future of American leadership in the region. To be sure, Washington’s initial failures at home and abroad will be costly in terms of lives and prestige, while Beijing has been aggressive in its efforts to cement diplomatic gains after recovering from the initial shock to Wuhan. However, it is far too early to predict that a short-term shock to the global economy will somehow catapult China to regional or global leadership over the long term.
In fact, prognostications in the immediate aftermath of unexpected shocks to the international system are often wrong. In the weeks after the Battle of Waterloo, John Quincy Adams warned from London that the world would fall irreversibly into Napoleon’s hands based on the early reports of the battle from those who first fled Belgium. After 9/11, the Bush administration predicted in its first National Security Strategy that the United States and China would improve cooperation on global challenges, a prediction the Obama administration repeated in its National Security Strategy after the 2008 global financial crisis that proved equally wrong. I remember working on the National Security Council (NSC) staff in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami when we expected that the devastation would most likely help the Jemaah Islamiya terrorist group consolidate control in Indonesia’s Aceh Province but force the Tamil Tigers into retreat in Sri Lanka—and then the exact opposite happened. As analysts become transfixed on black swans in the middle of crises, they can easily forget that the course of international relations is determined by multiple variables that remain unchanged.
International relations theorists measure the distribution of power primarily through the combination of domestic economic and military assets and international alignment. While the U.S. economy will now take a major hit from the pandemic, China is not about to throttle through the economic carnage hitting the rest of the world on its own. Almost half of China’s export markets are now shutdown by the virus, and China’s own domestic recovery is being hampered by its still shuttered service economy, which accounts for 60 percent of GDP. Moreover, modern China has never faced a recession, while the United States has itself successfully recovered from a dozen since the Great Depression. The U.S. share of global stock valuation actually expanded after the 2008-2009 financial crisis (to well over 50 percent of global shares), and the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency, backing over 90 percent of all global transactions. The pandemic shows no signs of changing these basic facts even as the global economy temporarily succumbs to its effects.
In terms of alignment, Beijing started from a major trust deficit before the crisis hit, with the latest Pew polls published in February showing China well below the United States and even farther behind Japan in Asia in terms of favorability. The United States could take a significant credibility hit in future polls, but Beijing’s soft-power offensive is only really receiving praise from leaders in places like Spain, Italy, Serbia, or Iran who had already decided to align with China’s Belt and Road Initiative because of economic desperation, grievances against democratic neighbors, or—in some cases—what analysts call “elite capture,” meaning bribery.
It is worth noting that President Putin is also sending aid and troops to some of these same stricken countries, yet nobody is arguing that Moscow is suddenly the world’s benign hegemon. Beijing’s aggressive media campaign against the United States and democratic norms more generally is not playing well in open societies around the world, and the coming weeks and months will be crowded with stories about inaccurate and exaggerated Chinese health and economic statistics, further eroding that trust level. Beijing will score some opportunistic points and may even do good in some parts of the world, but global alignment is not on the verge of a major long-term shift as a result of the pandemic.
Yet even if the pandemic is only one variable in the structure of the international relations of Asia, it is nevertheless a major shock of uncertain duration. Straight line predictions of Chinese hegemonic success are premature, but complacency about American leadership is not warranted. Leadership decisions, the outcome of U.S. elections, and the success of vaccine research could all bend the arc of history in different ways. For now, the best we might do is to capture the range of outcomes in three scenarios for the coming five years, presented in rank order of likelihood based on what we know today:
SCENARIO ONE: Intensified Sino-U.S. strategic competition but no major reorientation of major powers
Even if the COVID-19 crisis does not significantly shift the power and alignment differentials between the United States and China, the tone of the relationship has changed in important ways. Beijing’s official promotion of conspiracy theories attributing the virus to the U.S. military and attacking U.S. alliances and democratic norms is only confirming the U.S. national security establishment’s view that Xi Jinping seeks hegemony in Asia at the United States’ expense. While the broader U.S. public’s view of China may be muddled by competing narratives about China providing medical equipment to affected localities, official assessments of Beijing’s intentions in Washington will harden. We can now expect congressional support for decoupling or diversifying from China to extend from 5G to medical devices and pharmaceuticals. A new administration or new senior officials in a second Trump administration might seek greater mechanisms for cooperation with China in response to COVID-19, but the impressions made in both countries over the past two months could be extremely difficult to reverse.
That does not mean, however, that the rest of Asia will track with Washington’s intensification of strategic competition with Beijing. Even allies like Japan that were prepared to counter Chinese hegemonic ambitions in Asia were growing skeptical about the administration’s unilateral use of tariffs against China or efforts to ban not only Chinese firms’ entry into 5G markets (which major U.S. allies in Asia support) but also exports of relevant components to Chinese firms (which would ravage our allies’ supply chains). Not a single U.S. ally was prepared to support Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence that the G7 issue a communiqué labelling this the “Wuhan virus”—an early indication that the administration lacks support for blaming and isolating China even among allies also skeptical of Beijing’s intentions. It is striking that the NSC established a cell to counter Chinese propaganda but not one to coordinate with allies on the response to the virus, as was done in the Bush and Obama NSCs under similar circumstances.
