Currently the United States government is leading in humanitarian assistance and health response to the global pandemic despite being the country with the most cases of COVID-19. The U.S Department of State issued a fact sheet on April 16 claiming they and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in addition to multilateral and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), have issued over $508 million in emergency health and economic assistance to assist communities across the globe in dealing with the pandemic. This aid to “more than 100 of the most affected and at-risk nations” is specifically provided by USAID’s Global Health Emergency Reserve Fund for Contagious Infectious-Disease Outbreaks and Global Health Programs accounts, International Disaster Assistance accounts, and Economic Support Funding (ESF).
Specifically in Asia, the assistance offered to certain nations stands to be strategic in terms of the United States’ competition with China for global influence. The countries of note are Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. (Not to discount their significance, a litany of other countries are listed in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Middle East and Europe.) The global order isn’t likely to shift as a whole as a result of COVID-19 aid, but the individual relationships that China and the United States have in key areas of the Pacific, especially within the first island chain and in Central Asia, can have compounding effects down the road. To draw a comparison, the Spanish Flu in 1918 did not shift the global order by itself, but it did in combination with World War I. Although the COVID-19 outbreak will not directly shift the geopolitical lines, Chinese and U.S. responses, monetarily and militarily, will have an impact on future goals for both nations.
In Afghanistan, more than $18 million in U.S. assistance for COVID-19 response has been allocated to support detection and treatment of the virus for Internationally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Afghan returnees, including a redirection of monetary funds from existing resources totaling nearly $10 million. The aid will support “surveillance, improvements for clinics, labs, case management, infection prevention and control and technical assistance to the Government of Afghanistan.” This aid obviously comes at a pivotal moment in the nation’s history, with U.S. military campaigns coming to an end and the withdrawal of U.S. troops imminent. Unfortunately, many of the repatriated Afghans are coming home from Iran, which was ravaged by the outbreak early on, raising fears about the additional spread of COVID-19. The United States has a vested interest in supporting the government of Afghanistan in the coming months with regard to the virus due to the latter’s lack of medical facilities and equipment, which are already overwhelmed from years of conflict. China also shares a stake in stability in the region. For Beijing, instability in Afghanistan is seen as contributing to Islamic fundamentalism, which threatens domestic security in China, specifically in Xinjiang.
India will be provided nearly $5.9 million in health assistance, primarily to provide long-term care for the affected (e.g. ventilators), issue guidance to communities on precautionary measures, and organize financial mechanisms for emergency readiness and response. The U.S. Department of State touts this is in addition to over $2.8 billion in total assistance within the past two decades. India, a crucial nation for geopolitical influence in the area, has the potential to be ravaged by the virus, with sprawling, densely populated urban areas. India is a key node in connecting China’s grand project of the Belt and Road Initiative, although New Delhi has refused to participate given concerns over the Pakistani leg of the project. That aside, China and India are still preparing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic ties with 70 events celebrating culture, business, and defense. Despite persistent tensions over an unsettled border, New Delhi has been at pains to maintain stable ties with Beijing. In the COVID-19 context, for example, India’s rhetoric has strictly avoided directly blaming China for the outbreak. The United States could use this opportunity to open up a pathway with Indian leadership to further deepen diplomatic ties and force the Chinese Communist Party to redefine their calculus on Sino-Indian relationships, which will almost certainly be disrupted due to the outbreak’s economic fallout in the region.
In Southeast Asia, the United States has provided over $5 billion in aid to Indonesia in the past 20 years. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. has allocated $5 million in health assistance to prepare laboratory systems for virus testing and detection, and support technical experts for response and preparedness. Predominantly this has been done with the delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) to facilities handling patients and virus testing. The financial aid to Indonesia comes at a desperate time, since they have the highest death rate of all Southeast Asian countries. Since the beginning of the outbreak, Southeast Asia has become a hotbed for U.S. and Chinese naval entanglement. China therefore has a dire need to extend aid to Indonesia, as it is an entryway for a broader ASEAN market. Deep rooted anti-Chinese sentiment runs deep in Indonesia and suspended Chinese investment projects are not helping the situation in the current state of the outbreak.
Sitting as a central node in the first island chain, the Philippines has had an interesting year with the United States and China, even previous to the COVID-19 outbreak. President Rodrigo Duterte backed away from the long-standing security pact with the United States earlier this year. The obvious player in the region to fill this void is China, although the Philippine foreign policy door isn’t fully closed on the U.S. just yet. COVID-19 health assistance has been a first step in redefining these terms. For the outbreak specifically, more than $6 million in health and $2.8 million in IDA humanitarian assistance will go toward laboratory and specimen transportation systems, case-finding surveillance, handwashing and hygiene promotion, PPE, and more. With a fatality rate of 6.6 percent, marginally higher than the global average, and their strategic geography in the region in respect to the South China Sea, both China and the United States would be wise to re-establish diplomatic lines in the form of aid.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Thailand and the United States shared a monumental experience earlier this year with the successful Cobra Gold 2020 multilateral military exercise. All parties involved on both sides were able to mitigate the spread of the virus among troops and re-deploy for follow-on tasking. The United States had their fifth generation F-35B fighter jet participate in Cobra Gold for the first time, which highlights how seriously the United States takes establishing bilateral security and presence operations with their Southeast Asian partners. In addition, the U.S. is providing over $2.7 million in health assistance alone, adding to more than $1 billion in total assistance over the past 20 years. The United States is likely to increase health assistance to stimulate influence partly due to Thailand being a crucial portion of the Chinese BRI. For example, the planned Kra Isthmus Canal would give Chinese naval and shipping vessels direct access to the Andaman Sea, allowing them to bypass the lengthy Malacca Strait.
Vietnam has had a rough year so far, and not just in terms of COVID-19. Fishing vessels are having confrontations with the Chinese Coast Guard around the Paracel Islands and U.S. Navy ships making port within the country led to a subsequent outbreak on board. So far Vietnam has received roughly $4.5 million in health assistance from the United States to help prepare facilities to face the virus outbreak. In the past two decades, total U.S. assistance reached nearly $3 billion. The Vietnam-China-U.S. triangle has a rocky past, but in recent times Vietnam has been tilting closer to the United States as tensions grow over the disputed South China Sea. The Vietnamese and other nations lay claim to different, and overlapping, features in the sea; however, the region has been seeing a severe increase in Chinese Maritime Militia, Coast Guard, and Navy operations in the past months. It seems as though the Chinese are taking advantage of the outbreak to survey and potentially seize areas of high resources in the South China Sea, with COVID-19 serving as a distraction. The U.S government has an opportunity to ensure freedom of navigation and resource exploration during these trying times, potentially creating a new foundation for Vietnamese-U.S. relations.
In all regions of Asia, people are suffering from COVID-19 and their respective economies and communities are feeling the effects. Both China and the United States have a stake in ensuring that the diplomatic ties that existed before the pandemic remain and come back stronger. From Central Asian Islamic fundamentalism leaking into Xinjiang, to resources in the Spratly Islands, China’s interests are intertwined with its neighbors. Beijing must also provide COVID-19 aid and use their resources to fight the outbreak to maintain the status quo and move forward with the BRI. The world is watching as these resources save lives in countries that are more susceptible to disease — but the geopolitical repercussions on both sides will affect much more.
Zachary Williams is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is also an MBA Student at the University of Maryland Global Campus. Follow him on LinkedIn. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps or the U.S. government.