Will COVID-19 be an Opportunity for China to Influence Regional Organizations?

Niranjan Marjani
March 22, 2020



Image Courtesy: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

The outbreak of COVID-19 is posing a significant challenge, as more than 150 countries across the world are affected by it. While apparently, it is a major health issue, COVID-19 is likely to affect global politics and economics in an unprecedented manner. The impact on politics worldwide would likely continue in the long run, even after this disease is brought under control. Till now, more than 270,000 people have been affected by this pandemic, and more than 11,500 deaths have been reported. Italy and China are the countries that are affected most because of COVID-19, with more than 120,000 people affected, and more than 7,000 people dead.

With the outbreak of this pandemic, both the US and China have been blaming each other for the spread of this disease. This dispute over the COVID-19 could have a geopolitical impact in the future. One of the way as to how the politics around COVID-19 could be played out is China trying to exert its influence on certain countries and through these countries, the region, and the regional organizations that these are part of. Three countries are considered here along with the three organizations they belong to, namely, Italy (European Union), Pakistan (SAARC), and Cambodia (ASEAN). The fact that China influences all the three have been evident in the interactions of these countries within their respective organizations.


Italy has the highest number of people affected and deaths because of COVID-19 in Europe and the world, overtaking China. Till now, more than 47,000 people have been infected, while more than 4,000 people have died in Italy. Italy had blamed the European Union (EU) for not responding to call for help when the pandemic broke out in Italy. Instead, China sent medical experts and supplies to Italy to fight the COVID-19. These incidents have highlighted the divisions that exist in the EU today. China was quick to respond to Italy’s call and also to take advantage when the EU backed out.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed that SAARC countries should come together to face the challenge of COVID-19 collectively. All the countries agreed, and a video conference was held on March 15. Except for Pakistan, all the member countries spoke about the need for concerted efforts to overcome this challenge. Pakistan spoke about the need to have China on board as the latter is an observer in SAARC. Pakistan used the platform to try to pitch China against India instead of focusing on the purpose of the meeting.


Cambodia is a close economic and strategic partner of China in Southeast Asia and is a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Cambodia’s preference for China is evident even in the outbreak of COVID-19. Cambodia has banned travelers from the US, Italy, Germany, France, and Spain. However, it is going ahead with the military exercise with China in order to boost strategic relations. China is also supplying medical supplies to Cambodia to fight the COVID-19. 

The possible impact on organizations

European Union

European Union is the organization that would be affected most by the current developments. The reason is that the EU has been facing several challenges, even independent of COVID-19 for the past few years. The recent Brexit has been a critical event for the EU, which could be considered as a challenge for the structure and functioning of the latter. The EU has also been involved in a dispute with the US over tariffs and duties. The US has also complained that those European countries that are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are not contributing enough to the NATO. Besides, in March 2019, Italy became the first G7 country and the first major European economy to join China’s BRI. 

At present, the EU appears to be a vulnerable organization. The EU needs to develop its independent identity and needs to come out of the identity as an alliance partner of the US. If it fails to do so, then it would become a subject of competition between the US and China. The COVID-19 has given China an opportunity to strengthen its relations with Italy further. Moreover, the present issue of restrictions on movements and closing of borders between the EU countries, which has caused Italy to complain about the EU, could be exploited by China. This could result in China increasing its outreach, either through BRI or outside of it, to more European countries. 


ASEAN has also been facing the problem of division within the organization. There have been two principal challenges for ASEAN. One is territorial disputes that some countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have with China in the South China Sea. Countries like Cambodia and Thailand are part of the BRI. This makes ASEAN a divided organization. 

Apart from this, instability in ASEAN’s relations with the US is another challenge. China’s strategic assertiveness has caused divisions in the ASEAN. However, the spread of COVID-19 has offered an opportunity to China. China has been working closely with the ASEAN countries in order to address this problem. While the disease might allow China to forward its geopolitical interests in the future, it is crucial for ASEAN to address the challenges it faces as an organization. Similar to the EU, it might want to work on its identity, purpose, and goals.


SAARC is the organization that would be least affected in the emerging situation. The reason being, SAARC has been an almost defunct organization until Prime Minister Modi proposed the video conference. India’s distancing itself from SAARC had caused the organization to lose its relevance in the past few years. 

From India’s point of view, it has not allowed the failure of SAARC to come in its way of building relations with its neighbors. Outside SAARC, India has been developing close relations with the SAARC member countries except for Pakistan. China remains a major challenge for India, even in South Asia. The competition between India and China is being played out without the involvement of SAARC. So it is unlikely that China could impact SAARC as an organization in any significant way.

The EU, ASEAN, and SAARC have many challenges as organizations. There is a need for reinvention and resetting these so that they do not lose their relevance. The COVID-19 is an addition to those challenges. It is vital for these organizations not to let the pandemic be converted into geopolitical questions, which would be challenging to deal with in the future.

*** The author is a Fellow at Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies ***