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Welcome to a World of Bubbles

Countries across Europe and Asia are exploring special bilateral arrangements to ease border restrictions. The result could be a globe fractured along epidemiological lines.

Coronavirus Travel Bubbles
Jon Benedict for Foreign Policy

Britain and France recently hinted at the bitter politics that may come with new coronavirus-related travel regulations, as the two nations traded tit-for-tat rulings ahead of a planned border reopening. The United Kingdom announced it would require all foreign visitors to self-isolate for two weeks—backtracking on a deal to exempt the French. France, in turn, responded by promising to impose reciprocal quarantine requirements. Amid the retaliatory edicts, global airlines begged that national policies follow science, not politics. It is unlikely the current standoff will be the last.

Plans for so-called air bridges and travel bubbles—agreements between countries allowing citizens to cross borders without needing to quarantine—provide hope for a resumption of travel, allowing international commerce and tourism to return. But rather than reuniting a fractured world, the reopening of travel based on separate international circles of trust risks introducing new divisions. In particular it will highlight the clout of three major powers—China, the European Union, and the United States—while also dividing the world into countries that have handled the pandemic well from those who have struggled. With the bubbles come a new—if, hopefully, temporary—geopolitical order divided along epidemiological lines, with complex implications for trade, tourism, and investment patterns.

The collapse of global travel is unprecedented. About half of the world’s flights have been grounded, and passenger travel has declined by 95 percent. Before the pandemic, more than 2 million air passengers flew in the United States each day; that number is now closer to 100,000. Singapore’s Changi Airport, one of the world’s busiest, saw roughly 5 million passengers in April 2019, over 150,000 per day. Last month, its daily count plummeted to below 1,000. One estimate suggested the business travel industry is expected to lose $820 billion in revenue this year.

Against this backdrop of severe economic losses, the idea of travel bubbles sounds particularly attractive. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia launched the first such arrangement in May, allowing free movement for citizens of the three EU member states, at a time when travel within the larger bloc remains restricted. A similar bubble is being discussed between Australia and New Zealand, and also perhaps among France, Germany, and Austria. Over time, a plethora of smaller bubbles are likely to emerge. In turn, these could connect to one another, creating larger free zones allowing unrestricted travel.

This sounds hopeful, but there are obvious difficulties. For starters, few such bubbles can be created instantly. Australia has yet to resume interstate flights and says international travel is unlikely before October. Now that they have a sense of the costs that coronavirus outbreaks bring, other countries are likely to be similarly cautious. China recently announced that a business passenger on a rare charter flight from Germany had tested positive for the coronavirus, despite showing no symptoms. Despite its enviable coronavirus record—or, perhaps, because of it—Taiwan says it won’t reopen its borders at all for the foreseeable future.

Even within bubbles there will have to be restrictions. South Korea and China opened a mini bubble in early May for business travelers, but they required visas and multiple disease tests. Other bilateral schemes could come with quarantine periods, pre-submitted itineraries, or mandatory monitoring apps.

Full travel bubbles will require more complex arrangements. Countries hoping to form one are likely to have to start with similar epidemic conditions. They will then have to agree to common rules and extensive data-sharing, as well as potentially working out how to make different national contact-tracing apps work and share information with one another without unduly risking the privacy of their citizens.

Bubble partners then must also have enough faith in one another’s health systems to believe that an outbreak in one country would be contained before it spread back to others. Finally, bubbles are fragile. There is the tricky issue of what happens when a new outbreak occurs, and what rules govern when borders can be shut once again. Making these plans work will be hard enough for countries such as Australia and New Zealand, which have managed to control their outbreaks so far; for countries with starkly different levels of infections, such as Australia and Indonesia, it looks almost impossible.

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Beyond the practicalities, new travel zones will underline larger geopolitical realities, the most obvious being the rules-setting clout of superpowers such as China, the EU, and the United States.

