Policymakers across the globe are in crisis-response mode as the new strain of coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, continues to spread. The coronavirus has already led to historic stock falls, halted global production chains, and placed millions of people under quarantine. Economists warn that inept handling could bring a recession and slash global growth in half. But coronavirus could also have far-reaching impacts on U.S. national security as well as regional security and politics in Asia, where it originated.
1. COVID-19 could exacerbate existing regional tensions
While countries focus on responding to the coronavirus, the ways in which governments respond have the potential to worsen already frayed regional relationships.
China’s relationship with the United States—already strained due to concern regarding China’s behavior on economic and security issues around the world—could deteriorate further due to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) response to the virus. There are serious concerns about how China’s authoritarian government did not respond quickly and appropriately to the outbreak—thus allowing the disease to spread—and censoring those who try to share their stories and information about what was happening. And concerns remain that China still may not be sharing all relevant information with other countries or the World Health Organization (WHO). As countries increasingly adopt “tougher” policies against China on a wide variety of issues— such as Trump’s new restrictions on Chinese journalists in the United States—distrust of China’s response to coronavirus could drive further challenges in the U.S.-China relationship. In fact, we have already seen one U.S. senator irresponsibly suggest that the virus might have been a Chinese biological weapon.
The long-standing tension between China and Taiwan can also be seen in China’s response to the health crisis: When COVID-19 first emerged, nearly 1,000 Taiwanese found themselves stranded in Wuhan as the two governments were unable to effectively coordinate charter flights out of the area. Because China does not recognize Taiwan as a separate entity, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) bars Taiwan from participating in international organizations such as the WHO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that are critical to responding effectively to crises like this. Exclusion from such international organizations leaves Taiwan uniquely vulnerable, as it is unable to take part in international information sharing and logistical planning.
2. The coronavirus will inhibit diplomacy and military preparedness across Asia
The coronavirus is already beginning to affect the ability of the United States and other governments to carry out daily national security tasks. The United States closed down its consulate in Wuhan. North Korea quarantined more than 380 foreigners—mostly diplomats—in Pyongyang. Quarantines like these make it harder for countries to tackle day to day national security. Basic day-to-day coordination on everything from cybersecurity to nonproliferation will be affected if diplomats are unable to return to their postings and more diplomats get recalled.
COVID-19 is also reducing military operations and preparedness. More than 20 South Korean soldiers and one American soldier in South Korea have tested positive for the virus. In addition, over 7,000 South Korean soldiers were placed under quarantine, the United States closed facilities on several bases, and U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises were cancelled. While as of this writing there have been no confirmed cases in U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ), there are tens of thousands of American soldiers stationed in Japan, and seven USFJ personnel remain under quarantine for potential exposure.
In contrast to White House assertions that COVID-19 is under control, several defense officials warn that U.S. military readiness will start degrading by the end of March. The U.S. Navy ordered all ships that have visited certain countries in the Pacific region to self-quarantine and remain at sea for 14 days in order to prevent further potential spread of the virus. And U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reportedly told U.S. combatant commanders not to make decisions related to the coronavirus without checking with Washington for fear of surprising and upsetting Trump.
As the United States and other countries focus first and foremost on protecting their citizens from the coronavirus, we are likely to see an increasing impact on defense and security issues. And if a reminder of continued security challenges were necessary, North Korea promptly provided one by resuming missile tests in the beginning of March.
3. Coronavirus will be a stress test for governments in the region
As the response to the coronavirus impacts security cooperation across the region, it will increasingly test the stability and effectiveness of governments. In authoritarian regimes, the way in which governments respond to the virus could have a significant impact on regime stability. In China, while blaming local officials, the CCP is trying to bolster its image by claiming that China’s response proves it is a global leader. When it comes to North Korea—where the government so far refuses to admit that there are any coronavirus cases—there are serious concerns about how a government notorious for awful human rights abuses and with little capacity for addressing even basic health care will respond.
COVID-19 will also test the capacity and efficacy of democratic governments and could upend domestic politics. In South Korea, opposition parties are highly critical of what they claim is a lackluster response to the coronavirus outbreak by the current government—a dynamic that could have a serious impact on parliamentary elections slated for April 15. Japan’s government has come under criticism for its response—including quarantining a cruise ship and closing schools—as it tries to get a handle on the outbreak in advance of hosting the Olympics this summer.
While Southeast Asia does not have a large number of confirmed cases yet, a widespread outbreak there would pose serious challenges. While Singapore—as a semiauthoritarian state with a small population and intensive surveillance capabilities—has so far been able to monitor the disease, other countries in Southeast Asia are much larger and would face significant capacity challenges.
While responding to the crisis, governments must also be able to continue carrying out day-to-day functions and deliver public goods and services. If governments lack the capacity to function effectively in these other tasks, COVID-19 has the possibility to bring about major socioeconomic and political disruption.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus is a stark reminder of how certain threats transcend geopolitics or domestic politics. Tackling these challenges requires relying on and empowering medical and scientific professionals; having systems, policies and officials in place to respond; and providing clear guidance to the public—all of which the Trump administration has failed at in its initial response.
To effectively contain and combat COVID-19, countries in the Asia-Pacific region will need to work together. The United States and others should respond to the epidemic in ways that could have the secondary benefits of trying to reduce regional tensions. This could include offering assistance to North Korea to deal with the outbreak and encouraging the WHO and China to allow Taiwan access to WHO-coordination mechanisms. While crises such as the coronavirus can drive economic and political shocks, they can also spark governments to put aside differences in pursuit of common goals—and there’s no better place to attempt to do that than in Asia right now.
Michael Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Haneul Lee is a research assistant for Asia Policy at the Center.
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