Coronavirus could tear down dictators and democracies alike

Amid much uncertainty about the spread and lethality of the novel coronavirus Covid-19, national security planners everywhere will be applying tough-minded geopolitical analysis to anticipate what worst-case scenarios for the virus might mean for the global strategic balance.

Political elites may hope for the best, but their security advisers plan for the worst—and the worst, for this virus, is very bad indeed. Here are some assumptions which will hopefully be proven wrong, but which, on current evidence, no one can afford to dismiss.

First, despite brutally stringent measures in China, the global spread of Covid-19 has not been contained. As of yesterday, 85 countries and territories have reported cases of infection. There will be dozens of other countries, including many in Australia’s nearer region, where the virus may be present but has yet to be identified or reported.

Second, it seems clear that Covid-19 is passing by human-to-human contact that is no longer traceable back to Wuhan. China was the start of the story, but not the end. The virus will spread from many other locations in a world where every spot is reachable from every other part of the world in around 24 hours.

Third, the World Health Organization has reported a case mortality rate of 3.4%. This is much worse than seasonal flu and no one has immunity. The rate may come down as we learn more about the numbers of mild cases that didn’t require medical treatment, but we will know this for sure only after the virus has had its global effect.

Fourth, a tested and proven vaccine is 12 to 18 months away from being available, and months more will be needed to manufacture and distribute globally significant amounts.

Last, social isolation only protects people for as long as they remain isolated. Physical separation is at best a temporary measure and will breakdown en masse long before the virus has worked through the world’s population.

If these five statements are true, then it’s likely that we’re seeing only the beginning of a profound Covid-19 crisis which will be with us for months; kill hundreds of thousands of people globally; break the economic, travel, IT and social intermeshing of the world for a time at least; and profoundly strike at the stability of entrenched political systems.

What does a sustained outbreak of Covid-19 mean for China and for the stability of President Xi Jinping’s regime? There are possibly two somewhat contradictory results: in the short term Xi strengthens his power, but only at the longer-term cost of undermining the Chinese Communist Party’s effectiveness.

The shape of China’s response to the virus is already well known: early January reports of the virus were suppressed, and false assurances were given that the situation was under control. Xi appeared disengaged, leaving management of the issue to his subordinate, Premier Li Keqiang. Xi became more publicly engaged in leading a response only last month, by which time the scale of the outbreak was such that the president could not afford to remain personally distant from it.

Only a deeply authoritarian system like China’s under the CCP could mobilise such a sweeping response to the virus. Current reporting has it that around 760 million Chinese are subject to home lockdowns, enforced by hundreds of thousands of party members and the biggest People’s Liberation Army mobilisation since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

For all its harshness, the Chinese response has worked quite effectively to slow the domestic spread of the virus, but this has been bought at the price of closing down the economy and of potentially exposing hundreds of thousands of CCP and PLA cadres to the virus.

Sooner rather than later, Xi must find a way to get people back to work in a country where everyone will be feeling the effects of a substantial economic slowdown and where the virus will still be active. Doing that too early without provoking a second outbreak looks hard.

Crucially, the virus became too big a problem for the CCP leadership to simply blame on local maladministration. A massive propaganda effort has been spent in Chinese state media presenting Xi as the rather premature hero of the ‘people’s war’ against the virus.

Covid-19 has sparked social-media-driven nationwide unhappiness with the CCP’s handling of the crisis. This is new territory for Xi, who has painted himself as being a leader close to the people.

None of this is to suggest that Xi’s leadership is under immediate threat. The party retains immense power to repress all opposition. Nevertheless, Covid-19 may well end the high point of Xi’s personal authority and the CCP’s central control.

Turning to the United States and, as Covid-19 carves its way through California’s nursing homes, an obvious conclusion is that President Donald Trump failed to think his way through how the administration should gear up for the crisis.

