Coronavirus to catalyse regional conflicts, international scholar suggests

Cameron Magusic, Catalyst co-culture editor

By the end of 2020, regions around the world face the prospect of conflict caused by after-effects of the coronavirus, a leading international scholar says. 

Dr. David Kilcullen, whose book The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West was published in March, tells RMIT Catalyst we are already starting to see tensions brewing in international hotspots. 

In the contested South China Sea, for example, a Chinese navy ship ‘rammed’ a Vietnamese fishing boat, which Kilcullen says represents an ‘incredibly stupid thing to do’ by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).  

This is indicative of the ‘opportunistic’ and ‘decentralised’ nature of the Chinese military that Kilcullen outlines in his book. 

He expands on this by telling Catalyst the ramming and Chinese military exercises in the South China Sea might have been performed to ‘burnish their position (in the region)’.

“This probably sounds smart to some Chinese military commander, but ultimately that’s the best evidence you can have that the Chinese are in fact operating opportunistically in a decentralised way rather than to some master plan,” Kilcullen tells Catalyst

“It’s an incredibly stupid thing to do if you don’t want to end up fighting the United States.”

America has its own problems, of course, with the highest reported number of coronavirus deaths in the world (at the time of writing). 

In particular, its military is on the retreat–it’s been recently reported several US Air Force bombers have flown out of Guam, near the South China Sea, to a North Dakota base. 

More notably, an aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, has docked in Guam after suffering a significant number of coronavirus cases. 

Former US acting navy secretary Thomas Modly became a rare political casualty of the crisis after calling the captain of the ship, Captain Brett Crozier, ‘naïve’ after Crozier wrote a memo asking for help to deal with cases on board. 

One thing that has struck Kilcullen throughout the crisis is the use of military metaphors to describe the ‘fight’ against the virus. 

As Professor Mark Hobart at the University of London’s Centre for Global Media and Communication writes, “purporting to marshall a war against a virus distracts attention from a litany of political and corporate failings; ignoring expert advice about known risks, prioritizing private profit over public investment and so on.”

Kilcullen said he is ‘really uncomfortable’ with the gaggle of global leaders using military metaphors. 

“Everyone’s talking about how it’s a war, President Trump calls himself a ‘wartime president,’ they’re invoking all these martial law and wartime restrictions on people’s freedoms” in order to beat the disease, Kilcullen tells Catalyst

A better way to think about the problem, according to Kilcullen, is to consider the trade-off between death minimisation and damage to the economy—a debate increasingly playing out in Australian media. 

“That’s not how military planners work,” said Kilcullen. “What they work on is, ‘Here’s the enemy, how do I attack the enemy?’ and it’s a whole different set of principles.”

“I’m quite worried that we will find a similar situation to what we did in the war on terror. I’m old enough to remember a time before Transport Security Administration, before you had to take your shoes off to get on a plane, before the government tracked your cell phone, before you had to give all kinds of intrusive private data to get anything done.”

Kilcullen continues, “all of those restrictions were put in place to deal with the terrorist threat that was supposedly temporary and they’re all still in place 20 years later.” 

“I think we should be very worried about the tendency of frightened populations to give up their freedoms, and the tendency of governments to never give those freedoms back once they’ve taken them away.” 

“So, I’m very worried about the militarisation of response to this particular problem.”

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