Author : Pratnashree Basu

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 30, 2020
Even as the world continues to be engaged in fighting the pandemic, developments in the Indo-Pacific have taken on diverse forms.
COVID-19: Mapping developments in the Indo-Pacific The world had been heading east for quite some time before COVID-19 struck and geopolitical swings in the Indo-Pacific have intensified the involvement of regional actors together with several extra-regional actors. The shape and form of the post-COVID-19 world is subject of much consideration with the pandemic deepening existing fundamental faultlines of the world. Has COVID-19 contributed to trigger further shifts in the Indo-Pacific by signaling the onset of a more volatile involvement of China, alongside rebooting regional and extra-regional cooperation frameworks? Regional responses to COVID-19 via organisations like the ASEAN and SAARC with members of both these groupings coming together to establish funds to respond to the crisis as well as discussing most effective ways of battling the spread of the contagion is discussed ahead. In South Asia, leaders regrouped virtually in a departure from their usual state of stagnancy and inertia. With China being the second-largest trading partner of ASEAN, the impact of the pandemic is intensified in countries of Southeast Asia. Inter-dependency among the workforce is also high within these countries — for instance, Singapore relies on a significant number of workforce from Malaysia with the majority being low and semi-skilled labour. This has called for closer coordination in the context of supply-and-demand capabilities that can be resourced within ASEAN and which could make way for a more self-reliant sub-region in future.

With China being the second-largest trading partner of ASEAN, the impact of the pandemic is intensified in countries of Southeast Asia.

ASEAN members have also discussed other concurrent developments in the region, specially the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the South China sea amid the contagion. In the context of the Indo-Pacific, it is being speculated that the post-crisis World will see an even more hawkish China ready to exploit “free-market vulnerabilities” in order to offset its losses. This may in turn lead to further intensification of tensions between China and the United States with Southeast Asia becoming the theatre of this resurgent competition. China has not put a pause on its salami slicing strategies in the South China Sea and continues to test the resolve of countries like Vietnam and Indonesia with which it is locked in longstanding maritime territorial disputes. In April as of now, there have been two major instances: one in which a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel has been involved in an incident which led to the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel and another in which the Philippine military accused China of pointing a radar gun at one of its navy ships. Chinese vessels are not only frequenting disputed areas where they are from time to time found, but also entering new territories for instance the Natuna islands and Laconia shoals together with military maneuvers and large-scale deployment of military assets to the region.

China has not put a pause on its salami slicing strategies in the South China Sea and continues to test the resolve of countries like Vietnam and Indonesia with which it is locked in longstanding maritime territorial disputes.

While such adventurism by China is not novel, it may also in part have to do with the fact that in 2019, countries like Malaysia which had previously refrained from voicing its position of maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea have come forward in challenging Beijing’s presence in waters which are well beyond its legal maritime boundary. Simultaneously, in early April, the US military through the US Indo-Pacific Command requested an additional funding to strengthen naval, airborne and ground-based operations in the Indo-Pacific region through a spending plan, titled “Regain the Advantage.” The move is linked with US efforts to bolster its presence in and its ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific since the Pentagon designated the region as a “priority theatre” in the wake of increasingly aggressive posturing by China. One of the key areas of debate concerning the region has been the prospect of the Quadrilateral Dialogue or the Quad. The grouping comprising Australia, Japan, India, and the United States received a jumpstart a few years ago after a long hiatus resulting from inconsistencies in terms of purpose and action. The Quad countries are now working with South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand in what is being referred to as the Quad-Plus Dialogue.

While the Quad has received a fair share of deliberation regarding whether it can become an effective cooperation mechanism, the fact that the members are collaborating during this period likely portends a promising development for the future of the grouping and its role in the Indo-Pacific.

Leaders of the countries began a weekly teleconference in late March to exchange information, share their assessments of the pandemic and to coordinate efforts to address the challenges presented by COVID-19. Apart from appraising each other of the situation in their respective countries, the participants also agreed to coordinate on issues like vaccine development, challenges of students and workforce seeking to return to their home countries, financial assistance and possible ways to manage an uncertain future for the global economy. While the Quad has received a fair share of deliberation regarding whether it can become an effective cooperation mechanism, the fact that the members are collaborating during this period likely portends a promising development for the future of the grouping and its role in the Indo-Pacific. Even as the world continues to be engaged in fighting the pandemic, developments in the Indo-Pacific have taken on diverse forms. In the post-crisis period, the region will have to shore up support through concerted efforts to meet the ensuing geopolitical realities in addition to country-specific impacts which in turn would necessitate revisions in monetary, economic, social and environmental policies. Cooperation mechanisms such as the ASEAN and the Quad will no doubt be required to play a vital role in the post-pandemic world while at the same time re-adjusting to probable shifts in economic inter-dependencies among countries in the region.
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Author

Pratnashree Basu

Pratnashree Basu

Pratnashree Basu is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, with the CNED programme. She is a 2017 US Department of State IVLP Fellow ...

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