From all sides one hears the same refrain: the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be as great or greater than that of the end of the Cold War three decades earlier. Globalization will never regain its momentum, the Sino-US relationship is irreparably damaged, and countries cannot be successful straddling these two great powers without being obliged to take sides on a growing list of issues. Much of the discussion in the spring of 2020 centers directly on Sino-US relations and how they might unfold. Our challenge in this collection of articles is to consider frameworks for analyzing how Asian states will respond to this rivalry and what shape regionalism will take. This set of articles takes the perspective of the Southern Tier of Asia, from Australia to ASEAN.

A framework serves to clarify some dimensions of analysis in the struggle facing Asian states. In political organization, the two poles on opposite sides of the continuum are: the democratic model long associated with the United States and the authoritarian model now reinforced in China. Some are treating Trumpian democracy as a flawed exemplar of the liberal-democratic order, while others are refining our understanding of Xi Jinping’s national control by referring to it as technological authoritarianism. While the nature of the ends of the spectrum is not fixed, there is little doubt that other states are facing a choice between moving closer to one or the other. Controlling COVID-19 more successfully has boosted China’s image, but the fact that the pandemic originated there and festered due to censorship has stained that image. An electoral repudiation of Trump and the Republican Senate could impact the image of the US.  

In terms of influencing countries through public relations, a second continuum is defined by soft power on the one end and sharp power on the other. Soft power is characterized by positive appeal, and sharp power, by covert exacerbation of fissures. While Russia in 2016-18 used sharp power in a manner that most galvanized the world’s attention, China’s application of sharp power intensified as well and is gaining greater notice, especially for its impact in the Indo-Pacific region. While hard power may eventually be decisive in the Sino-US competition, the ability to pair economic clout with soft or sharp power could operate independently before military force may be applied. A public relations “war” was gathering steam in the spring of 2020 bringing soft power more into the limelight, but “fake news” affecting electoral politics cannot be far behind in this vital year. In recent years, Trump has greatly undercut US soft power centered on values admired by other countries, while Xi Jinping has shown little interest in China’s soft power, assuming that it, at last, has sufficient economic and military power to get its way. After a period of seizing on fissures in democratic states—especially Australia—by applying sharp power to sow division within, China, finding that without minimal soft power sharp power is not working, is relying on hard power.

The third framework we propose as a foundation for analyzing the Sino-US rivalry is, similar to the other frameworks, previously on the radar, but it will have new salience in today’s more polarized environment. Its two dimensions are bandwagoning and hedging. Of course, along the continuum, we can differentiate light from heavy hedging. Maximal hedging means balancing two powers in a kind of equilibrium. Heavy hedging means approaching that extreme on the spectrum, while light hedging means siding mostly with one side but not bandwagoning with it. As polarization intensifies between China and the United States, the penchant for hedging in the Indo-Pacific region will be tested by two powers more insistent on bandwagoning security alliances or defense partnerships as well as in technological decoupling with their adversary.

Before summarizing the following articles, which set forth three distinct frameworks, we want to take notice of the initiatives for regionalism already on the table for the Indo-Pacific region. How are each of the frameworks expected to play out for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the US (or Japanese) Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP)—a variant of TPP that may be renamed by a Biden presidency without losing its essence? These are the prime arenas for competition, one doubling down on US alliances and the other on China’s economic ties. It is worth noting two other regional initiatives—Russia’s Greater Eurasia and the South Korea’s North Korea-centric approach. Although peripheral to the central struggle, they are also in play. 

Rory Medcalf in his 2020 book and his accompanying article casts doubt on China mapping the future of the Indo-Pacific.1 He calls China’s regional expansion “hasty,” anticipates multipolarity as regional players partner up, and affirms the staying power of the United States (working with Japan, India, and Australia in a quadrilateral led by a new US president). China will not succeed. Medcalf sees BRI as rejecting other nations’ visions of regional order, interweaving both security and hierarchical values into economic interdependence, and arousing a backlash leading to a clashing form of regionalism. Each of the three frameworks presented below raises doubts about how successful China-led regionalism can be without expressing confidence that a US-led regionalism is poised to overcome authoritarianism, sharp power, and hedging. The US strategy awaits clarification, while China’s pathway already has become clear.

