Will Coronavirus Be the New Fulcrum of US-China Geopolitics?

A key feature of Obama's US-Asian system of relationships was to contain China’s growing regional significance.

The current COVID-19 global pandemic, which began in China and is spreading around the world, highlights significant recently-emerging features of world and great power politics, including the changes in style and substance of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific from the Obama to the Trump administrations.

The principal goals of each administration may not have changed in any radical sense, but there are certainly significant changes in the philosophy and methods of American power under President Trump which might be summed up as the core conclusion of our new study: from Obama’s liberal hegemony and interdependence to Trump’s America First ultra-nationalism.

In effect, the US has moved from a strategy of “hegemonic re-ordering” to “America-first bilateral coercive transactionalism”. The former, under President Obama, was premised on a broadly liberal-internationalist approach through which the US tried to establish a US-Asian system of relationships that would be internally dense with economic, financial and security relationships and agreements, to create the conditions for economic growth, freer trade, political stability, but inadequate safeguards for labour, and US hegemony.

It was as much designed to strengthen intra-Asian cooperation as it was to contain China’s growing regional significance as it was to build a US-led system. A key feature of that system was a global pandemic co-ordination strategy, with representation in the US National Security Council, and foreign aid to stem epidemics to over fifty countries. “Promoting global health security,” Obama’s Executive Order 13747 in November 2016, noted, “is a core tenet of our national strategy for countering biological threats. No single nation can be prepared if others remain unprepared to counter biological threats.”

Also read: What Will Be the Economic Consequences of COVID-19 for India and the World?

The system operated within and between states, as well as coordinating international and inter-governmental organisations, providing early warning systems and practical remedial action. But there was special attention to authoritarian states’ for two reasons: first, because they would likely under-report or suppress news of the true scale of the epidemic and make it harder to take necessary measures; and secondly, because it enabled the US intelligence services to recruit more agents on the ground from discontented citizens. There was a hard edge to the strategy – it was, as ever, internationalism married to power politics.

Conversely, President Trump’s ‘America First’ coercive transactionalist strategy is much more extractive of value from each individual bilateral relationship. It maintains the historic US-centred “hub-and-spokes” bilateral character of US relations with regional allies but renders them more transactional. Trump wants regional allies to pay more towards their own security, for example, and reduce trade tariffs and open their markets to US goods and services. In regard to global pandemics, the Trump administration dismantled the NSC’s global health team leaving just two experts on pandemics out of 100 NSC policy specialists.

Iranian women wear protective masks to prevent contracting coronavirus in Tehran, Iran February 20, 2020. Photo: WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Nazanin Tabatabaee via REUTERS

Most of the pandemic specialists had direct knowledge of handling the Ebola crisis and some earlier ones such as SARS, and swine flu. While several health-security experts and staffers were moved to other departments, such as health, and homeland security, the efficiency of the system appeared to have diminished. The fact, and sheer scale, of the coronavirus appears to have taken the White House by surprise despite earlier warnings from Trump’s Office of National Intelligence in 2018 and 2019.

Also read: Coronavirus: China’s Failure to Act Quickly Is Now Straining the System

But our book considers a wider range of issues, states and regional associations with regard to the US role in the Indo-Pacific and its significance for world order. The Indo-Pacific – even as a widely-used designation for the region in the Trump era – indicates the centrality to the world economy and interstate politics of the region and therefore to the world’s lone superpower.

Oliver Turner and Inderjeet Parmar
The US in the Indo-Pacific: Obama’s legacy and the Trump transition
Manchester University Press, 2020

The Indo-Pacific suggests that the US conceptualises the theatre of its global operations to span the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as the strategic waterways of the Straits of Malacca through which the bulk of world shipping passes. It constructs India as a key to the whole strategy, as our authors show. It is a ‘joined-up’ strategy to counter the perceived “China threat” with the emergence of a range of Chinese-led international institutions – such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – and the ambitious and Eurasia – and Indo-Pacific – spanning Belt and Road Initiative at the heart of President Xi’s “China Dream”.

Obama’s liberalism with hard power

Several of the authors in our book, however, argue and demonstrate that Obama had stiffened his positions on North Korea, and on China, and that neither ASEAN nor the East Asia Summit had lived up to their promise, from the US perspective. Hence, change had already begun in directions partly inclining towards Trump’s increasingly aggressive posture. Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ approach to North Korea was accompanied by additional sanctions, more US weaponry in the region, much to China’s chagrin, as Bruce Cumings’s chapter argues.

Yet we must not forget what Princeton University’s Aaron Friedberg calls the “balance of financial terror” – the financial interpenetration and interdependence between the Chinese and American systems – which gives each a stake in the other’s stability and prosperity. Hence, there is broad cross-party support for an American policy of ‘congagement’ with China – a mix of containment with engagement.

Trump’s steep tariffs policy has raised the temperature of Sino-US relations and undermined Chinese elites’ confidence that the US will step back from the brink of an all-out trade war. With qualifications, however, the strategy has bipartisan support in Washington, DC. The US and China ‘models’ are colliding, giving the era a ‘cold war’ feel.

Also read: China-India Spat Over Coronavirus Continues, This Time on Medical Equipment Export

It is in the context of already heightened bipartisan worries about China’s role in Asia and the world – from rule taker to rule maker – that the Obama administration’s sense of urgency, and the Trump administration’s radical and undiplomatic rhetoric may be understood, at least in part. Yet, their specific concepts of how US power should work to mitigate upcoming challenges require careful study, analysis and interpretation.

In this regard, Trump’s ‘America First’ bilateral transactionalism – the US’s withdrawal from the TPP was one of its first symbolic acts – may represent an important shift, at least of emphasis, and possibly a return to the more traditional hub-and-spokes system in Asia. The overall goal remains a shared one regardless of the specific strategy – to maintain America’s global power superiority by subordinating “rivals” like China and “foes” like the EU.

Yet, as the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates, shared goals underestimate the lived consequences for millions of people across the world of a change in an American administration’s philosophy and methods.

Oliver Turner is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, a visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank), and visiting fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford.