The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
When the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic first struck international relations experts, many predicted that there would be a major tectonic shift in geopolitics as a result. The current senior White House official responsible for the Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell, wrote with his colleague Rush Doshi in early 2020 that the pandemic would dramatically accelerate China’s move to regional and global dominance, for example. They were partially right about the impact on Xi Jinping’s ambitions but wrong about how countries would align in response. If anything, global alignment has shifted away from China as Beijing’s Covid-arrogance has been laid bare and the United States, Europe and other major powers have become increasingly outspoken about China’s human rights and security transgressions.
Yet at the year-and-a-half mark, Covid has also stressed the governments in the major democracies in Asia and revealed some faults in crisis management that could become problematic. More worrisome still, we may be in the “eye of the hurricane” — the relative calm before new variants of the disease sweep across complacent societies and unleash new sources of political unrest. Here is a quick mid-summer’s guide to where the geopolitics of Covid appear to be in the AsiaPacific.
The United States. After an abysmal initial response to managing the pandemic by the Trump administration, the Biden administration has benefited from the strong U.S. pharmaceutical base in the manufacturing and distribution of the most advanced vaccines. At the same time, however, the pandemic has spotlighted the deep partisan divides in America’s political culture. Biden enjoys a steady 55 percent support rate, but the White House is deeply worried that the stubborn refusal of many Americans to accept the vaccine is creating conditions for major outbreaks in states like Alabama and Louisiana. Ironically, these are deep-red Trump-supporting areas where suspicion of Washington’s vaccine policy is being fueled by right wing commentators. If the new variants of the disease rip through these communities, it will further suppress economic growth and impact the whole country, including Biden’s national support rate. A major dent in Biden’s current political momentum could be a setback for U.S. diplomatic efforts and global leadership, though his China policy could get even tougher if Republicans take the House next year.
China. The pandemic has demonstrated that Xi Jinping’s favorite diplomatic tool is a hammer. When faced with criticism of China’s initial response to the virus in Wuhan, Beijing threatens and boycotts — as Australia and other countries are finding out. Beijing is making some gains in soft power with its quick supply of vaccines to developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, but the most advanced economies in the world are bridling at China’s heavyhanded “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. Rather than calibrating to win over supporters in these countries, Beijing is doubling down on sanctions, criticism, and cyber-attacks. Taiwan is under the most intense pressure of all, which has led growing numbers of U.S. experts to worry conflict of some kind is coming to the Taiwan Strait. While that scenario still appears unlikely, there is little doubt that Xi is revealing an almost desperate urgency to consolidate China’s position before demographics, debt and U.S. counterbalancing strategies take effect. Beijing’s simultaneous perception of a window of opportunity and a window of threat is intensifying geopolitical competition — and Covid is in part to blame.
Japan. Japan’s geopolitical trajectory is largely set and will not be impacted by Covid. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s eight years made sure of that, particularly since his strate- gy was a combination of elements introduced by the previous governments going back a decade. Today even the left-leaning Japan Constitutional Democratic Party is not challenging the government’s basic stance towards China and support for the U.S.-Japan alliance. While Tokyo wants to see the major powers cooperate in countering Chinese coercion, however, the Japanese economy is not so different from the Korean economy in seeking growth from China’s massive market. The real geopolitical impact of Covid on Japan is one of bandwidth. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is facing massive disappointment and protests around the Covid-crippled Tokyo Olympics and there is new talk in Tokyo that he may not survive national elections and a ruling party leadership contest in the fall. If Japan reverts to the pattern between Koizumi and Abe of replacing prime ministers every year, the direction of Japanese diplomatic strategy may not change, but the gear box — which was going in fifth gear throughout Abe’s tenure —may only be able to reach a grinding first or second gear on an Asian geopolitical highway where China and others are driving at full speed. My bet is that Suga survives and stays in power, but it will be a tough fight.
North Korea. As far as we can tell, Covid has done nothing to either resolve or exacerbate the North Korea nuclear problem. Kim Jong-un’s regime is less vulnerable to sanctions and pressure because he has sealed off the country to survive the pandemic — while U.S.-China coordination on pressuring the North has evaporated. Yet at the same time, Kim has much less room for risky moves like a resumption of nuclear or missile tests given the fragile state of the North’s economy and health system. Meanwhile, U.S. diplomacy has been unimpressive to Kim and obviously hampered by travel and other health restrictions. Eventually, Kim Jong-un will make his next move, but it appears that Covid is forcing him to put that off.
South Korea. Moon Jae-in appeared set to defy the usual lame duck status of Korean presidents because of his successful management of Trump’s approach to North Korea and the Korean government’s exemplary initial response to Covid. But pride cometh before the fall and Seoul’s approach to vaccine manufacturing and distribution (like Tokyo’s) put too much emphasis on domestic manufacturing and resulted in delayed distribution. After losing some surprising local elections (like Suga in Japan), the Democratic Party now looks much more vulnerable in the upcoming presidential election than experts were forecasting six months ago. The Blue House strategy on China is also losing popular support and proving untenable at a time when almost every other U.S. ally and partner is aligning more closely with Washington on the China problem. Where U.S., Chinese and Japanese strategic trajectories seem firmly set, Korea’s is more in flux and Covid is impacting the possible directions to some extent.
In conclusion, what can we conclude from this snapshot of the Asian geopolitics of Covid this summer? Only this: we face a bit more uncertainty at this point than many had hoped or expected.