The dominating event in the Indo-Pacific during early 2020 was the Covid-19 pandemic. Economic growth across the region was significantly impacted.
The virus originated in China’s meat markets at Wuhan in November/December. Initially, local officials blocked recognition and discussion of the Covid-19 threat, with police reprimanding whistle-blowing doctors like Li Wenliang for “spreading rumours”. Central government legitimacy and Xi Jinping’s personal credibility may face consequent longer-term damage? The central government only engaged with the Covid-19 challenge in January; internally enforcing draconian lockdowns and externally releasing DNA sequencing information to the global community. By the end of March the virus was receding in China. This enabled China to conduct an online and state media narrative war of well publicized aid to other countries now infected, even as it faced the problem of re-picking up Covid-19 from outside China.
South Korea and Singapore’s sophisticated early testing enabled them to contain the virus. Indonesia was battered, with Covid-19 mortality rates particularly high. Japanese social distancing proved relatively effective in February-March, but a state of emergency declared in the main cities in early April saw Japan battling to prevent a later surge, though it moved ahead on developing and distributing the Avigan antiviral drug. India faced the challenge of Covid-19 with strong announcements in March by Narendra Modi on lock downs and social distancing, but hampered by a ramshackle and chaotic system that was ill-equipped to deal with mass migrant workers.
India, worried about Chinese soft power penetration, was less than happy over China’s Covid-19 assistance to other South Asian countries. Modi’s counter call for a local “South Asian” response was rejected by Pakistan, China’s regional ally. Such Chinese assistance potentially decouples India’s neighbours from India; in the same way that China’s well-publicized assistance to European countries decouples Europe from the US, and its assistance to Pacific island micro-states decouples them from the US.
China-US relations worsened under the impact of Covid-19. The Trump administration denounced China’s initial blocking of information, and made a point during March of calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” – a labelling which China denounced. Conversely, the Chinese state media, and foreign ministry figures like Zhao Lijian, circulated conspiracy theories about Covid-19 being a rogue virus escaping from the US military or even released from US labs.
In this setting, on March 30 the US and India co-sponsored a Quad-plus meeting of officials from the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the US), together with officials from New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. Their remit was further cooperation over health security, with meetings on a continuing weekly basis. Tellingly, China was not invited.
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David Scott is a prolific author, with three books on China in the international system; an associate member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies, and a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).