COVID-19 will activate old & new disputes in East Asia 

COVID-19 will activate old & new disputes in East Asia 

Representative image. (Credit: AFP Photo)

The trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic now appears to be similar across the world. That the world may be different after this pandemic is a given. What is worrying is the fact that it is shaping geopolitics in conventional hotspots, including distrusts. It is doing so rapidly and at a time when the United States, a security provider in East Asia, is occupied domestically. In fact, COVID-19 may have reactivated some of the old disputes and given new life to a few of the simmering disputes and concerns across the world. In East Asia in particular, it is creating a new type of uncertainty and politics that needs to be looked at closely.

Japan-South Korea relationship

One of the most significant flashpoints that seem to have been activated since COVID-19 is the Japan-South Korea dispute. The two countries have historically had a highly uneasy relationship. In many ways, it is the American security umbrella that has been the glue in this relationship. China’s rise only gave a reason to suspend the bilateral mistrust for the two. 

There have been simmering tensions over the emotionally-driven territorial dispute in the Dokdo/Takeshima islands and the issue of reparations for Korean comfort women. Trade relations have soured in the last one year as the US-China trade war loomed large. It worsened even further when Japan put restrictions on exports of high-tech material to South Korea in July 2019 in response to failed negotiations over how to address the issue of Japanese use of forced labour during World War II. 

This led to the strengthening of national sentiment in South Korea leading to reduced sales of Japanese products like beers and cars. Subsequently, South Korea also decided to end its intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. Thus, there were significant trust issues even before COVID-19 as such. After the outbreak of COVID-19, as both the countries imposed bilateral travel restriction, this relationship nosedived even further. Moreover, the recent act of sending a ritual offering to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine by Shinzo Abe is likely to heat up the sentiment. 

Impact on Japanese economy

Japan has also suffered a lot due to the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It had already spent a substantial amount, to the tune of $12.6 billion, on the Olympics and it is estimated that the postponement will cost Japan another $5.7 billion. Media estimates suggest that the Olympics were to cost Japan closer to $28 billion. This was a flagship event for the Abe government to achieve economic recovery from the decade-long slowdown since the 2011 earthquake and everything that happened in its aftermath. None of that is going to be recovered anytime soon as tourism will languish even after the epidemic ends. This changes Abe Shinzo’s plans who will face the next general elections scheduled in October 2021.

Perhaps as a response to this has been the package offered to Japanese companies to relocate back home. In April 2020, Japan's cabinet approved a Bill that would subsidise businesses that would move back to Japan to the tune of 248.6 billion yen ($2.33 billion). The manufacturing of high-added value products like medical equipment, automated robots etc. is going to be invited to relocate back to Japan and the other manufacturing may shift to Southeast Asia – Vietnam being the likely principal beneficiary of this policy. This will have significant impacts both economic and strategic.

China in focus 

China’s establishment of ‘administrative districts’ in the South China Sea has signalled to its Southeast Asian neighbours that negotiations are all but over. While it makes little material difference immediately, it makes it clear that China will continue to project benign foreign policy postures separately from nationalist projects like the territorial expansions in the South China Sea. ASEAN’s weakness is exacerbated due to halting of trade and once again there is little hope of a departure from dependence on trade with China.

Not to be missed amidst all this are the development regarding Taiwan and Hong Kong, two of China’s core interests. First, there was a whole lot of politics about Taiwan's participation in the World Health Assembly. That seems to have been resolved with a bargain where China agreed for an inquiry into sources of COVID-19 after the pandemic. Second is the assertive posture by Tsai Ing-wen after her swearing-in recently and the recently passed Hong Kong national security legislation which showcases that China will trample the One Country Two Systems formula when democracy makes things uncomfortable for the party. This will certainly fuel Chinese nationalism further.

All this creates a sense of unease as far as East Asia is concerned. First, the East Asian miracle has been on the basis of open economies and was not built by nativist governments. Second, COVID-19 has come in the era of inward-looking great powers. Moreover, as the US and Europe and now Russia face serious cases and slow recovery, their attention is almost all domestic which means they have less time or will to focus on global issues. All systems and powers around the world have had their reputations damaged due to COVID-19. As they try to resurrect those, most have resorted to nationalisms of one form or another. Competing nationalisms, as we know from history, have never facilitated harmony and engagement. 

(Avinash Godbole is Assistant Professor, Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities, Jindal Global University. He specialises in China Studies)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.