The Covid-19 crisis heralds a decade of strategic volatility. Now that the virus has emerged from China, societies, governments and international institutions must brace for contagion of all kinds—health, environmental, financial, cyber and the risk of conflict. The intense connectivity that has facilitated flows of trade, investment, resources, information and, above all, people now judders with vulnerability.
This international health emergency is a black swan event, an improbable catastrophe obvious in retrospect. It’s perhaps better termed a black elephant: a discontinuity so big and so inevitable that nations and corporations chose not to see it coming. The crisis will shake up our Indo-Pacific region. The rapid evolution of this two-ocean strategic system and its accumulation of risk is the subject of my new book, Contest for the Indo-Pacific: why China won’t map the future (soon also to be released internationally as Indo-Pacific empire: China, America and the contest for the world’s pivotal region). Any book making claims about this uncertain decade is a gift to fate. Mine went to print at the start of January, when knowledge of the true nature of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was so suppressed it may not have reached even the Chinese leadership. This book is not so much about today’s problems as about how the reinterpreted past and plausible projections of the future can illuminate policy choices in the present. Current events amplify its main contentions.
With hundreds of travelers canceling their flights due to coronavirus threat, Nagoya airport looks like a ghost town on March 7, 2020. Photo courtesy of Joe Meyers.
We need to transcend the false binary that the Indo-Pacific dynamic is purely a contest between China and America. The Indo-Pacific has long been a place of multipolar connectivity and contestation, a melting pot of many entrepôts, where risk of all kinds ignores imagined boundaries. The book revisits the deep history of maritime Asia to underscore that this has never been a China-centric region. The Indo-Pacific is too vast for hegemony, and this empowers middle players such as Australia, Japan, Indonesia and India with more agency than they once appreciated. Addressing the threats to health and social order is the priority, but governments must also anticipate cascading shocks to the balance of power among nations, and the credibility and legitimacy of governments to their own populations. Translating human anxiety and suffering into the lexicon of geopolitical competition, threat and, it has to be said, strategic opportunity is a delicate matter. The outbreak has caused lasting damage to the People’s Republic of China, which was already weaker than it liked to look. The shock is rattling China’s economy, exposing the fragility of the strategic weight that has intimidated so many other countries in recent years. Even as China’s navy, air force, fishing fleets and paramilitary coastguards extend their Indo-Pacific push, new data reflects an extraordinary decline in commercial shipping to and from Chinese ports. Companies are desperately reconsidering supply chains. Diversification is now necessity, not just strategic aspiration. Suddenly the logic of many belts and many roads is plain. Domestically, the disaster is shaking confidence in Xi Jinping’s leadership, and in the competence and intent of the Chinese Communist Party. This is a deeply human tragedy, and the sacrifice and stoicism of medical professionals and ordinary people in China, and now many other infection zones, is to be admired. So too was the willingness of citizens like the late Dr Li Wenliang to risk everything in the name of truth, trying to provide early warning to each other, the authorities and the world. Covid-19 is a reminder that China will struggle to maintain the internal obedience and international sway it needs for its Indo-Pacific strategic ambitions. Internationally, China’s response hurts its image as a robust partner in tackling shared threats, a stark signal for countries that had blithely tied their fortunes to Xi’s strategy for geoeconomic influence. Beijing has long encouraged narratives that the Belt and Road Initiative will bring health benefits, among many other gifts. Suddenly, from Iran to Italy and beyond, China’s expanding power and influence looks much more double-edged, as Parag Khanna, author of The future is Asian, has been among the first to acknowledge, in a confronting article noting the parallel Silk Road transmission belts for coronavirus and the 14th-century plague. Covid-19 arrived in a time of deep mistrust and rivalry. China’s new normal has been to proclaim a relentless rise, asserting its interests against others, from the South China Sea to cyberspace. Its repression and censorship have become both tools and terrain of struggle against democratic nations and Chinese dissidents alike. It’s becoming clear that such truth suppression sabotaged the response to a local epidemic, with worldwide repercussions. Now we see the party-state stumble, in need of help, pivoting to protect itself and the world from a common threat. Of course, the other big powers in the Indo-Pacific have their own maladies. The United States is desensitised to political trauma within, struggles to convince allies the great republic doesn’t mean what the president says, and is yet to define a true strategy for competing with China in a post-primacy future. We must await another bad dream election to grasp how, when and whether America’s still-colossal power will adapt. Normally a summit of the world’s two largest democracies would be a rallying point for world order and liberal values. Not so President Donald Trump’s visit to India, though it did affirm that a China-wary India no longer hesitates to embrace American power. India, for all its youth and diversity and promise, is in conflict with itself. Mobs extolling Hindu extremism brought carnage to the streets to Delhi, at the very least on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s watch. It will become incredible, literally, to build international partnerships of mutual respect and rules-based stability—principles underscoring the Indo-Pacific solidarity of India, America, Australia, Japan, Indonesia and others—if those values are not guarded at home. China’s woes are no time for democratic self-satisfaction. Powers like Australia must demonstrate a creative mix of resilience and partnership with diverse nations in a multipolar Indo-Pacific including, on some issues, China. The early activation of pandemic response is a smart example of independent Australian foreign policy: swayed by neither America nor China, or by hesitant and compromised international institutions. Australia has exercised global leadership, grounded in national interest and values, on other shared challenges such as in deciding to ensure the security of telecommunications and internet-of-everything infrastructure. Australia should do all it can to help other nations: if pandemic preparedness were not part of its development-and-security pivot to help South Pacific neighbours, it now urgently should be. There’s sadly little sign yet that the common threat of contagion risk in health, environment, finance, cyber or other security matters is reducing strategic rivalry. For the middle players that want strategic competition to be managed in ways short of conflict, now’s the time to emphasise coexistence and cooperation based on shared interests, mutual respect and honest communication. In 1348, after the plague reached England and France amid their Hundred Years’ War, there ensued effectively a seven-year truce. Exhaustion, depopulation and quarantine drove this peace, more than any enlightened statecraft. Still, it’s a reminder that a profoundly human crisis is a chance for nations to reorder their priorities and how they define their interests. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of 21st-century diplomacy to draw from coronavirus at least something of a vaccine against other strategic shocks. Rory Medcalf heads the National Security College at the Australian National University. This article was first published in The Strategist.