Exploring the Next Phase of Security
The Covid-19 pandemic is the most pervasive issue in our midst today. The spread of pandemics has long been on the watchlist of security threats, albeit of the non-traditional kind. Meanwhile, many of us are convinced that militarized responses are the go-to protocol every time we face a crisis. Herein lies an irony: now that this pandemic is front and center, the mechanisms with which we address this non-traditional issue are still very much based on traditional understandings of security. Adding to the complexity is that traditional concerns persist despite the pervasiveness of non-traditional concerns. Hence, there is a strong mismatch or asymmetry between what we are facing and how we are addressing it.
The existential threat that is the Covid-19 pandemic immediately put it on top of the global security agenda. In the Philippines, the first case was reported on January 30, 2020 and increased steadily by the start of March with local transmission. President Duterte placed the country under a state of public health emergency on March 8, and placed Metro Manila and various areas under different types of community quarantine. The lockdowns entail restrictions on people’s movement and travel, as well as the closure of major business establishments. The police and the military have been tasked to enforce the quarantine and to deal with violators accordingly. Despite these measures, the number of cases in the country is now upwards 438,000 with over 8,500 deaths. With the pandemic yet to reach its peak and the closer we get to a viable vaccine, it truly remains to be seen if the Philippines’ response works best to contain the outbreak and flatten the curve.
What is certain is that once the lockdowns are lifted in different parts of the world, life will take on a different kind of normal. There are two aspects of this so-called new normal that have the potential to impact regional diplomacy. First, the pandemic casts a spotlight on the significance of non-traditional security issues. The Covid-19 pandemic definitively exposes the arbitrariness of the line that divides high politics from low politics. Indeed, the way that the Philippines, in particular, securitized the virus is evidence that pandemics are now seen as clear and present dangers. This is not unprecedented, considering that other countries responded the same way to the war on HIV/AIDS, SARS, H1N1, MERS, and the Ebola virus. The breadth and depth of the Covid-19 phenomenon, however, exposes that containing its spread is hinged on the underlying but critical role of biosecurity and food security. For many countries in Southeast Asia, the new normal demands better healthcare facilities and more subsidies for the agricultural sector, which can minimize supply chain disruptions and thereby ensure safety nets in the provision of public goods and access to social services. The new normal likewise requires better cyber infrastructures and capacities to allow access to technologies for different groups in society.
Thus, non-traditional security issues illustrate that at best, highly militarized responses are effective only in the short term. In the long run, this national-security response is more difficult to sustain than an incremental but directed move towards a more developmental response. Moreover, securitizing the pandemic – or any issue for that matter – is steeped in politics and the exercise of power, and so the longer it is in effect, the harder it will be to maintain. If this crisis were framed as requiring mainly an HADR response, then the highly tense situation that we have now where almost everything is militarized can be minimized.
The new normal will still retain the region’s traditional security concerns. Amid Covid-19 concerns, tensions in the South China Sea sparked anew with China’s deployment of a survey ship in April 2020. This came on the heels of other activities, including sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat on April 2, deploying the aircraft carrier Liaoning on April 13 and 28, and naming features on the contested waters on April 20. Meanwhile, as the United States has around 14.6 million cases and about 281,000 deaths, the new Biden administration must grapple with restoring faith in its own institutions because if there is anything that the 2020 elections made apparent, it is that America’s domestic politics is deeply divided and highly fragmented. Biden will likewise need to find a way to reduce the number of Covid-19 cases in the country without adding any more stress to the economy. How well domestic politics is handled will have significant implications to America’s international relations, not least is its bilateral relationship with China. Indeed, how both great powers survive Covid-19 will determine their respective roles in a post-pandemic order.
The irony between the non-traditional security threats that we are facing despite the persistence of traditional issues begs the question of orders or structures whether regionally or internationally. IR literature underscores that great powers rise and fall and that power transitions are ushered in by no less than major wars. This is the usual explanation for the transition from Pax Britanica to Pax Americana during the two World Wars. Is Covid-19 therefore the modified version of great power transition from Pax Americana to Pax Sinica? What is certain is that this is a period of uncertainty where everything is in flux. Uncertainty is a given in International Relations; this, after all, is a function of anarchy. We find ourselves now – in both theory and practice – in an interregnum, where things are yet to settle, where things can go either way, where tomorrow we can find ourselves in a revived Pax Americana or a momentous Pax Sinica, or where we can get hit once again by a black-swan event. The lesson that we should all take away from this is that we should leverage this interregnum instead of waiting for the dust to settle. Interregnums are the perfect opportunity for getting a seat at the table, whether that is via our respective bilateral relations with great powers or via cooperation with our neighbors in ASEAN.
Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby is Associate Professor in the International Studies Department of De La Salle University. Her areas of specialization are ASEAN's external relations, security cooperation, and critical international relations theory.