Authoritarianism lacks appeal, as seen in recent Chinese moves in Xinjiang, offensive to Islamic countries first of all, and Hong Kong, driving firms to relocate in Singapore among other effects. Even some groups hostile to the US and eager for closer ties to China have balked at its censorship and digital control that could undermine elements of civil society in their states. A backlash to China’s political system is gaining force. Sharp power may produce quick results, but it lacks the sustained appeal of soft power. In Australia, we see an especially strong reaction to China’s use of sharp power. Finally, the rise of China’s relative economic and military power, as doubts spread about the US staying power in the Indo-Pacific, drove states to cling closer to the US, hedging less against it and even bandwagoning with it. BRI’s military overtones grew more pronounced, its debt trap grew more onerous, and its challenge to the pillars of democracy (e.g., through corruption), all are weakening China’s case for regionalism.

At the same time, Trump’s advocacy of FOIP is seen as flawed in each framework. Given his distortions of democracy at home and refusal to champion democratic leadership abroad, he has undermined the US as a symbol of the struggle against authoritarianism. Likewise, he has both damaged American soft power, showing scant interest in it, and undercut the fight many would wage against the use of sharp power to exacerbate fissures in the US—after all, his strategy is in league with theirs. Finally, his “America First” is a recipe for pressuring allies and partners instead of wooing them to the US side, making bandwagoning more difficult. Separate from how states are responding to Xi Jinping’s moves, Trump has muddied the case for FOIP.

At the end of the 2010s, Vladimir Putin and Moon Jae-in were vigorously pushing for alternative visions of Asian regionalism, each finding cautious receptivity from his principal ally or semi-ally. Xi humored Putin by giving his assent to Greater Eurasia, in full expectation that it has no future even as it fed Russia’s illusion that Sinocentrism can be eclipsed by continental multipolarity. A Russia weakened by lower energy prices and alienation of major powers other than China is not a force for building regionalism. Similarly, Trump’s eagerness to follow Moon Jae-in’s lead in his courtship of Kim Jong-un gave many the false impression that South Korea could drive a North Korea-centric approach to regionalism. In fact, Xi jumped on this chance to alter China’s posture toward the North, reinforcing Sinocentrism, and Trump ignored Moon as soon as he realized that Kim Jong-un was not on board with the US approach. Moon’s plans had no chance of success.

Aurel Croissant, “Democracies with Preexisting Conditions and the Coronavirus in the Indo-Pacific”

The global erosion of democracy preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has accelerated the dynamics of democratic regression. As governments around the world fight the spread of the coronavirus, the number of countries in which democratic leaders acquire emergency powers and autocrats step up repression is rapidly increasing. The Indo-Pacific region is of crucial importance for the future of democracy and its global contestation with autocracy in the twenty-first century. The coronavirus burst onto the region against a backdrop of simmering strategic rivalry between the US and China. As faith in liberal democracy seems to be waning, Beijing is trying to fill the void. “Democracies with pre-existing conditions,” already suffering from political ills such as rising polarization and declining respect for the norms of a liberal democracy, are more vulnerable to democratic backsliding, Croissant argues.

Since the current crisis reveals the limited ability of populist governments to muster a coherent and consistent response, it may serve as an eye-opening moment for citizens. Therefore, the crisis may also offer chances for democratic renovation and innovation, and those democratic institutions and authorities that act more transparently and credibly can regain trust and approval.

With few exceptions, Asia has joined the global wave of democratic regression, his data show. Many nations have experienced substantial democratic erosion since the mid-2000s. A number of internal and external factors are weakening democracy in Asia. Internally, the assault on institutions of horizontal accountability, political rights, and civil liberties relates to social polarization and the mobilization of diverse cultural and political identities, which feed on local consequences of global trends such as technological change, globalization, and rising levels of economic inequality. Praetorian legacies, “horizontal inequalities” between ethnic, sectarian, or regional groups that coincide with identity-based cleavages and low levels of social cohesion also weaken democratic resilience in many places. Externally, China has become a major source of ideational and material support for autocracies as well as illiberal leaders. The crisis of significance and credibility of democracy promotion as a goal of foreign policy on both sides of the Atlantic has palpable consequences, especially in situations of pandemic-driven democratic backsliding, when external support would be needed most, concludes Croissant.

The outbreak of the pandemic is not the “cause” of democratic regression, yet, it amplifies preexisting problems of democratic political structures in the region. In times of crisis, the pressure for executive action is increasing, and there is higher tolerance for power concentration and constraints on people’s rights. Especially with populist governments, which have previously engaged in strategies of executive aggrandizement and weakening of the rule of law, the risk is high that political leaders will further tighten their grip. Referring to one index, Croissant notes, a country is at high risk of backsliding if it had experienced a substantial autocratization trend in 2019 and/or if one or more of nine criteria indicate a severe violation of democratic standards for emergency procedures. Democratic backsliding in pre-pandemic times also increased the risk for poor crisis responses once the virus hit. Building on one database as well as other public sources, he identifies worrisome developments in the Indo-Pacific in five areas: the centralization of executive powers; the closing of democratic spaces; the militarization of public policies; electoral disruptions; and the strengthening of the surveillance state. In some states, he observes, the militarization of public life and non-military sectors of governance preceded the outbreak.

