The year 2020 has seen the Earth stand still as the spread of COVID-19 has pushed countries throughout the world into lockdowns and has limited the movement of society for months. It might seem that the world is at relative peace as industries, businesses and government offices close and people practice rigid social and physical distancing.
That idea, however, is a false hope. The fact that COVID-19 has infected more than 4.7 million people and killed over 300,000 globally as of May 17 apparently has not stopped some of the world’s major powers from continuing their arch-rivalries.
The United States has deployed warships to the South China Sea, launched medium-range missiles and sent its bomber planes to fly over the waters. In the East China Sea, Washington deployed USS America, a light aircraft carrier. The US has even made it clear that its nuclear arms and personnel remain prepared and ready in the case of a major traditional armed conflict among states.
Similarly, China’s assertiveness in the region’s disputed waters remains unabated. In April it announced two new administrative districts in the Spratly Islands (Fiery Cross Reef) and the Paracel Islands (Woody Island) and named 80 islets and reefs. Furthermore, its naval forces continue to venture into the Exclusive Economic Zones of littoral states along the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the US economy is being ravaged by the pandemic and its military is no exception. Two US Navy aircraft carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Ronald Reagan were forced to return to base after discovering that sailors aboard the ships had been infected by COVID-19.
China, on the other hand, may start to push its economy forward again, after successfully decreasing its cases of COVID-19, as evinced by its loosening of lockdowns and reopening of cities, businesses and industries. But it is now facing the threat of a second wave of the virus along with the significant impact of the pandemic on the economy, including unemployment and sluggish growth.
Over the past decade, China has grown into one of the world’s most major powers. Its economy, second only to the US, provides significant leverage and capital to develop and expand its power and influence. The Belt and Road Initiative, in which Indonesia is taking part, is just one example.
China has also changed its naval warfare doctrine into a blue water navy doctrine with the addition of its two Liaoning-class carriers and a new overseas military base in Djibouti in Africa.
The beginning of the 21st century has also seen Washington’s superiority in the global arena heavily tested. In 2020 alone, in the Persian Gulf, 11 Iranian naval vessels taunted US warships, a Russian fighter jet intercepted the US Navy’s maritime surveillance aircraft P-8A a number of times in the Mediterranean Sea, and in the Taiwan Strait, China sent its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, to the waters of Japan, one of the US’ Asian allies.
Many countries have been questioning US leadership on the global stage, both before and during this pandemic. This may be the reason why it is flexing its muscles and military might in the region in an apparent message to China and the world that the pandemic has not affected its power and sphere of influence in the region.
These current strategic environment dynamics pave the way for the arrival of a second Cold War, one between the US and China, when the pandemic is over. The return of the rivalry between great powers began to materialize with the US-China trade war. The pandemic, during which the two powers have accused each other of being responsible for the health crisis, only makes things clearer.
The possibility of an armed conflict exists if the race between China and the US for influence and hegemony persists in the post-pandemic world. Unless peace is given a chance, World War III is within sight.
None of these scenarios benefit today’s globalized world, especially Indonesia. Its strategic geographical setting places it at the heart of the US-China rivalry, which is the South China Sea.
From a defense perspective, in particular maritime defense, the escalation of tension between the two great powers in South China Sea and the potential for a spillover of their conflict will put Indonesia in danger. For one, the rising tension in the area may intensify the activities of ships, including fishing boats and coast guard vessels, in the waters of littoral states, including Indonesia.
On the other hand, Indonesia’s current and post-pandemic defense budget will understandably diminish as the government prioritizes the country’s economic revival.
Therefore, Indonesia’s maritime forces, particularly the Navy and Coast Guard, should assess the impacts of the great powers rivalry in the South China Sea in order to decide the priority of their fleet deployment and projection of power in the North Natuna Sea.
Furthermore, formulating responses to possible worst-case scenarios in the South China Sea will allow Indonesia to utilize its available strength and define priority defense spending and military force deployment.
Professor of maritime defense science at the Indonesia Defense University and former Navy chief of staff (2012-2015)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.