How Coronavirus Is Fraying Asia’s Patchwork Governance

Since the first signs of the novel coronavirus, now called SARS-CoV-2, appeared in December 2019, a total of over 75,000 people have been infected, and over 2,000 people have died. The virus has spread to over 25 countries, with over 1,000 cases reported outside of China. Such rapid contagion has not only stoked fear about the possibility of a deadly global outbreak, but has also led to increased doubt within China about the competence of the government and increased anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment throughout the world. South Korea and Japan have the second and third highest cases of SARS-CoV-2, with the number rapidly rising in South Korea.

Yet East Asia’s governments are uniquely ill-equipped to respond in a coordinated manner to the crisis. Limited coordination and a lack of regional governance have helped allow the disease to spread out of control, leaving governments scrambling to catch up. The deficiencies of East Asia’s patchwork, ad hoc,and informal security architecture are being laid bareas large-scale and transnational causes of insecurity such as disease, migration, and climate change demand sustained communication, funding, and governance which the region still lacks.

Tackling diseases such as SARS-CoV-2 requires coordinated efforts across states. To effectively combat the spread of disease, East Asia states must coordinate fact-finding operations, testing, and treatment. One need look no further than Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO) at the behest of China to understand the potential consequences of such a scenario. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, Taiwan suffered one of the highest mortality rates, partly due to its lack of access to WHO resources. Taiwan may face a similar threat with SARS-CoV-2. 

Tackling diseases such as coronavirus requires coordinated efforts across states

The crisis is also exacerbating existing problems in ways many did not account for. According to some reports, there may be cases of SARS-CoV-2 in North Korea, but security experts fixated on a North Korean nuclear threat have not considered the possibility of how contagion in the isolated country could impact the region. But without access to the country due to ongoing sanctions and the Kim regime’s historical reluctance to work with the international community, little could be done to treat a population already suffering from poverty and famine.

The impacts of allowing the disease to spread further and longer than necessary are significant. The outbreak has slowed China’s economy, and the current crisis makes it doubtful that China could fully meet the terms of the phase one of the trade deal signed with the United States in January. South Korea President Moon Jae-in announced emergency measures to deal with the economic fallout of the virus. Japan may be headed towards a recession. And it would be wise to pay attention to the knock-on effects from slowing economic performance when unpopular leaders adopt riskier policies and start looking for scapegoats. 

The lack of regional cooperation is also why migration crises have been poorly handled in the region. East Asia lacks a regional agreement on refugees, and only a few countries are signatories of the UN Refugee Convention. Deterrence-based policies are the result of a strong principle of noninterference and emphasis on national security protection at home. While China, Japan, and South Korea support the UN refugee agency with generous donations, they keep their borders closed. In 2018, Japan received roughly 10,000 applications for refugee recognition but only granted a mere 42. When 500 Yemeni refugees arrived on South Korea’s visa-free Jeju Island, the country lacked mechanisms to integrate them into Korean society and the refugees were met with xenophobia. North Korean defectors who manage to escape to China lack protections and legal resources because the Chinese government considers them “economic migrants” rather than refugees – as a result, many defectors end up in forced prostitution or are sent back to North Korea where they fear torture and persecution

Current crises are only a preview of the climate change-induced crises to come

These instances are but a preview of the migration crises to come. Climate change will cause large displacements of people, and millions of North Koreans could be forced to leave and look for protection if its government falls. Without sustained governance mechanisms, states will scramble to hold emergency meetings, wasting valuable time and resources. 

The problems of East Asia’s patchwork regional governance will only get worse. Moving forward, the region will experience a plethora of challenges that will emerge or be exacerbated by the effects of climate change, whose effects will continue to manifest in a variety of ways, from stronger and more frequent natural disasters, to sea level rise, to water stress. A regionalist approach to security is especially necessary when considering how climate change multiplies the risk of other security threats. Almost 40 percent of Asia’s 4 billion people live within 45 miles of coastline; in China alone, 23 million people are directly at risk of displacement due to sea level rise. The resulting migration will generate conflict and instability between governments unless there are institutions and agreements in place to absorb these pressures.

Sea level rise and displacement are only one side of the story; natural disasters and food insecurity also pose major threats that will require collaborative solutions. Rising temperatures at sea will cause increasingly catastrophic cyclones and typhoons that may require coordinated efforts to recover from; changing weather patterns will threaten crop yields and fishing. Moreover, the threats that public health crises, migration, and climate change pose ware all interconnected: climate-related migration and subsequent urbanization will likely prove highly successful vectors for epidemics.

Without institutions and agreements in place to manage crises, future disasters will prove overwhelming for Asia’s governments

Climate change and its effects are especially difficult to tackle cooperatively due to the free-rider effect. Regional distrust and a focus on power balancing over problem solving make governments unlikely to offer the level of cooperation needed to meaningfully address these threats. Yet, to address the consequences that climate change will inevitably produce in East Asia, governments need to accept that they are all equally vulnerable to – and responsible for – the crisis.

Ending the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, as with any infectious disease, will not be due to a single vaccine. Disease builds resistance, mutates, and does what it can to survive. Its impacts are also far-reaching, and at times unpredictable. Just two months ago, who could have imagined millions of people under quarantine, canceled study abroad programs, anti-Chinese sentiment, and speculation of canceling the 2020 Olympics. Mass migration and climate change are equally difficult to solve alone. It is time the region moves past the problems of the previous century and accepts that the causes of insecurity require more than a patchwork of institutions that capture a few overlapping interests. 

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Tom Le is an associate professor of politics at Pomona College and research associate at the PRIME Institute at Meiji Gakuin University. Le is the author of Japan’s Aging Peace: Pacifism and Militarism in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, June 2021). Le received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California Irvine and BAs in history and political science from the University of California Davis. He is currently a USLP delegate, Mansfield US-Japan Network for the Future fellow, and Mansfield-Luce Asia Scholars fellow.

Michelle Tunger is a senior at Pomona College majoring in economics with a minor in Asian studies. Her areas of study include the effects of democracy on economic growth in East Asia, as well as issues pertaining to Japanese-Korean reconciliation.

Lucy Onderwyzer Gold is a junior at Pomona College majoring in politics

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