As the world debates on how the coronavirus pandemic will reshape global order in a post-COVID world, a few developments in continental Southern Asia capture some of the dynamics shaping the Outcome.
Situated between the South China Sea and the Arabian Sea, continental Southern Asia stretches from Pakistan to the west and Vietnam to the east that are often seen as two regions, namely ‘mainland Southeast Asia’ and ‘the Indian subcontinent’ where four of China’s provinces share land borders with seven countries.
For Chinese landlocked southwestern provinces including Yunnan, Xinjiang, Tibet and Guangxi, continental Southern Asia provides access to natural resources and new markets, but importantly as “gateway” to the Indian Ocean and beyond.
The region has gained bigger salience for Chinese provincial governments and in Beijing’s strategic calculus in the context of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Some Southern Asian nations are key links in the BRI Projects.
Several Chinese provincial governments have taken the lead on COVID diplomacy in continental Southern Asia. For instance, the Yunnan provincial government dispatched medical aid supplies and medical teams to Myanmar and Laos.
Pakistan received medical teams and emergency medical supplies from Uygur Autonomous Region, while Tibet Autonomous Region donated medical aid to Nepal.
Some of the countries in Southern Asia also received Chinese military medical teams to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, namely Pakistan, Myanmar and Laos. Global Times in a report suggested the PLA Medical Teams involvement show “the high-level of mutual trust and friendly relations between China and these countries.”
Apart from the “trust” factor that the current ruling elites of these countries might share in their relations with Beijing, they are also key partners in China’s BRI Projects, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the high-speed Laos-China railway which is part of the Kunming-Singapore high-speed railway project.
The completion of the Laos-China railway project is scheduled for 2021 and the Chinese provincial governments have high stakes in these projects.
In recent years, major BRI Projects in some of these countries have faced local protests and slow implementations. By playing a pro-active role in COVID diplomacy, Chinese provincial governments perhaps want to improve their image as well as build goodwill in the context of wariness over the coronavirus crisis further delaying the progress of BRI projects in these Countries.
Chinese provincial governments have been bolstering their efforts in cooperating with neighbouring countries to prevent the pandemic at the borders in the recent past with concerns over the ‘second wave’ of the virus entering the country. However, the strategic interests underlying their COVID diplomacy has been to leverage the crisis as an opportunity. This local factor will continue to shape emerging bilateral and regional dynamics.
China might have overcome the initial skepticism among observers on its ability to help major BRI Partners in combating the pandemic crisis. Though Chinese generous donations have also been raising concerns in some quarters on their implications beyond the COVID crisis. For instance, scholars and activists have cautioned Myanmar on long-term implications of assistance the country received from China.
Another factor shaping regional dynamics relates to players initiating neighbourhood cooperation and collective response in combating the pandemic. India’s role in humanitarian assistance in the neighbourhood, particularly in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean region, has received much attention in recent years as Delhi scaled up its efforts under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
In the fight against coronavirus crisis, Delhi again initiated a collective regional response among the SAARC member-states early on. India’s humanitarian assistance in the neighbourhood in known, what is significant is Vietnam’s role during this COVID crisis.
Hanoi provided neighbouring Laos and Cambodia with medical equipment to help their fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Some suggests that this minimises, if not challenges, China’s “monopoly” on COVID diplomacy in the neighbourhood, at the same time this could also be a move on the part of Vietnam to be viewed as an emerging “responsible” player by the world community.
From this analysis of regional dynamics in continental Southern Asia, it is clear that the role of local/provincial governments in regional governance is likely to increase as their strategic interests move beyond national borders. This is clearly visible in the context of bordering provinces of China today, but bordering provinces of other regional nations are likely to move along this direction.
The COVID diplomacy shows that the most preferred route of key regional players in initiating cooperation is through bilateralism. Though, Delhi and Hanoi have demonstrated their willingness to channelise their humanitarian assistance through both the bilateral route as well as through existing regional institutions.
Lastly, with Beijing likely to bring increased focus on the BRI Projects to make up for the delays and losses due the pandemic crisis, this would continue to shape regional geopolitics. As the COVID diplomacy suggests, a combination of cooperation, competition and concerns is likely to mark regional dynamics in continental Southern Asia.