Revisiting the Indo-Pacific Under a Pandemic by Gautam Mukhopadhaya

19 June 2020

The fundamental question before us is how will COVID-19 change the Indo-Pacific. The truthful answer is a bit unsatisfying: it is still too fresh to forecast. Yet, we cannot get away with that. It is our duty as analysts to read the signs, understand developments, discern trends, and suggest or advocate policies that policy makers in the thick of events can find useful. How smartly we respond, depends as much on how correctly we read the situation as how we shape it. We need analysis and strategy, and we need to get it right.

So, what can we, as citizens of the world and India, see in this half-light of a post-COVID night and day?

First, it is clear COVID-19 is an earth-shaking event that has cast a shadow on virtually every aspect of our life, not least life and death, everyday drills and habits, social interactions, livelihoods, the economy and even diplomacy.

As a threat to life even if the numbers of deaths may not as large (as yet), it has invoked parallels with the Spanish flu of 1918-19 and even the 14th century bubonic plague.

Economically, it is already more widespread and much worse than the 2008-9 financial crisis, raising the specter of the Great Depression of the 1930s although it could be argued that the present crisis is not structural and the economy could rebound once the pandemic is brought under control.

In some ways, that would be a pity. The pandemic has also called into question some of our unsustainable modes of production and consumption and their relationship with climate change and living organisms that desperately need to be reconsidered. This opportunity should not be lost in a return to ‘business as usual’.

Geopolitically, it is re-ordering the China-West, and especially US-China relationship and threatening a new Cold War, though it is too early to predict who will come out on top.

Given China’s location and centrality in its very construct (going back to President Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia), and that the region is the theatre of three major flashpoints involving China, the US and regional players, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the North Pacific, and a fourth if we include the unresolved India-China boundary which has flared up again, it is logical that the region should be the first and likely strongest to feel its impact.

Until recently, India was marginal to this construct. But global currents and eddies have brought us firmly into the concept, and we cannot avoid navigating its rough waters. I will try to address the subject in terms of its implications of the pandemic on geo-politics, geo-economics, the region and India.

Health Impact of COVID-19

First as a pandemic, one thing is clear: that the international community’s response to the crisis has been severely wanting. The WHO, the world body tasked and empowered to provide expert leadership on global pandemics has been mired in controversy over its deference to China at a crucial stage. Lacking any leadership or support of major powers who find themselves at odds over the pandemic, the UN has played no role and stood on the sidelines of the crisis.

No major country, institution or leader has come out unscathed, either in its handling of the pandemic or in its reputation. All have been diminished. Faced with a global pandemic that respects no borders, the credo of ‘My Country First’ trumped international cooperation. The leaders of the international community have failed to craft a multilateral global response. There are no signs that this will change soon.

This is not to say individual countries have not done well. Some, especially in the Indo-Pacific, such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore, have been eminently successful in containing the pandemic and keeping fatalities down, as also Germany and most of Scandinavia (except Sweden) in Europe.

In China, after its initial mishandling that also led to its spread to the rest of the world, it has been contained, although through draconian measures. But resentment against China for its initial cover up, lack of transparency, undue influence over the WHO, attempts to obfuscate the truth after the fact, and aggressive ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy, has spilled over into public opinion and geo-politics world-wide earning in some quarters the WHO-named COVID-19, the epithet the ‘Wuhan’ virus.

Looking at the rest of the world, in Europe, it hit countries like Italy, Spain, France and the UK hard, as it did Iran in West Asia, though it seems to have peaked now albeit at a high human price. It is still ravaging the US, Russia and Brazil. Much of the rest of Latin America (except Peru and Ecuador) and most of Africa too have not been hit very badly by the virus, but are heavily impacted economically on account of a slump in demand for the primary commodities that they export and depend on.

Altough Thailand was the first place outside China where it was detected, East and South East Asia as a whole have got away lightly although they are very close to the source of the pandemic. An analysis of the numbers of deaths in the 5 countries of the Greater Mekong Sub-region and the 5 countries of Europe worst hit by the virus by the Cambodian opposition leader, Sam Rainsy in ‘The Geopolitics’, around mid-May revealed a figure of 0.2 deaths per million in the former compared to to 345 deaths per million in the latter.. It has since moved upwards.

