COVID-19 Offers a Golden Opportunity to Reengage with the Indo-Pacific

Soldiers of the U.S. Army's 1st Special Forces Group and India's 2nd Parachute Regiment (Special Forces) and National Security Guard load into a Pacific Air Forces C-17 Globemaster III for a parachuting demonstration at Bengaluru, India, in 2015.

U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Stephen G.Eigel

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Soldiers of the U.S. Army's 1st Special Forces Group and India's 2nd Parachute Regiment (Special Forces) and National Security Guard load into a Pacific Air Forces C-17 Globemaster III for a parachuting demonstration at Bengaluru, India, in 2015.

But the U.S. must act quickly, lest China turn the pandemic to its own advantage.

As the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has a chance to re-emerge as a leader and a valued ally and partner. The Indo-Pacific region is an ideal place to start. It is the Pentagon’s priority theater; a place where America can both learn and apply its own knowledge and logistics; and a region where swift action is needed to counter China’s own attempts to extend its influence amid the pandemic.

The Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report describes the Indo-Pacific as “the single most consequential region for America’s future.” Yet for all the rhetoric—see also the administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy and the State Department’s A Free and Open Indo-Pacific report—concrete action has failed to keep pace. State Department vacancies in South and Central Asia remain high. Ambassador positions in key countries such as Singapore have gone vacant for years. The administration downgraded its participation in important regional forums even as it continues to spar with allies like South Korea over basing costs. Some fear the administration may be destroying the alliance system that served the U.S. so well for seven decades. 

Still, the United States retains its central position in a hub-and-spoke network of regional alliances and partnerships. And despite struggles to control COVID-19 at home, the United States remains uniquely equipped to organize an international response, disseminating critical public health information and best practices, while coordinating humanitarian assistance. Should U.S. leaders choose to act decisively with their regional partners and allies, they would not only help to combat the pandemic, they would also serve to reestablish the United States in its traditional leadership role.

The pandemic requires renewed cooperation, in part because some countries have been so successful in slowing the spread of the virus. For example, South Korea has managed to keep the outbreak relatively contained, employing an aggressive response of widespread testing, quarantines, clear public communications, and a well-organized institutional health care response. 

Taiwan has also implemented remarkably effective tactics, drawing on its experience combatting the 2003 SARS crisis. Despite the millions of trips that ordinarily pass between Taiwan and China each year, Taiwan had fewer than ten COVID-19 deaths recorded by mid-April

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This accumulated knowledge in coronavirus mitigation has the potential to save thousands of lives, but South Korea and Taiwan lack the reach afforded the United States through its network of alliances and partnerships. Taiwan, for example, is forced to combat not only the virus, but also Beijing’s efforts to restrict Taipei’s ability to coordinate and share information with the rest of the international health community. Most notably, China has long blocked Taiwan from membership in the World Health Organization, hampering the self-governing island’s ability to share and receive timely and critical information about the pandemic.

As the “hub” in the Indo-Pacific, the United States is uniquely positioned to facilitate aid, including information sharing between those who have best practices to offer and regional neighbors in need. Parts of Southeast Asia have come under stress in recent weeks due to growing outbreaks. In South Asia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and others remain particularly vulnerable, given the region’s limited health care services and high population density.

Some coordination has already begun. In March, the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan (aka “the Quad”) were joined by South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand in a “Quad-Plus video-conference” to discuss ways to coordinate their efforts to counter the spread of the disease. The U.S. and Taiwan are collaborating in a number of areas, including joint conferences with scientists and experts, contract tracing, and vaccine development. The U.S. should amplify these efforts by working with its broad network of partners throughout the region. 

The network should also be used to coordinate material assistance, in order to avoid redundancies and ensure that aid gets where it is most needed. As a first step, the U.S. State Department and USAID have announced an initial investment of roughly a quarter of a billion dollars in emergency aid to assist countries responding to the virus. This includes a $2.9 million assistance package to India, $1.3 million to Sri Lanka, $3.4 million to Bangladesh, and roughly $18 million to ASEAN states. Meanwhile, Australia has pledged to redirect its aid budget for the Pacific Islands to focus on the coronavirus, with some arguing the need to make Australia’s “Pacific Step Up” a “COVID-19 Step Up.” India, one of the world’s largest producers of pharmaceuticals, has agreed to increase the export of drugs to fight the disease. These activities are just a fraction of what will be needed to effectively respond to the pandemic.

And there is more than a public-health impetus to swift action. After getting its own COVID-19 outbreak under control, Beijing moved quickly with international assistance and diplomatic outreach. Now experts have begun to question whether the current crisis may reshape the global order in China’s favor. If the U.S. fails to act more decisively in the region, it could be sowing the seeds of a radical shift in the future regional balance of power.

To find the will to act on a sufficient scale in the Indo-Pacific, Washington will first need to see the crisis for what it is. The illness and death that follows in the wake of COVID-19 is not an isolated public health problem. The weakening of U.S. alliances and partnerships is not an isolated diplomatic problem, and the threat that China’s quest for regional influence poses to the rules-based regional order is not an unrelated national security issue. 

In the United States’ “priority theater,” these all come together as a single threat, requiring U.S. leadership to address them collectively.

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