China’s Post-Coronavirus Aggression Is Reshaping Asia

Multilateral responses are likely as Beijing picks fights.

People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march next to the entrance to the Forbidden City (L) after the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on May 22, 2020.
People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march next to the entrance to the Forbidden City (L) after the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on May 22, 2020. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

The gloves—or masks—are off in Asia. China’s coronavirus mask diplomacy has given way to bare-knuckled geopolitical fistfights with a growing array of its neighbors. In the past few months alone, it clashed with India in one of the worst border flare-ups in decades, escalated standoffs with Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea, pressured Taiwan with nighttime drills in the Taiwan Strait, and threatened Australia with boycotts of wine, beef, barley, and Chinese students. Meanwhile, China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats—a moniker taken from a particularly nationalistic Rambo-esque movie—are engaging in a vigorous cybercampaign to defend Communist Party interests and offer thinly veiled threats if countries stray from the “correct stance” on important issues.

Beijing’s blatant aggressiveness is accelerating long-standing debates about the underlying costs of reliance on China and spurring support for closer coordination between other Indo-Pacific partners. The governments of India, Japan, Malaysia, and Australia have all taken steps to reduce their economic exposure to Beijing, exploring new efforts to restrict foreign investment rules or shift manufacturing capabilities away from the Chinese mainland. India and Australia recently inked a new military logistics agreement at the “virtual summit” between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with a similar agreement between Delhi and Tokyo likely to follow. In spite of Beijing’s objections, many regional governments have praised Taiwan’s highly successful COVID-19 response and offered support for restoring its observer status in the World Health Assembly. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States is growing stronger and even expanding—with a new “Indo-Pacific Coordination Group” that involves weekly calls between these countries as well as New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam.

Other responses are from the bottom up. Chinese cyberbullying of a Thai film star spawned a new “Milk Tea Alliance,” named after the popular beverage, to forge solidarity between Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, and Thais online. Overtly rejecting China’s attempts to play up support for the “One China” principle, online supporters quickly propelled a hashtag that translates as “milk tea is thicker than blood” to nearly 1 million tweets in a matter of days. The backlash expanded to other issues such as China’s damming of the Mekong River. It also garnered the praise of Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, who called for “pan-Asian solidarity that opposes all forms of authoritarianism.”

Asian multilateralism has often been born out of crises. The Chiang Mai Initiative—a financial swap mechanism between China, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia—emerged in the aftermath of the late 1990s financial crisis. The grandfather of all Asian regional organizations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was created in 1967 but did not convene its first heads-of-state meeting until 1976, when Southeast Asian leaders were shocked into action by the fall of Saigon the previous year. As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew later argued, “Without this shock, I doubt if the organization … could have been more than just another organization for ministers and other officials to go conferencing. The seriousness of purpose came only with the shock of the terrible alternatives.”

If crises and wars tend to be the crucibles in which new orders and institutions are forged, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to be no exception—it may be remaking the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. The ongoing crisis seems to have imbued countries in the region with a new seriousness of purpose about the risks of a slow slide toward Chinese hegemony. This is handing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump openings it has long sought: more credible multilateral coordination among allies, pushback against online disinformation, and the desire to better integrate like-minded economies and supply chains. At the same time, the crisis is also raising renewed questions about the durability of U.S. leadership. So the question now facing the administration is whether it can harness this new regional momentum—or whether Trump’s anarchic instincts will squander the opening.

Thus far, Trump continues to make unforced errors that create distance with U.S. allies and partners—more often than not, at exactly the wrong moment. For example, his focus on cutting support for the World Health Organization and assertion that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab alienated Canberra, right at the moment when Australia was stepping up more forcefully to assert regional leadership, launch an impartial international investigation of the pandemic’s origins, and push back on Beijing. News that Trump will withdraw U.S. troops from Germany, and of his ongoing desire to remove U.S. forces from other allied nations, has landed in Seoul and Tokyo just as North Korea appears poised to embark on a new cycle of provocations. Similarly, reports recently emerged that the administration is mulling the suspension of various worker visas, a move that would almost certainly have serious repercussions for the U.S.-India relationship—again, right at the moment Indian policymakers are grappling with a new border crisis with Beijing.

To improve, the United States needs to make two major shifts. First, U.S. policy needs to start supporting, rather than attempting to commandeer, regional efforts to build a less China-centric future for the Indo-Pacific. U.S. leaders need to recognize that while Chinese aggression provides a powerful motivation for closer coordination, U.S. partners are seeking an agenda that is framed in much broader terms than simply rallying to counter Beijing. Asian countries have strong, historically rooted ideas about their own security and the future of the region. U.S. leaders should recall the longstanding resonance of the Non-Aligned Movement in a region that resists a “new Cold War” framing. Australia’s efforts to call for a COVID-19 investigation through the WHO, as well as Japan’s desire to take the lead on a G-7 statement on Hong Kong, reflect not just an effort to push back on Beijing. They also reflect concern that a U.S.-led approach may box them into an untenable corner.

If the United States wants to better harness the growing desire to reduce reliance on Beijing and “recouple” investments and supply chains among allied nations, it is going to have to make compromises—an approach this administration has been loath to embrace. Additionally, U.S. leadership would be far more effective if it worked with Indo-Pacific partners on the issues that they prioritize and provided them significant space for independent action. Right now, that means crafting an agenda broader than just punishing Beijing for what Trump has called “the plague from China” and putting more rhetorical emphasis on the public health crisis, economic recovery, and preventing instability in places with limited or broken social safety nets.

Second, while China certainly has the power to coerce, it also has a tremendous ability to be its own worst enemy by pushing too hard on its neighbors. It is often China’s own overreach (rather than Washington’s entreaties) that stiffens the spines of other Asian nations. Washington should avoid repeating Beijing’s mistakes and offer a clear alternative in word and deed to China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Moves such as demanding that a G-7 communiqué refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” and blocking mask shipments to close allies are the kind of counterproductive bullying that the U.S. should leave to China.

Across the Indo-Pacific, the desire for U.S. leadership remains strong. From South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan to Australia, India, and Indonesia, the United States is, according to the Pew Research Center, still viewed more favorably than China. But Asian countries’ push for enhanced multilateralism is not just driven by concerns about Chinese power. It is also a statement about the United States’ eroding credibility—a problem that predates the current administration. Facing the unprecedented health and economic crises spawned by COVID-19—and in the absence of greater certainty about U.S. commitments—Asian leaders will continue pursuing new forms of coordination with each other. They have a unique chance to build more equal and capable regional partnerships and institutions in the long recovery ahead, which will challenge and complicate the views of those in both Washington and Beijing who would see the region only as a sparring ground in a bipolar U.S.-China competition.

For U.S. leaders, the choice is stark: Encourage and foster this trend, recognizing that stronger intra-Asian coordination will require the United States to learn to compromise more frequently, or resist it and risk being left behind.

Lindsey W. Ford is a David M. Rubenstein fellow at the Brookings Institution and previously served in a variety of roles in the U.S. Defense Department, most recently as the senior advisor to the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

Julian Gewirtz is an academy scholar at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the author of Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China.