Vietnam, a country of over 90 million with a border and close economic ties with China has reported no deaths mainly, like Taiwan, on the strength of swift action but Rainsy has also offered genetic and epidemiological hypotheses for the low incidence of the virus in the GMS. Whether valid or not, a look at COVID-related deaths in South East Asia shows that Laos and Cambodia too reported 0 deaths per million, while Myanmar stood at 0.11/million, Thailand about 0.8/million, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, 3.55, 5.9 & 8.73 per million respectively, and Australia and New Zealand, between 4-5/million. The North East of India too has had morality rates comparable to the GMS.

In South Asia too, despite rising numbers in India, figures of mortality on account of COVID-19 relative to population are far less than early predictions, but rising. In India, as record numbers of new cases are reported every day, they have increased from about 2/million in mid-May to nearly 4/million on June 1.

Various hypotheses have been offered for the low incidence and mortality from COVID-19 in much east, south and south east Asia ranging from geography, climate, demography/age structure, chronic diseases like malaria and TB, immune systems, epidemiology, genetics, vaccines, good public health systems in some cases, good governance etc. These will of course have to be scientifically examined.

But certain tentative conclusions can be drawn even at this stage. First, that the basics of epidemiology – early action on border controls, testing, tracing, quarantining, monitoring, hygiene, distancing, public awareness raising, protective wear, sound public health systems, scientific approaches, ability to scale up treatment capacity, consultative administration, required financial outlays and good governance, do matter, and where implemented have performed better than strongmen and charismatic leaders relying on instinct, public exhortations and symbolism.

From this point of view, the short-term prognosis for India is not good. The combined effect of a sudden, total, extended and nation-wide lockdown, rising numbers of new cases, and a haphazard ‘unlocking’ or relaxation under economic pressure, suggest that the virus may take much longer to peak with consequences for the poor and the economy that are likely to be as or more devastating than the virus itself. It also does not augur well for a fast recovery from the pandemic.

Second, that countries that have contained the virus faster and are already well plugged into the global economy, such as the Indo-Pacific, have the best chances of recovery and reap the benefits of any restructuring or relocation of global production and supply chains. They should be our economic partners of choice. In my previous lecture at the NIAS on India-ASEAN@25, I had offered a template for such a relationship which may be relevant even more now.

And third, if it is indeed true that South and South East Asia may have common disease, immunological, epidemiological and genetic features that may account for the relatively low incidence of deaths from the virus, it stands to reason that we should focus our quest for and research on drugs, treatments and vaccines with the countries of the Indo-Pacific rather than the US as we seem to be doing.

Thought also needs to be given to the IPR regime under which such drugs and vaccines should be developed. If COVID-19 is indeed a global pandemic, its treatments should also be developed as global public goods rather than proprietary technologies with suitable public funding.

Economics and Geo-politics

Turning to the economics and geopolitics of the impact of COVID-19 on the Indo-Pacific, I would like to highlight a few key factors that will shape the impact. The first lies in the differentials in the recovery from the pandemic and of the economy in the West and China.

No doubt, China will be heavily impacted by disruptions accompanying the pandemic, the slump in global demand and exports, negative reactions to China internationally that could result in some restructuring of industries worldwide, and perhaps even an internal political challenge to the leadership of President Xi Jing Ping. But given its early peaking and containment, its virulence in the West, China’s effort to boost domestic demand to compensate for falling exports, and signs of early recovery, it seems to me that China holds the advantage in bouncing back. If it does, its economic ties with the rest of the Indo-Pacific will recover.

The second is China-West, and especially China-US dynamics. This is clearly going southwards. This predated the novel Corona virus, but the ‘Wuhan’ virus, has definitely hastened the process, sharpened fault-lines, and aggravated and exacerbated underlying contradictions to possibly to a point where, at least under the current leadership in both countries, I can only see it getting worse.

The whole idea of globalisation was conducted under an illusion that politics and economics could function in parallel, and that there would be a convergence at some point in a kind of G20 that would include some token democratisation of China in a second ‘end of history’. President Trump had already blown a hole into that myth of ‘cooperation’ by relentlessly harping on the competitive, zero-sum character of the relationship manifested in loss of jobs to China, technology theft, and unfair or unequal terms or trade amongst other things. COVID-19 exposed its rotten core, in bitter accusations and recriminations about accountability for the pandemic that have taken an emotional tone from which will be difficult to exorcise.