Defending democracy against regression is a daunting task even in normal times. Generally, democrats can build on a combination of three accountability mechanisms when facing democratic regression. Mechanisms of “horizontal accountability” refer to the ways in which institutions such as legislatures, the judiciary, auditor generals, ombudspersons, or a human rights commission constrain the executive or one another’s actions. Mechanisms of “vertical accountability” refer to the way in which ordinary citizens, collectively constituted as the electorate, can impose constraints on the rulers when regular elections give them the power to remove them from office. Finally, mechanisms of “diagonal accountability” are similar to vertical ones in that they connect citizens to rulers, though they are exercised informally via direct action, most importantly political mobilization, public protest, and nonviolent resistance.

In pre-pandemic Asia, mechanisms of “horizontal accountability” were the least effective. Mechanisms of “vertical accountability,” especially transparent and clean elections, offered options of democratic resistance that seem more promising. However, in pre-pandemic times most countries, in Asia and elsewhere, did not take this road. Elections alone are not an effective tool to stop autocratizers because many autocrats successfully create an “uneven playing field.” This leaves mechanisms of “diagonal accountability” as the most, and perhaps only, effective counter-balancing option. Advocacy and civil rights groups, other social organizations, students as well as concerned citizens in Hong Kong and some South and Southeast Asian nations have also attempted to act as a bulwark against the rise of authoritarianism but so far have often gained less traction and achieved weaker impact. In the midst of a public health emergency, this mechanism may be less effective; an unsafe health environment drastically exacerbates problems of collective action, and emergency measures make it almost impossible for citizens to protest.

What else, then, could be done to prevent democratic breakdowns during and after the COVID-19 pandemic? One alternative is to mobilize international support in defense of domestic democratic rights. But this route is not terribly promising when the Trump administration is apparently more interested in a blame game with Beijing and the EU is preoccupied with its own economic and political problems. The short answer is therefore a pessimistic “not much”—at least not in the short-term and as far as democracies with preexisting conditions are concerned. While the great recession of 2008/2009 contributed to the erosion of institutional trust and the rise of populism, which began in many democracies, perhaps the poor performance of populists during the corona crisis may serve as an eye-opening moment for citizens. The pandemic amplifies existing trends by causing seismic shocks to almost all areas of social life. China’s role as a provider of alternative sources of economic, military, and diplomatic support for governments in Asia and elsewhere decreases the cost of authoritarian abuse and mitigates the potential impact of punitive action by democratic governments in the West. South Korea and Taiwan prove that the free flow of information, transparent crisis management, civil society engagement, and accountability to public scrutiny are essential treatments for the coronavirus outbreak. Hence, keeping democracy healthy is a key ingredient for preserving public health.

John Fitzgerald, “Soft Power and Sharp Power – the View from Australia”

Australians have been shocked by the unravelling of US soft power globally and the offensive use of Chinese sharp power targeting Australia. At issue is the prospect of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific upheld by the norms and institutions of a liberal rules-based order. Neither China under Xi Jinping nor the US under Trump appears committed to upholding this order. Xi may employ sharp power tactics, coupled with restrictions on trade and investment, to secure his wishes in Australia, but his abandonment of soft power complicates the task. Australians have little choice but to resist China’s pressure by quietly working around Trump’s deficiencies while looking to the future for help in sustaining an order under duress. If in a post-Trump period the US were to restate its commitment to the principles that underpin it, Australia would be a willing partner. It has kept the door open through “new diplomacy,” a form of Australian soft power tailored to suit Trump’s cloth and avoid an open clash. Xi’s authoritarian drift, however, has resulted in a much more open split with China, marked by abrasive language and the realization that soft power is of little further interest to Xi. Australia has made its choice and awaits a US administration that can provide real leadership in championing a FOIP.  After all, only Xi Jinping is president for life.

