In former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s recent article on COVID-19, he mused that “nations cohere and flourish on the belief that their institutions can foresee calamity, arrest its impact and restore stability.” More than a rush of blood to the head of anyone in power, this highlights the central role of politics in a disease as complicated and transcendental as this pandemic. Apart from being an epidemiologic phenomenon that has caused a global death toll that parallels, if not surpasses, that of previous plagues, COVID-19 exposes the powers of nations and their leaders. As of mid-May 2020, the total number of confirmed cases is at 4.8 million worldwide with around 318,000 deaths and 28,000 recoveries.

“What the Deuce had he to do aboard that Galley?”, said Molière in 1671.1

Why did the French Minister of Defence, Mr Le Drian, become so vocal in 2016, when he called for European patrols in the South China Sea (SCS)? Why, since then, has there been such zeal to join the diplomatico-naval traffic jam in the SCS? Can France really bring any value-added to managing this issue?

China has been changing the geopolitical landscape of the South China Sea (SCS) through its “gray zone” strategy – a gradualist, revisionist, and unconventional approach to altering the regional and international order in accordance with Chinese national interests. Usually, a “gray zone” campaign is composed of aggressive and hostile activities that lie below the threshold of war, thereby constraining resort to a stronger response from strategic actors.1 Using a different perspective, an omnidirectional approach using all instruments of national power can be gleaned from China’s campaign in the SCS. This strategic design follows the principles of “unrestricted warfare” and uses “all means, including armed force or nonarmed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one's interests”.2

While the United States has turned a new page in its relations with former adversary Vietnam, cracks in ties with long-standing allies the Philippines and Thailand present challenges for its foreign policy in Southeast Asia. The bid to strengthen its historical alliances in the region – and win a new partner – will test Washington’s ability to sustain its post-war hub-and-spokes system of influence while trying to enlarge it against the backdrop of China’s growing economic and political clout.

On his trip to Southeast Asia earlier this month, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper reassured allies and partners about Washington’s commitment to the region while he tried to roll back Chinese influence. The trip was the second multi-country visit he had made to the region in the past three months, signalling its strategic importance to the American concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Washington’s response to an array of challenges in Southeast Asia, from the South China Sea to its rivalry with China, may determine the US’ role in a mega-region it considers most consequential for its future.