Domestic drivers of superpower rivalry
The coronavirus pandemic is fundamentally global but its impact is mainly local because of the international system of state sovereignty, borders and divergent national interests. What is needed to cope with, contain and overcome the pandemic is more international cooperation and coordination. But we are seeing less international efforts to fight the virus together and more self-help where every nation fends for itself. The upshot from this fractured and fragmented international system during Covid-19 is the primacy of domestic determinants of international outcomes. Nowhere is this reality clearer than the competition and confrontation between the United States and China.
Geopolitical tensions between the US and China have evidently intensified rather than abated. In a more optimistic world, the virus could have posed as a common enemy that forged tighter international cooperation, led by the two contending superpowers. But in the prevailing circumstances, the pandemic has accentuated and exacerbated patterns of bilateral acrimony and geopolitical rivalry. The US and China are now so constrained by domestic imperatives and irreversibly locked into global competition that their friends, partners, and allies in East Asia need to manoeuvre together where possible to avoid having to choose sides.
For the US and China, domestic challenges come from different directions. The US is beset with protracted and visceral divisions. Its extreme polarisation at home has led to the externalisation of blame abroad, all fingers pointing at China. While its Covid-19 numbers are still on the rise, the US has reopened much of its economy to stem a severe downturn. With an eye on re-election in November, President Donald Trump also has vested interests in shifting priorities from fighting the virus to mitigating the deleterious economic fallout.
Compounding the pandemic for the US is an intense navel-gazing identity crisis in the aftermath of African-American George Floyd's death by white policemen in Minneapolis. Anti-racism sentiment has led to the reconsideration and destruction of American historical monuments and symbols that bear racist associations.
It is as if the US is ravaged by an internal civil strife of its own making, making it poorly positioned to lead the rules-based international order it built after World War II. Instead of mending fences socially at home and ushering in a process of reconciliation and compromise, the US has become even more bitterly polarised. The rhetoric and narrative being perpetuated by its political leaders on both sides and ordinary citizens alike have turned squarely against China as the culprit for Covid-19 and the consequent damages.
Unsurprisingly, the US has shirked the global leadership it long shouldered by withdrawing from international agreements, such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the trade-liberalising Trans-Pacific Partnership, and stepping back from world bodies like the World Health Organization, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. Mr Trump has threatened to pull back further from the entrenched rules-based global architecture, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).
The correlation between America's domestic turmoil and international retreat is beyond dispute. Because it is so unwell at home, the US is increasingly perceived as unreliable abroad. Nor are its dire dynamics confined to the Trump government. Whether Mr Trump retakes office in November, there is broad consensus that the US wants others to pay higher prices and bear more burdens and hardships to look after themselves. The traditional shock absorbers of bilateral tensions, such as the US business community and its interests in China's giant market, are not there anymore.
Because of its domestic preoccupations, the US' soft power capacity has waned. However, its military activities and hard power have been ramped up to check China's assertiveness in what Washington geographically frames as the "Indo-Pacific", intent on keeping the region "free and open", away from Beijing's dominance. The danger of US domestic problems manifesting as external assertiveness is likely to heighten in the near future.
In turn, China also faces a tough economic slowdown. From the pre-virus forecast of 6% growth this year, China is facing much lower economic expansion or a possible recession. Its upward economic trajectory will descend to 4-6% or lower, a shadow of the giddy growth over the three decades from the 1980s that launched China into a first-world economy and a first-rate military power.
Many Chinese were initially angered and resentful of the Xi Jinping government's draconian measures at the height of the pandemic outbreak and lockdown, especially in the Wuhan epicentre in Hubei province. Because of China's top-down authoritarian system, dissent and criticism were muted and managed. But while the outside world cannot hear as much noise of dissent and protest compared to the US, there should be no doubt that domestic tensions in China are putting pressure on President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party to shore up the economy and safeguard public welfare.
In the contested environment of a non-military war, marked by de-coupling (or de-Americanisation in China's parlance), neither the US nor China can afford to appear weak abroad when there is so much pressure at home. For domestic consumption in both countries, the more the US goes after China for pandemic blame, the more China is going to push back. The bilateral tension between these two superpowers was already on a spiralling course prior to the pandemic, from trade and technology disputes to alleged influence-peddling operations to espionage and immigration. Chinese visitors and residents in the US have been charged for politicised pro-China wrongdoings more than ever, not unlike so-called communist sympathisers at the peak of the Cold War vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Chinese authorities have similarly targeted American journalists and students, among others.
As coronavirus continues to wreak havoc while the US election cycle goes into full gear, states and societies in Southeast Asia will have to watch carefully as they may soon be pressured or forced to choose between one side or the other. While an armed conflict between the US and China remains unlikely, although less implausible than in the recent past, more military manoeuvres, including military exercises and arms sales, will likely play out in theatres such as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
The US and China are forcing other states to adjust. Asean's internal divisions will make the organisation more vulnerable and less effective in the face of the competing superpowers. But as can be seen recently with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's backtracking on the cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, when forced to choose, Southeast Asian states will think twice about going all-in with China at the expense of the US' regional role and involvement. Asean can manage this dilemma by working closer with other like-minded middle powers, such as Japan and South Korea. While these East Asian countries outside of the US-China faceoff hold divergent views and interests on myriad issues, they all appear intent on reserving the right not to have to choose.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.