At a point in history when China and the US are jeopardizing many of the long-standing norms and institutions of the liberal order and finding themselves increasingly at odds with one another, Australia is moving to maintain constructive relations with both without being dragged into the maelstrom of deteriorating US-China relations or being dragged down by the collapse of the liberal order across the Indo-Pacific region. Trying to maintain trade and investment links with China and defense ties with the US when the two countries are disengaging from each another, and effectively sabotaging the order Australia seeks to preserve, presents formidable challenges for international relations and bilateral diplomacy. The government has spoken out on many of the issues relating to China that concern Washington without actually endorsing Washington’s strategic vision. It supports Trump’s attempts at establishing greater reciprocity in US-China relations. To date, however, it has not proposed joining the US in decoupling from China nor does it see itself as directly engaged in strategic competition with China. Speaking out on China’s conduct has come at considerable cost to relations with that country. It addressed the communist party’s domestic influence and interference operations overseas ahead of US efforts to do so, and it alerted countries to the risks of China-based telecommunications firms installing new generation infrastructure before others were aware of the danger. On each of these issues Canberra was firmly and publicly rebuked by Beijing for taking a leading international position. One Chinese Australia-watcher even calls it the lead instigator of a global anti-China campaign.

The pandemic has, if anything, made Australian governments and communities more acutely sensitive to signs of economic coercion arising from trade dependence on China. A backlash against China’s egregious use of sharp power has not led China to turn instead to soft power.
Polling has yet to confirm a decline in popular sentiment toward America comparable to the fall in support for China. Nevertheless, the sense increasingly conveyed in mainstream media is that Washington is not to be trusted either. Judging from the mainstream press, the emerging consensus in Australia appears to be that Trump’s parochial and transactional way of Making America Great Again is sabotaging the liberal rules-based order that is widely regarded as the foundation of American greatness. Preserving this order is widely acknowledged as one of the few foreign-policy imperatives that all federal governments must accept on taking office. The governments of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison have given universal values and rule of law a higher profile in foreign policy, pulling all available levers to secure the support of the Trump administration, as an alliance partner, while at every available opportunity distancing Australia from it on important issues over which the two sides disagree. Trump’s behavior has complicated balancing economic dependence on China with security dependence on the US.

Focusing on the particularity of the bilateral relationship, Australia has highlighted features that distinguish US relations with Australia from those with other countries, e.g., mateship which succeeded in winning support from senior figures close to Trump. This inserted a value proposition into relations based essentially on comradeship at arms. And yet, while this new diplomacy was being crafted in the Washington embassy, the Turnbull government back in Canberra was drafting a substantially revised foreign policy white paper that would for the first time define maintenance of the liberal values, principles, rule of law, due process and the like, which sat at the center of the liberal international order, as core national interests. The reduction of a richly textured bilateral relationship to one of loyalty among soldiers came close to caricature. Also, the focus on military loyalty made light of the contradiction between the Trump administration’s declared commitment to strategic competition with China and Australia’s reluctance to partner in that effort. The shift in the diplomatic language of bilateral relations from universal civic values to particularistic martial ones carried challenges of a fairly high order.

During Trump’s term in office, Australia has managed to retain close defense and security ties with the US, while distancing itself on important international issues ranging from multilateral trade to climate change and the role of international institutions such as the WTO and WHO. This has involved significant engagement among many different arms of government and some fairly deft diplomacy. US soft power has been badly damaged, but there remains a reservoir of trust capable of being revived in a post-Trump administration. Despite government intentions, relations with China appear to be deteriorating at roughly the same pace as US-China relations, because authorities in China regard Australians as racist, and interpret Australian government conduct as a pale reflection of US government intentions. The pandemic triggered a number of public controversies that led to warnings from China over possible consumer boycotts of Australian service industries and consumer products. Long before the recent advent of “wolf warrior diplomacy,” China’s embassy and consular offices started to go public in Australia with accusations of “bigotry” and “racism” in popular media coverage, and occasionally applauding the violence of Chinese patriots defending China’s honor on Australian soil. A decision had been taken to adopt a hostile position towards Australia as a country of irredeemable racists who were in thrall to America. Diplomats and media consistently brand Australia a racist country, on an American leash, and threaten sanctions and other punitive measures to whip Australia into line.

Australia is likely to look beyond the US and China for partners in sustaining an order that its governments believe essential for the country’s long-term security and prosperity. In 2020 Australians have little choice but to resist China’s pressure by quietly working around Trump’s deficiencies while looking elsewhere for sustaining an order now under duress.


Cheng-Chwee Kuik, “Hedging in Post-Pandemic Asia: What, How, and Why?”

Hedging is likely to become more prevalent at a time of great uncertainty. If Sino-US rivalry remains without direct military confrontation, then the smaller states will have the space, reasons, and perhaps even leverage to hedge—he only path the weaker states have to ensure their survival in an increasingly uncertain world, argues Kuik. Washington has changed its mind at will, Beijing has coerced its smaller neighbors, and the two will continue to compete for influence, with Southeast Asia at the epicenter of their rivalry. Mitigating the risks of entrapment, abandonment, and domestic resentment, hedging is a self-help mechanism to respond to the uncertain actions on the part of the big powers. Hedging is not about passive neutrality, because it involves some degree of strategic activism – either high-profile or behind the scenes – beyond declaring impartiality. It typically involves multi-prongedalignments and is operationalized through selective, adaptive, and accumulative multi-layered alignments.     