China’s position will be especially powerful. With its economy recovering, access to China’s vast market is a prize for other countries around Asia, which are keen to tap Chinese investment and welcome back its tourists. Bilateral travel agreements will cut across existing geopolitical alliances. China has reopened some travel ties with South Korea. It is likely to do so soon with Japan. The enticement of partnering in a travel bubble will strengthen Beijing’s already close ties across Southeast Asia, a region that in any case shows little of the post-pandemic anti-Chinese backlash common in Europe and North America.

The result will see the emergence of a new Sinosphere, with China at the heart of a web of reciprocal travel corridors, beginning with countries like Singapore before moving on to emerging economies with low coronavirus infection rates like Thailand and Malaysia, and also to economies further afield like Germany, with which China has already allowed a limited resumption of business flights.

China’s centrality will provide diplomatic leverage in other areas, too. Over recent weeks Beijing has used trade rules to punish Canberra for pushing an investigation into China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Had a Sino-Australian air bridge been in operation, Beijing might well have restricted travel as well.

The EU will wield similar powers in its own neighborhood as it moves forward with plans to reopen internal travel. Decisions on borders lie with individual European nations, such as Greece’s plan to reopen in time for this summer’s tourist season—but to keep British travelers out. But the EU has created guidelines for a phased lifting of restrictions, beginning with nations with low infection rates.

Eventually the EU is also likely to work with its member states to shape the rules by which countries outside its common borders resume access and on what terms—underlining the value that membership of a large bloc brings. Nations outside, such as the U.K., will find themselves in a weak position to resist these rules, given the importance of access to the EU’s vast internal market.

Something similar may also occur with neighbors of the United States, which shut borders to much of the world in March. With its pandemic battle ongoing, the United States has mostly kept its borders open, although it did ban flights from Europe in March, and from a handful of other countries, including most recently Brazil. Given the ongoing severity of the U.S. outbreak and associated policy failures, President Donald Trump’s position in negotiating future travel arrangements will be weaker than a country like China, which has come close to suppressing the pandemic. But the size of the U.S. economy and the importance of its citizens in such areas as tourism will still carry considerable weight, especially among nearby countries in Latin America.

Trump is also likely to demand reciprocal reopening for any country seeking access to the United States, potentially laying the groundwork for further diplomatic spats in the vein of that between the U.K. and France.

Some emerging nations such as Thailand and Vietnam have dealt with the pandemic far more effectively than the U.K., Spain, and the United States, and they will be rightly cautious about letting in visitors from those countries—despite their reliance on tourism. But in general, richer nations are more likely to be able to reduce and manage infection levels over the coming months. By contrast, poorer nations without large-scale testing regimes that are struggling to reduce infection rates will find it far harder to reopen borders with those that have succeeded at keeping the coronavirus at bay.

This will be true even of those with the right geopolitical connections. In Asia, Cambodia and Laos are both allies of Beijing. Both declined to close off travel to China during the pandemic’s early stages in Wuhan. Yet so far, at least, China has shown no signs of being willing to reopen travel in return, presumably given its lack of trust in the countries’ official outbreak figures and fear that doing so will risk renewed infection.

All this will add up to a world roughly divided into red, orange, and green zones. Travel bubbles will work best between green nations that have largely suppressed the coronavirus and have well-functioning institutions capable of managing future outbreaks. Orange zones will include some advanced economies that have been unable to suppress the virus, such as the United Kingdom, as well as better-performing emerging nations such as Thailand.

But until a vaccine is found—and widely disseminated—red zones will cover much of the globe, especially poorer countries with weaker responses such as India, Nigeria, and Ecuador. Countries unable to bring the coronavirus under control will require strict quarantine measures and other restrictions to reopen, likely dissuading much-needed tourism. Some countries in red zones will reopen with other red partners, potentially complicating the task of managing future outbreaks. Others will be forced to accept nonreciprocal terms, in which red-zone citizens can only travel to green zones if they accept onerous self-funded quarantine, potentially creating a domestic political backlash from citizens who feel they are being treated unfairly.

Even within green zones, the odds are that travel patterns in a world of bubbles will resume only gradually as businesses adjust to remote work and tourists stay at home. But it is in these new involuntary red zones, stuck in a kind of perpetual national lockdown, that the true impact of an epidemiologically fractured world will be felt.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the author of The Billionaire Raj. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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