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One Year After COVID, There’s a Strategic and Economic Reset in the Indo-Pacific





It has been nearly a year since the Chinese media outlet, Caixin Global, revealed that Chinese laboratories had in fact identified a mystery virus, later to be named COVID-19. 


By late December 2019, the virus had been determined to be a highly infectious new pathogen. Horrifically, the laboratories were ordered to stop further testing, destroy samples, and suppress information to the fullest extent possible. 


The regional health official in Wuhan City, the epicenter of the pandemic, demanded the destruction of the lab samples, which established the cause of an unexplained viral pneumonia since January 1, 2020. China did not acknowledge that there was human-to-human transmission until more than three weeks later. 


Caixin Global went on to provide the clearest evidence of the scale of this fatal cover-up in the very crucial early weeks, when the opportunity was lost to control the outbreak – a contagion that has since spread throughout the world and caused a global shutdown, literally. 



The consequences? Catastrophic loss of human life, destroyed economies, and unprecedented damage to human livelihoods.



Members of the Indo-Pacific Quad in Tokyo in October 2020


Rethinking Indo-Pacific Policies in the Aftermath 


The pandemic has severely damaged world economies, with international financial organizations forecasting a worldwide recession. As per the latest Reserve Bank of India (RBI) report, “India has entered into a technical recession in the first half of 2020-21 for the first time in its history…” The RBI is India’s central bank, responsible for the regulation of the Indian banking system. 


In the post-Covid-19 world, many European countries, Japan, and India will have to rethink and review their respective economic and trade policies and strive to eliminate dependence on a single source of supplies in vital areas.


In specific reference to the Indo-Pacific region, the 2020 Wuhan-centered pandemic has given rise to a situation that calls for a new ocean and security agenda to be developed that would aspire to devise strategies to boost economic development while protecting the security environment of the Indo-Pacific nations. Partner nations and multinational maritime constructs need to engage in the development of comprehensive maritime domain awareness, with an intention that these collaborative endeavors shall aid in securing global commons.



In its early phase, the COVID-19 experience began reshaping the geostrategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific with dramatic consequences. While the rest of the world was combating COVID-19, Beijing’s relentless actions have signaled its ambition to dominate the Indo-Pacific. 


The geo-strategic and military maneuvers displayed in the past six months undertaken by China showcase Beijing’s endless pursuit of status quo revisionism in all its existing territorial disputes, from the East China Sea to the South China Sea and the Himalayan borderlands. This is just a reminder that the 21st-century Asian political geography shall continue to be shaped, and reshaped, by Beijing’s cartographic subjectivity. This puts a loud question mark on the slogan of China’s “peaceful rise” (heping jueqi) introduced by Zheng Bijian in November 2003.



Future Security and Multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific


The above backdrop makes it more than imperative for the United States, under its new Democrat president-in-waiting, Joe Biden, and the West at large, to take precautions against any foreshadowing changes in the global balance of power. This, ostensibly, could take the form of a professed China-dominated world order that could potentially yield undesirable consequences for governments that uphold individual freedoms, liberties, rights and social values as foremost guarantees of their respective constitutions.


Geographically, the heart of the Indo-Pacific lies in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), whose native countries share similar challenges and opportunities by virtue of their strategic location. Prominent among these are access to limitless unexploited maritime resources, vulnerability to natural disasters, political instability, and rising challenges from revisionist powers that seek to drive and establish their own economic and politico-security dominant architecture in Asia.



It is more than apparent that the powers that shall likely dominate the Indian Ocean will eventually control the entirety of Asia. Given the severe diversity and differences between countries that are bound together by the Indian Ocean, the need to promote sustained growth and balanced development in the region through regional economic cooperation becomes far more pronounced. 



Shrinking the Disparities


The disparity in the capacities of the IOR States is a challenge that needs to be addressed through institutionalized cooperation between prominent stakeholders, particularly India and Japan. Both are well placed to help lesser developed IOR countries work on sustainably developing maritime resources, including traditional industries such as fisheries, shipping, and ports, as well as newer industries, including aquaculture and renewable energies.


Moving forward, multilateral regional endeavors by liberal democracies with similar perspectives on adherence to the rule of international law will remain crucial in the respective partnerships with the IOR littoral states, with the aim of capacity-building, developing infrastructure and contributing to the broader sustainable development of the region. 


Besides, securing of the sea lines of communication (SLOC) is a primary driver for countries with shared perspectives to build upon security and economic partnerships with potential strategic benefits across the Indian Ocean Region.



In my recent paper published by the Paris-based French think tank Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, I argued that if states are characterized only by interests and strategies, cooperative outcomes are unlikely to occur. A shared understanding regarding the rules of the game, the nature of admissible plays, the linkages between choices and outcomes, and the nature of negotiators involved, remains a vital precondition. 


Liberal democracies holding vital stakes in Asia and its future geopolitical and economic order should not let go of the solid foundations and convergences they have built at the strategic level. Nor should they undertake flexible decisions based on maritime border variables in order to achieve multilateral strategic deliverables.


The commonality of goals, such as strengthening multilateralism and protecting an international maritime order based on the rule of international law, need to be highlighted as priority areas. Multilateral initiatives shall likely propel growth, and investment through capacity-building will pave way for better integration of the IOR, Indo-Pacific, and its stakeholders.


These initiatives will further advance sustainable development by addressing the present challenges, including those identified in the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement and the 2015 Addis Ababa Action Agenda. 


Author: Monika Chansoria


Dr. Monika Chansoria is a senior fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of The Japan Institute of International Affairs or any other organization with which the author is affiliated.


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