Geopolitics waits for no one: Southeast Asia a year on from the outbreak of Covid-19
25 Mar 2021|

A year since the pandemic abruptly changed all aspects of our lives, how has Covid-19 affected Southeast Asia and what lessons can we draw at this point? Here I offer three key observations that provide a way to look at the overarching impact of the pandemic on the region.

Covid-19 is a true disruptor on all levels.

There is no good time for a pandemic, but the world arguably was less prepared than it should have been for this one—not because we haven’t experienced plagues before or because we didn’t imagine a global pandemic like this one, but because we preferred to think about the threat in the abstract rather than in practical terms as an inevitability.

The response to the coronavirus crisis has become a measure by which political systems are judged—which systems dealt with it best, which governments fared better in securing medical services and supplies, who’ll win in the vaccine race, and who has been able to influence global health institutions.

The pandemic is not just an ‘accelerator’. It has introduced profound changes on many levels. Each country’s economic strength, confidence and power will be affected in the post-Covid world, which in turn may shift the hierarchy and balance in Southeast Asia. Resource nationalism and vaccine nationalism, for example, not only will affect the physical recovery of Southeast Asian nations, but also could play a role in determining the future alignment of regional politics.

Southeast Asian nations must not misjudge just how significant this juncture is. If they do, they are likely to respond inadequately to the challenges and may miss the opportunity to assert their positions and interests in this critical time.

Every single choice has consequences.

For Southeast Asian governments, non-alignment is an option, provided that it’s truly a conscious national strategy. But rhetoric alone is not a strategy. Countries in Southeast Asia, to varying degrees, show a level of conviction that they’ve lived with the China threat for a long time and are able to muddle through, or even turn the threat into an opportunity.

Southeast Asian diplomatic elites tended to blame the United States under the Trump administration and its unsophisticated diplomatic narratives for the increasing major-power tension and for ‘making them choose’. But that misdiagnoses the core of the problem.

Perhaps the biggest strategic contribution of Covid-19 is the lesson that when it comes to a global crisis, there’s no external protector, not in the form of the United States or China, or anyone else.

The region can no longer take a post–Cold War peace dividend for granted. Each and every Southeast Asian country needs to play its part in ensuring the evolving environment is most conducive for them to grow. Failing to recognise that, and missing the opportunity for strategic proactiveness, would reduce the avenues to exercise their own agency and sovereign rights.

The ability to multitask is crucial.

Policymakers can deal with big challenges and even crises, but it’s difficult for them to deal with many big challenges and crises at the same time. Multiple challenges can quickly become dangerous.

The pandemic has accelerated some pre-existing trends, but it has also drawn our attention away from many challenges. For example, the argument that the pandemic accelerated the authoritarian tendencies in some countries may be partially true, but it misses a more fundamental problem—authoritarian tendencies have been present and will remain present in Southeast Asia.

What’s missing is an effective enforcement mechanism, one that previously kept those tendencies at bay. And perhaps the bigger issue is the quality and standard of governance in the region, which will continue to pose challenges during the recovery from the pandemic.

Similarly, while Covid-19 has occupied just about everyone on the planet, our attention, resources and a sense of emergency have been taken away, at least for a while, from the threat of climate change. The climate crisis, however, will wait for no one, and Southeast Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions to its effects.

Climate change will have economic, political and social repercussions. The region is expected to be hit by increasingly frequent and severe floods, droughts, typhoons and other natural disasters. In a recent McKinsey report, almost all ASEAN states are listed as frontier countries for climate change. By 2050, in an average year, anywhere between 8% and 13% of GDP could be at risk in those countries due to rising temperatures and humidity.

The risk of extreme rainfall could increase three- or four-fold by 2050 in Indonesia. While flooding is a common occurrence in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, infrastructure damage could cost between US$500 million and US$1 billion by 2050, with knock-on expenses ranging between US$1.5 billion and US$8.5 billion.

When it chaired the 2020 ASEAN-centric summits, Vietnam was between two major typhoons that also claimed lives in the Philippines. In the wake of the pandemic, more national disasters will slow the path to recovery, even for those countries that have done relatively well with containing the virus. In the immediate post-Covid period, there will be a tendency to allocate resources towards economic recovery rather than the climate crisis as it may be considered as a less urgent issue. Again, that would be a major miscalculation with lasting consequences.

We all want to believe that when vaccines are widely available, the pandemic will be behind us and the world order will go back to ‘normal’. Some harbour hope that with Joe Biden in the White House, the US will return to more predictable and responsible global leadership and somehow stabilise geopolitics. But nothing has frozen in this critical, fast-paced period, and certainly not the power balance in Southeast Asia. To think that we will need to deal with these matters only after the pandemic is over would be a huge mistake.

If power corrupts, then crisis reveals. Indeed, this multilayered, global crisis has revealed that the great powers can’t always be relied upon to provide quality public goods or demonstrate true global leadership.

Southeast Asia must come to terms with the fact that it can’t count on any single great power to help it with the many challenges the region faces. And while smart alignment politics are needed, it is individual proactiveness that will determine how the region can not just adapt to the emerging new order, but help to shape it. Now is the time for Southeast Asia to exercise agency.