COVID-19 Op-ed

COVID-19: Power Dynamics and the Brewing New Normal

Written by admin

Truston YuResearch Assistant,
Department of Politics and Public Administration, the University of Hong

While many have observed how COVID-19 is a humanitarian and
economic crisis, the pandemic has wider impacts on the regional geopolitical
order. Some countries may take years to recover from the outbreak and the
recession it entails; while some others would emerge on top of the crisis
even stronger than before – Vietnam likely being one of them. Most
significantly, this pandemic coincides with a period of Northeast Asia’s
newfound interest in Southeast Asia. China and Japan’s roles in Southeast
Asia are diminishing, while Korea and Taiwan are proving their worth and
displaying their commitment towards the region.

The Rise of

As alluded to in the previous article, the pandemic serves
as a litmus test for the public health system and crisis management
capabilities of Southeast Asian governments 
Vietnam has come into the spotlight with an extremely low number of
270 cases and zero deaths (CNA,
). To put this into perspective, the ASEAN Post reported over
17 thousand total cases in Singapore as of 1 May 2020, which has a population
less than a tenth of Vietnam’s.During the SARS outbreak in 2003, the World
Health Organization declared Vietnam to be the first country to be cleared of
the epidemic. Today, Vietnam is applauded for its public health crisis
response again. In the previous month the country even shipped 450,000
protective suits to the United States (Reuters,
).Prior to the outbreak, Vietnam has already been called the
“Biggest winner of the US-China trade war”. Korea’s electronics giant,
Samsung, for example, has shifted part of its production to Vietnam. As companies
realize the danger of putting all eggs in one basket, it is likely that
supply chains will continue to move into Vietnam.2020 marks a significant
year for the socialist republic as it is Vietnam’s turn to hold the
rotational chairmanship of ASEAN, in addition to being elected to the United
Nations Security Council last year. Vietnam’s performance in the pandemic
would help establish its leadership in Southeast Asia. It would be
interesting to wait and observe the reactions of traditional rivals Thailand
and Cambodia, as well as ASEAN leaders Singapore and

Japan and China’s diminishing influence

and China have traditionally played a significant role in Southeast Asia, yet
both of them are criticized for their responses to this pandemic. In the city
Wuhan, which was the epicenter of the outbreak, eight whistleblowers were
arrested for “rumour-mongering”. It appears that this crisis has also exposed
weaknesses in Chinese economy – 3 major listed companies went down in the
same week (SCMP,
). The #nnevvy
between Chinese and Thai netizens also prove that China is
losing its popularity (Foreign
Policy, 2020
).As for Japan, the Shinzo Abe administration came
under fire for its passive responses. A nationwide
state of emergency
was declared on 16 April (Japan
Times, 2020
), and the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics would be a
huge blow to the economy that was already slowing

Korea and Taiwan’s ventures into Southeast

The Presidents of Korea and Taiwan have
unrolled new Southeast Asia policies respectively. Taiwan’s Tsai Ingwen announced
the New Southbound Policy in 2016 and Korea’s Moon Jae-in declared the New
Southern Policy in 2017, both being foreign policy paradigms to deepen ties
with the 10 ASEAN member states. They are establishing themselves as
trustworthy partners in this pandemic, both of them have announced measures
to support Southeast Asia in the first week of April. Compared to China’s
lack of transparency and Japan’s passivity, Korea and Taiwan are applauded
for their efforts and efficiency in combating the pandemic.Korea was once the
country with the second-largest number of confirmed cases, yet their
willingness to test large numbers of people have helped them contain the
virus rather quickly. Seoul was never in a lockdown and the curve is now
flattened (New
York Times, 2020
)- they even held National Assembly elections on 15
April as scheduled. Korea is now sharing their resources and experiences with
the rest of the world – in April 50,000 test kits arrived in Indonesia (The
Jakarta Post, 2020
).Taiwan, on the other hand, successfully
prevented a local outbreak from happening in the first place despite its
close distance to mainland China. Taiwan went from a net importer of face
masks to the world’s second largest manufacturer with over 10 million pieces
a day. In a second wave of “mask diplomacy”, Tsai announced that they will be
giving over a million face masks to support countries in the New Southbound
Policy. The increased cooperation between Korea, Taiwan and Southeast Asia
will likely perpetuate in the form of trade and


Vietnam is taking the lead within
Southeast Asia. China and Japan will be losing their relevance in the region
at least temporarily. Even if they were to recover from the crisis, their
influence will be diluted by their smaller neighbours Korea and Taiwan.
Southeast Asia’s international relations will never be the same


CNA (30 April 2020), After aggressive
mass testing, Vietnam says it contains COVID-19 outbreak, CNA. Retrieved from
Nguyen (8 April 2020), Vietnam to ship 450,000 protective suits to United
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Liu (8 April 2020), Two more US-listed Chinese companies come under financial
scrutiny, less than a week after Luckin Coffee’s accounting fraud, South
China Morning Post. Retrieved from
Teixeira (17 April 2020), Thais Show How to Beat China’s Online Army, Foreign
Policy. Retrieved from
Times (18 April 2020), Japan spends first weekend under nationwide state of
emergency, Japan Times. Retrieved from
Fisher and Choe Sang-Hun (23 March 2020), How South Korea Flattened the
Curve, New York Times. Retrieved from
Fachriansyah (20 April 2020), COVID-19: Indonesia secures 50,000 PCR tests
kits to expedite mass testing, The Jakarta Post. Retrieved from  

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