While this dissonance with allies will not lead to defections by major democracies like Japan or Canada to Beijing’s camp, it will put smaller Southeast Asian states in an extremely uncomfortable position. A new CSIS survey of strategic elites in Southeast Asia forthcoming in April reveals that their number one security concern before the virus was the intensification of U.S.-China strategic competition. Countries like Indonesia and Vietnam want deeper security and economic ties to the United States as a hedge against Chinese hegemonic ambitions, but this strategy would only work if there is some deniability and ambiguity to their actions. The new tone in U.S.-China relations makes this extremely difficult. The net result will be a stasis in terms of alignment in Asia, but a degree of instability and uncertainty about great power intentions that could make it easier for Beijing to gradually erode relationships that matter to the United States and its allies.
SCENARIO TWO: Resurgent American leadership and multilateral institution-building
One critical fact lost on the administration in the current crisis is that American leadership has always been about building up institutions for cooperation and providing public goods and not just knocking down revisionist states or aspiring hegemons. The administration has thus far demonstrated virtually no regional leadership in this context—a contrast to the way the Bush administration created the U.S.-Japan-India-Australia “Quad” out of the 2004 tsunami crisis or the ways the Bush and Obama administrations established the G20 to forestall protectionism and improved coordination after the 2008 financial crisis. Regional institutions in Asia have often risen from the ashes of crises (other examples include the Six Party Talks established in 2003 after North Korea’s violation of the Agreed Framework or the Shanghai initiative—started without the United States in the aftermath of the 1997-98 financial crisis). Neither Beijing nor Washington has yet made any moves to push for a new pan-Asian institutional architecture to respond to the pandemic or its economic impact, but the most effective architecture would include both countries and involve a certain level of common purpose between the two. Far from looking weak, this would demonstrate to allies and partners that the United States is reinforcing the very alliances and institutions that are the targets of Beijing’s revisionism. The United States wins by leading, not blaming.
While the administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy has provided a useful framework for competing against China through open and inclusive alignment with democratic allies and partners, the strategy has always been undercut by the zero-sum “America First” impulse represented in the administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and unrealistic demands that Japan and Korea quintuple their financial cost sharing for U.S. bases. However, there is considerable evidence that the Congress and the U.S. public are placing even greater value on alliances and multilateral engagement. Moreover, key U.S. allies like Japan and Australia still recognize the sources of American leadership and credibility even when the White House does not, and they will undoubtedly lobby Washington in quiet ways to begin building new patterns of cooperation in the months and years ahead. Despite occasional talk of a “Plan B,” Tokyo and Canberra still far prefer shaping U.S. policy to forging their own independent diplomacy without the heft of the United States.
One can imagine a range of effective diplomatic engagements going forward, including a broad effort through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to establish norms for accurate medical and economic statistics analysis in the region, a strategic medical equipment reserve comparable to the strategic petroleum reserve established after the 1973 oil shocks, or a regional center for disease control centered in Singapore. One could also imagine a more effective effort to knit together bilateral alliances in the region in response to the crisis—instead of allowing the continuation of the current beggar-thy-neighbor spats between Tokyo and Seoul over travel bans and medical equipment. The United States has traditionally worked with allies in the wake of crises to reduce barriers to the flow of trade, information, and technology. In Schumpeterian fashion successive U.S. administrations have usually been able to reinforce trans-Pacific architecture out of the disruption caused by financial, natural, or pandemic crises in the region. Though not evident in the current White House response—perhaps understandably so given the sudden impact of the pandemic—this instinct is nevertheless well ingrained in Congress and the foreign policy community and may yet come forth.
SCENARIO THREE: Pax Sinica?
While the basic distribution of international power has not fundamentally shifted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and China faces its own array of significant material and ideational obstacles, there is still a scenario in which the crisis accelerates the atrophying of American leadership and international institutions, perhaps because of additional shocks from climate change or other black swans like cyber terrorism coupled with misguided political leadership. This is not a scenario where China peacefully eclipses the United States as the United States did Britain a century ago. More likely it would be a scenario in which regional revisionist powers consolidate their positions at the expense of the center: China in Asia, Russia in Central and Eastern Europe, and Iran in the Gulf, the dynamic described in Tom Wright’s insightful bookBy All Measures Short of War (Yale University Press, 2017 ). This collapse of American hegemony would occur not because of the kind of soft power moves analysts claim to see today but because these regional revisionist powers are able to engage in coercive behavior without consequences.
This is a dark though unlikely future. It is a scenario best avoided by seizing on the best elements in the first two scenarios: enlightened strategic competition backed by proactive moves with allies to construct rules that include China but constrain Beijing’s ambitions for coercive hegemony.
Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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