Hedgers typically hedge without announcing their actions as such. Doing otherwise would invite unwanted attention and even suspicions from contending big powers. Hedging involves three parameters: 1) efforts to avoid taking sides or statements to emphasize “non-alignment”; 2) signs of both deference (pleasing China) and defiance (displeasing China); and 3) an inclination to diversify, to preserve policy independence, or to keep options open. Under the current scenario of intensified US-China rivalry amid the pandemic, Australia is balancing; Japan and India are near-balancing; South Korea and the ASEAN states are not balancing in the strict sense of the term, so far. None of the ASEAN countries is bandwagoning with China in the real sense of the word, not even Cambodia, a country perceived as completely “pro-China” and “anti-US.” There hedging postures are presently clearly displayed in their policy responses toward COVID-19, as well as other China-related policy issues ranging from the South China Sea, defense outlooks, Xinjiang, 5G, and infrastructure development partnerships. Government decisions on travel bans to and from China during the pandemic were made not only on public health grounds, but also on economic and diplomatic concerns. Countries have shown different degrees of defiance or deference.  

As Vietnam steps up its multitrack alignments (but not alliances) with partners (despite ideological differences with all of them), it has adopted a seemingly contradictory measure of simultaneously forging strong cooperation with China in selected domains, primarily through its communist party hat (as single-party communist states), its regional hat (Vietnam is the chair of ASEAN in 2020), and its bilateral commercial hat. Its anti-hegemonic acts have been selective and limited. While increasingly drawing strength from Washington by showcasing a stronger strategic partnership, it has done so cautiously, without crossing the red line. A “heavy hedger,” it is qualitatively different from a “light hedger,” which would typically show greater deference, defy China only indirectly and in a low-profile and less confrontational manner (like Malaysia).

Another heavy hedger, Indonesia, has similarly demonstrated an inclination to openly – and selectively – defy Beijing’s will, especially at sea. After displaying his determination to safeguard sovereignty and push back, Jokowi adopted a seemingly opposing measure of strengthening relations. Indonesia must live with China’s growing power, exploring collaboration where interests align. For heavy hedgers, a strong defiant act against a power must be accompanied – and offset – by an opposing, counteracting effort of upgrading and solidifying bilateral relations, in one way or another, to mitigate the risks of unnecessary and potentially out-of-control escalation. The Jokowi administration’s China policy, accordingly, has the hallmarks of a heavy hedger: a strong show of defiance against China, but doing so selectively (high-profile on Natuna but low-key on Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslims) and, most importantly, offsetting such high-profile defiance (displeasing China) with some quiet, limited deference (pleasing China).

The Philippines case indicates that state alignment posture is ever-evolving, depending on factors like leadership, levels of threat, and big power actions. The change may manifest itself in: a shift from balancing to hedging, from heavy hedging to heavier hedging, from light to heavy, or subtle recalibrations within the same genre, etc. Singapore has long been a heavy hedger, with a persistent inclination to project defiance, especially when its existential condition and independence are being challenged by bigger powers. While it has continued to hedge heavily, it has chosen to focus on connectivity cooperation and other partnerships, while cautiously walking the geopolitical tightrope as the US-China rivalry and uncertainty intensify.   

Because of the vast power asymmetry, smaller states are in no position to stop any undesired big power moves. As the prospective victims of unpredictable actions and relations, smaller states will always be vigilant, even skeptical. Even though the Trump administration has attempted to reassure about the US commitment to Asia’s security by declaring a robust “Open and Free Indo-Pacific Strategy,” smaller states ask quietly: “Will this time be different? Will America pivot away again?” Similarly, even though China has endeavored to offset the adverse impact of its maritime assertiveness through diplomacy and development-based BRI statecraft, it has continued to suffer a trust deficit. Indeed, China’s increasing multifaceted maritime opportunism and coercive presence in the disputed waters, even during the coronavirus crisis, has further deepened the weaker states’ suspicions of its long-term intentions. Ruling elites’ policy choices are motivated chiefly by their domestic priority of legitimizing their own political authority, more than balancing external power or potential threat. Differing patterns of inner legitimization necessitate elites to balance the external policy tradeoffs differently. The manner in which elites seek to balance these tradeoffs determines the patterns of a country’s hedging behavior.

1. Rory Medcalf, Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future (Carlton, VIC: La Trobe University Press: 2020)