A third, related, question is the relative rise of China, the perception of a decline of the US as an economic power and erratic leadership under President Trump, and the resultant changes in the global balance of power resulting in a changed world order. The conventional wisdom on this is that while China is no doubt rising and assertive, there is still a wide gap in (to use a Chinese term) comprehensive national power between the US and China. This is true. Yet, in reality, China is able to use both its asymmetry and its lower comprehensive national power much more effectively than the US. The widespread protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota illustrates the unwieldy use of its power and the damage to its international image like little else, even as China gets away with much worse.

It is also at the same time unrolling an alternative universe of initiatives and institutions ranging from the BRI and AIIB to its parallel digital world and large corporations that aim to replace the Western world order with a Chinese led order. At my previous lecture at the NIAS, I had talked about a ‘tri-centric’ world or balance of power between the US, China and Russia, each acting in its own selfish interest rather than the larger good. COVID-19 may have tipped the balance in favor of China, but the story has far from ended.

The factor that complicates this rise, my fourth point, is that unlike previous rising powers, COVID-19 has also exposed China as a sullen power. Its response to the international challenge posed by its role in the novel coronavirus, seems to be to sense of moment of opportunity while the world is preoccupied with the pandemic, to go on the offensive to settle its unfinished national agenda, from Hong Kong to the South China Sea, to India, and possibly even Taiwan in the future.

It is in the process, raising concerns across a wide swathe of countries that found expression in even countries like Russia and Indonesia voting for the World Health Assembly Resolution on an investigation into the pandemic. It has reacted to efforts to name, shame and inquire into the virus, with as Ambassador Shyam Saran described in an article in The Print, a mixture of hubris and insecurity. This is bound to invite a negative reaction.

Finally, it raises the question of the impact of these latent tensions now brought to the fore on the entire ASEAN-centred political, economic and security architecture in the Asia-Pacific, the ASEAN Summits, the East Asian Summit, the RCEP, the ARF, the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, etc. Once again, it is too early to say which way it will go. Certainly, ASEAN leaders will do their level best to keep each of these institutions active, inclusive and relevant. But the effort will be testing and a chill wind is palpable.

Is this the time for the Quad, now expanded to the Quad Plus, to finally take shape? And if so, will be inaugurate a new Cold War this time centered in the Indo-Pacific? It is pertinent that one ASEAN country, Vietnam, participated in the Quad Plus meeting on March 20 on the response to COVID-19.

How can India position itself in the Indo-Pacific post COVID? In principle, India stands to benefit from China’s behavior in the region and the reactions to it and concerns over the US, as a possible stabiliser and destination for new investment. In actual fact, it will be not so easy. COVID-19 has coincided with a number of serious challenges to India’s foreign policy: China’s serious aggressions along the LAC, Nepal’s formal revision on its map to include areas long part of India, the chronic problems of Pakistan and the US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, all on its continental frontiers.

On the response to COVID-19 per se, the Prime Minister’s laudable international response to it, including resuscitating SAARC in response to the pandemic, has not led anywhere significant. Instead, the inclusion of Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand into the Quad Plus suggests that it is their handling of the virus in their countries that have been noticed internationally, just as it was Indian regional HADR capabilities that caught world attention in response to the 2004 Tsunami that eventually paved the way for a closer partnership with the US.

On the economic side, despite a number of promising initiatives and programs such as Make in India, Start-up India, Invest India, Smart Cities, Jan Dhan Yojana etc., the Indian economy has been badly handled and performing poorly even before COVID-19. It now seems likely that with record numbers of new cases in many parts of India every day, the virus may peak in India much later than most other countries. The drastic lockdown has also severely jolted the economy. Early recovery is unlikely. On the contrary, India may be the last major economy to recover from its effects.

But that does not mean that all is bleak. The PM’s call for an open-ended Self Reliance that includes international cooperation opens a window towards closer regional cooperation and collective self-reliance amongst countries of the Indo-Pacific taking into account Chinese behavior and US unreliability, including possible initiatives towards greater regional trade, investment and integration, regional value chains and alternative development strategies that draw lessons from the pandemic, in particular its not always apparent relationship with rampant consumption and breakneck urban development at the cost of the environment, social cohesion, rural development and the changing climate. Are we prepared for a larger vision that enables us to escape the traps of the past?

Read transcripts of earlier lectures by Gautam Mukhopadhaya below:


The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.