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The Geopolitics of Southeast Asia’s Coronavirus Challenge

While the dust is still settling, it is worth examining what the potential geopolitical implications of COVID-19 will be on the region.

Prashanth Parameswaran
The Geopolitics of Southeast Asia’s Coronavirus Challenge
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After months of speculation about an understated coronavirus challenge in Southeast Asia, COVID-19 finally gone regional in Southeast Asia as expected over the past week: with all eleven countries finally registering at least one case. While evaluating COVID-19’s specific impacts on the region or assessing government performance is premature given the evolving nature of a global pandemic, it is nonetheless worth setting out what geopolitical impacts we should watch in the region in the coming months.

While there have been anxieties about how COVID-19 would affect Southeast Asia, the fact is that apart from Singapore and Vietnam, where cases were detected early and governments acted quickly, the region is now only waking up to the severity of the challenge, and it has affected countries to different degrees thus far. Though numbers tend to quickly change, as of this week, while eleven Southeast Asian countries have at least one case, the distribution of cases vary from a few to a few thousand: per ongoing data collected by CSIS Southeast Asia’s COVID-19 tracker, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia have cases in the thousands; Singapore, Vietnam, and Brunei and Cambodia are in the hundreds, while Myanmar and Laos (and Timor-Leste, not included in the tracker) have a few cases.

The trends we have seen globally thus far suggest that given how quickly case numbers and deaths can adjust and shift, using these numbers or initial developments to judge COVID-19’s impact and government performance would be misplaced. Nonetheless, one can expect the focus of this continue in the headlines, whether it be the effectiveness of measures adopted such as lockdowns or bans on religious gatherings; lessons learned from Singapore’s initial response – despite the Singapore government’s own continued cautiousness in casting itself as a model of any sort – or accusations or underreaction leveled at individual leaders such as Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo who has publicly admitted this.

What we can do, however, is assess what general geopolitical implications COVID-19 may have on Southeast Asia as the situation evolves. And while we may have seen only the tip of the iceberg with respect to these implications, it is worth assessing how the geopolitics of this is playing out in Southeast Asia in three senses: the performance legitimacy of Southeast Asian governments; the dynamics of bilateral and regional cooperation; and the mechanics of major power engagement in the region including U.S.-China competition.

The first geopolitical lens is how the virus spread affects power in Southeast Asian states and the performance legitimacy of key governments. Beyond the immediate focus on perceived overreaction or underreaction by governments and COVID-19 being framed within previous lines of criticism directed against them – whether it be Rodrigo Duterte’s opponents criticizing a quarantine as authoritarian overreach or Hun Sen’s detractors suggesting he is not taking this as seriously as he should with the Westerdam ship docking and the holding of a China-Cambodia military exercise –  top of mind is big legitimacy tests for governments at key points in their political calendars.

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In terms of elections, Singapore may become the first country to hold a general election amid COVID-19; while Myanmar, which is only now being consumed by it, will be looking to hold polls later this year. But beyond elections in 2020, it is worth noting other cases as well where legitimacy tests will be in the spotlight, be it Malaysia which is dealing with a global pandemic just after a sudden change in government or Vietnam which is holding its quinquennial Party Congress in early 2021.

The second geopolitical lens concerns the dynamics of bilateral and regional cooperation. Unsurprisingly, as with previous crises, much of the immediate collaboration has focused on the individual and bilateral levels. Nonetheless, the leadership of individual Southeast Asian states amid this latest crisis has been notable as they often echo into the future, be it Singapore in terms of providing test kits to lesser developed mainland Southeast Asian countries or Indonesia’s own efforts to continue to put the focus on multilateralism – be it the passage of a United Nations General Assembly resolution on COVID-19 or stressing the importance of global cooperation – given its heft in Southeast Asia as the largest country, its only G-20 member, and a holder of a rotating non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Unsurprisingly, there has been some scrutiny as well about the relative lack of regional cooperation and ASEAN’s limited response. To be fair, ASEAN, an intergovernmental organization which operates on consensus, performs in large part in accordance to what member states choose to make of it at a particular time, and the association, to its credit, has been present in some forms thus far, be it the convening of meetings among Southeast Asian states or with external partners such as China and the European Union or the holding of engagements through the newly-established ASEAN Center for Military Medicine with the help of Vietnam, which holds the  annually rotating ASEAN chairmanship. But as Marty Natalegawa, a former Indonesian foreign minister and one of Southeast Asia’s ardent multilateralists, has noted, there has been a clear lack of regional willingness to invest in already established mechanisms at a time of crisis.

The third geopolitical lens is the evolution of external power engagement in Southeast Asia. Unsurprisingly, the focus of the headlines has been on the most direct manifestations of this for the United States and China amid rising geopolitical competition, be it the cancelation of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit scheduled to be held in Las Vegas or individual Southeast Asian states’ responses to China such as imposing initial restrictions when Wuhan was the main epicenter for the outbreak or receiving assistance from Beijing tied to COVID-19.

But the bigger question is whether COVID-19 reinforces or recalibrates the dynamics we see with respect to external power engagement in Southeast Asia. Thus far, the focus has been on manifestations of reinforcement, be it the fact that COVID-19 has emphasized the promises and pitfalls of China’s growing economic and political influence in Southeast Asia and has become another realm where Washington has underperformed relative to Beijing. But issues of effectiveness regarding China’s assistance and the risk that Beijing may seize on COVID-19 as a way to advance its broader objectives in other flashpoints including the South China Sea, may end up changing how the current picture ultimately plays out at the end for China and the United States. It is also important to keep in mind that other notable actors, including Japan, the European Union, and Australia, will also play key roles in how Southeast Asia’s alignments play out in ways that an excessively restrictive U.S.-China prism does not account for.

To be sure, while the geopolitical contours of COVID-19 may be coming into clearer view as of now, how exactly they will play out more specifically in individual countries and the region as a whole is still less clear, along with the extent to which this will play into the shaping of Southeast Asia into the 2020s more generally. As such, continuing to take stock of how these dynamics are shifting will continue to be important to do in the coming weeks and months and beyond.

These insights are partly drawn and updated from previous remarks given by the author at a Wilson Center event “Geopolitical Implications of the Coronavirus for the Indo-Pacific,” held by webcast on March 19.