Apart from an obvious underinvestment in developing working virus test kits, the administration’s early response exposed the reality of what a drained swamp looks like in Washington. In 2018 the Trump administration began systematically cutting spending and reducing the scope of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. National Security Council positions relating to pandemic crisis management were abolished.

Unlike in Australia, where the government could reach for orderly and well-rehearsed plans for managing a health crisis, Trump appeared to have little to turn to other than his instinct and Twitter, where, on 26 February, he wrongly claimed that Covid-19 was receding as a threat in the US and that its fatality rate was lower than the flu’s. ‘View this the same as the flu’, Trump said at a press conference in New Delhi on 25 February. That was at least three to four weeks after a point when the president should have had a much clearer understanding of the extent of the problem.

In appointing Vice President Mike Pence to lead a taskforce responding to the virus, Trump may also have repeated Xi’s mistake of trying to push a difficult role to a subordinate. Inevitably, national crises demand that the national leader is seen to be in charge.

The virus will possibly have a sustained impact on the presidential election. The US can swing substantial resources into the anti-virus fight, but it will be doing so much further behind in preparation than it should be. It’s also reasonable to assume that the rapid growth in numbers of infections and deaths in California will continue for some time.

At the end of 2019, Trump was looking well positioned to win a second term. The economy was in rude health, Trump had stared down a wasted impeachment effort in the Congress, and the Democrats were endlessly fighting and factionalised.

Less than three months later, the president has a substantial self-inflicted wound from an undisciplined approach to a health crisis that will only get worse at precisely the moment in the political cycle when the Democrats’ presidential nominee will be resolved.

Covid-19 may not end Trump’s presidency, but it’s certainly not going to help him in the run-up to the November election.

What does Covid-19 mean for Australia’s wider Indo-Pacific neighbourhood? I suggest there are three lenses through which one can view the regional impact of the virus: markets, mendicants and military forces.

Among the developed and successfully developing countries of the region exists a network of economic interdependencies and just-in-time supply relationships that deeply undermine any real capacity for sovereign independence.

Thus China locks its factories down and within days Australia faces shortages of medical supplies, building components and consumer products of all types. If South Korean or Singaporean fuel refineries stop operating or bulk tankers (high-risk virus incubators) stop taking to sea, it will only be one to two weeks before Australian bowsers dry up.

Does Covid-19 herald the moment of peak economic interdependence globally? That’s a big judgement call to make, but such are the levels of interdependency built by reliance on global just-in-time supply chains that the developed economies will largely sink or swim together.

We shouldn’t be surprised if the lesson some countries take from this experience is that more sovereign self-reliance in critical areas like vaccine production and access to medical supplies, food and key areas of defence technology is worth paying a premium for.

Then there are the immense health challenges presented by the Pacific island states and many lesser developed countries that struggle to maintain the most basic levels of health care and populations with high comorbidity—where people can be suffering more than one medical disorder at the same time.

Further, the potential for social isolation strategies to work is lower, meaning that the mortality rate of Covid-19 could well be higher in developing countries.

Think of what that means for Australia’s closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, with a population of around nine million people, to date no reported Covid-19 cases and more than 10,000 Australians resident in the country.

Australia will not sit by if Port Moresby or other regional friends look to us for help when the reality of Covid-19 becomes clear in their villages and city streets, but our capacity for large-scale response is tiny compared with the potential scale of the problem.

A final thought about military forces. We already know that, because of cramped quarters and air conditioning, ships are highly dangerous locations for Covid-19 to strike at high ‘attack rates’. The same could be said for military barracks and headquarters.

As in China, so too will other regional countries be tempted to put ill-prepared and poorly equipped military forces into the front line of responding to Covid-19. Something to watch will be the impact of the virus on the PLA and its ability to deploy forces, especially at sea.

Covid-19 will eventually pass and become more controllable with vaccines and developed natural immunity, but not yet and not before it could wreak profound change on those who currently hold political, economic and military power around the globe. There has never been a more important time for Australians to think about how we protect our strategic interests in this dangerous world.