In episode 6 of COVIDcast, the Director of Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia Program, Ben Bland, sat down with Hervé Lemahieu to discuss geopolitics and the coronavirus pandemic. Hervé is the Director of our Asian Power and Diplomacy Program where he leads the research for the annual Asia Power Index – launched by the Institute in 2018 – which is a data-driven assessment, developed to map the changing distribution of power in the region.

In this episode, the two discuss how the pandemic is affecting multilateral institutions and the global balance of power. In addition to the public health emergency and economic crisis, Lemahieu argued that coronavirus has created a “man-made pandemic of mistrust and chaos, which is testing social cohesion and globalisation to its core.”

If we’re not careful … then globalisation will start to teeter a little bit, like a contemporary Tower of Babel under the weight of its own achievements, interdependence and vulnerabilities.

Each week since the severity of the coronavirus crisis became clear, Lowy Institute experts have been sitting down to discuss the implications of coronavirus for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Episodes one to five are already online, and this is the sixth instalment in the series, which we’ll be continuing on a weekly basis as this crisis unfolds.

Lemahieu explained this crisis will also force a reassessment of the way in which we think of an Asian Century. There is no doubt we are entering a century defined by Asia, but it will not be benign. Geopolitics and the nation state will be dominant.

Bland and Lemahieu debated the merits of middle-power diplomacy and discussed whether coronavirus has transformed the world as we know it, or simply exposed the dangers that were already lurking within the international system.

For Bland, coronavirus “highlights just how much we are missing the US at the helm of international crisis response”. However, he questioned whether middle power coalitions can “fill the very large shoes of the US” in tackling this, and other, global problems.

When it comes to US leadership, there really is no other country that brings the same ballast to the table…the same military, political and economic heft and that sense of ambition to be able to tackle these sorts of problems.

Beyond the US-China superpower rivalry, Bland and Lemahieu spoke about the European Union’s disappointing record in coming to terms with the scale of this crisis and acting on it jointly. However, Lemahieu quoted Jean Monnet, one of the founders of the European project, to explain why he thought Europe would muddle through incrementally: “Europe is forged in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.”

This optimism stands in stark contrast to the ability of other regional organisations, notably ASEAN, to grow through this pandemic. Both agreed that because of its inherent weaknesses, ASEAN does not tend to emerge stronger from crises.

Australia’s foreign policy also featured, whether Canberra’s regional focus on the Indo-Pacific limits its ability to respond to a global crisis.  As Lemahieu explained:

The Indo-Pacific concept has become the primary means by which we understand our fractured region and it’s essentially – if you want to reduce it to something – a form of regional balance of power politics. I think [this] is an important game to play, but it’s clearly not the answer to all our problems.

COVIDcast is a pop-up podcast for anyone interested in understanding the effect of coronavirus on global politics, hosted by our resident experts and powered by the Lowy Institute, with production assistance from Madeleine Nyst.

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