Asia Pacific / Politics | Commentary

COVID-19's potential lasting influence on post-pandemic governance

by Makio Miyagawa

Special to The Japan Times

The outbreak of the coronavirus marked a turning point for a transformation of the global political and economic system and the international community now appears to be on the cusp of a brand new era.

Could the world return to another icy and polarized confrontation, or be inspired to strengthen global cooperation? Or, could the world enter a brand new age of fierce power struggles between nations without an effective stabilizer? With the world standing at a crossroads, these are the various paths that lie ahead.

The pandemic has necessitated diligent efforts by medical professionals around the world and they have been showered with unstinting praise and gratitude for their tireless efforts to treat those who are infected and develop new medicines. Governments, especially those of advanced nations, have started to mobilize their capabilities and technologies, including through the use of supercomputers and artificial intelligence, and have spared no resources in the race to develop a vaccine.

To date, as countries have been busy ensuring access to medical care, mobilizing medical equipment and personnel for their own people, there has not been much room to support other nations. Vital international assistance, which has been afforded in case of large-scale disasters, has been limited.

International organizations have so far not played tangible roles in the pandemic. Rather, suspicion is being cast on the World Health Organization for what has been perceived to be its politicized moves, as it lavished praise on Beijing for its initial response and excluded Taiwan from emergency meetings. Between the U.S. and China, there is neither the inclination nor momentum toward cooperative efforts or actions to address such global crises.

Regional groupings, expanded and institutionalized over the last several decades in various parts of the world, have previously played responsible, coordinated roles in disasters. But with the coronavirus, the European Union has been torn between domestic measures by individual member states and regional collaboration. “When Europe really needed an ‘all for one spirit’ during the pandemic, too many members initially responded with an ‘only for me’ approach,” lamented European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen at the European Parliament plenary in late March. “When Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a ‘fair-weather Union,’ too many initially refused to share their umbrella,” she added.

The U.S. has yet to demonstrate a leadership role in this virus crisis, a role it has typically played in the post-Cold War era. Leaders of the Group of Seven nations stressed the need for international cooperation during a videoconference chaired by the U.S. in March, but so far have not agreed on any specific joint measures.

Should the U.S. not take the leadership responsibility, might China rise to the challenge? Under its authoritarian regime, Beijing imposed a severe lockdown and quarantine on its people, and trumpeted a sharp fall in the number of infections and deaths within a relatively short period of time, according to the figures released by the Chinese government.

However, many believe that if Beijing had informed the world of the outbreak far more swiftly, the world could have lowered the number of infections and worked in much closer cooperation. The delay unnerved its neighbors and beyond, compelling them to shut their borders. Taiwan’s measures were swift and exemplary; Japan also took similar actions. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman openly claimed that the U.S. had possibly brought the virus into China, while at the same time Beijing didn’t allow international experts to inspect two laboratories in Wuhan.

Complaints have erupted about the quality of medical equipment that China has provided in aid to the world. Meanwhile, Africans in Guangzhou were banned from their homes or evicted out of hotels by police, forcing many to sleep on the streets for days. By no means has China succeeded in earning the respect it expects from the international society and you would be hard-pressed to say China has convinced the world that it should fill the U.S. role.

Indeed, China seems far less interested in running the world than ensuring that other powers dare not to thwart its ambitions. The country seems to have taken advantage of this virus crisis to pursue measures for the perpetuation of the ruling Communist Party regime, and to create a foothold for its “unachieved” strategic agenda, while the outside world is preoccupied with fighting the coronavirus.

In Hong Kong, 15 key members of the pro-democracy movement were suddenly arrested on April 18 on charges of illegal assembly. From that day on, Beijing’s hectic moves appear intended to hastily legalize its interference in Hong Kong’s affairs — in defiance of the agreed upon autonomy — by forcing Hong Kong citizens to accept Beijing’s interpretation of the Hong Kong Basic Law and by imposing a made-in-China national security law.

For the last three months, Chinese vessels have increasingly been spotted in the South China Sea, East China Sea and the western Pacific. In the South China Sea, Chinese ships have been harassing the vessels of Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Taiwan may be its next target. China may look to extend its influence in the western Pacific, while the U.S. Navy’s operations in the waters were disrupted after personnel tested positive for the virus.

The U.S.-China wrangling, which looked to have somewhat subsided in December when both countries established the first phase of a trade agreement, has once again flared up during the coronavirus crisis with a crossfire of economic and financial sanctions. Some argue that the world may return to another polarized system. The U.S.-Soviet system during the Cold War exhibited a certain level of stability through nuclear parity, with each power controlling a sizable number of nations in its orbit. But the U.S.-China confrontation appears far less sustainable without such deterrents.

The pandemic could also threaten democracy. After the crisis, the world may question and debate which of the two political systems is the more effective choice for mapping out the most ideal future for humanity at large — one being an authoritative system that can promptly move under instructions from a small number of leaders and the other being a democratic system whose decisions are made with the participation of relevant stakeholders.

Which system could end such a crisis sooner and with fewer victims? Which system could build a society with greater resilience to avoid the resurgence of similar future crises? The choice is also a matter of priority between the collective interests of the state and the basic human rights of citizens.

China claims that it could become the first territory in the world to resume full economic activity and growth, and that it owes much of its success to its centralized authoritarian system, which allows stringent surveillance and restrictions on freedom and human rights. China may take this opportunity to quickly expand the reach of its Belt and Road initiative infrastructure offer to neighboring nations ridden by economic frailty during the pandemic.

Global free trade could recede post-coronavirus as a result of stricter border control. The disruption of supply chains will push industrialists toward self-sufficient policies, with cross-border commerce disrupted and the international trading system inevitably curtailed. The expansion of free trade, the cornerstone of the former Western Bloc, is being challenged. During the crisis, we have become convinced of the need to develop and secure supply bases in our respective countries of strategically important goods and services.

Despite the pandemic, Asia will loom even larger in global politics and the economy. As the crisis could be a tipping point for the regional strategic power balance in East Asia, we need to act duly to prepare for the emergence of unforeseen instability and to seize new opportunities in the coming era. Defense capability must be strengthened in view of dark clouds on the horizon. So must the protection of strategic advanced technologies.

There is a big potential to sharpen our technologies to spur new cross-border business through electronic means, such as e-commerce, e-learning, telemedicine and cybercountermeasure systems. Since the U.S. sanctions against China two years ago, a number of Asian and Western companies fearing supply chain disruptions began repatriating their bases or relocating them from China to Southeast Asia. The current pandemic and the worsening U.S.-China relations are aggravating their concerns and accelerating such moves, for which ASEAN countries are offering wide-ranging special incentives.

Emergency macroeconomic measures to expand liquidity will swiftly improve the dismal economic environment. The April 6 Financial Times article “Printing money is valid response to virus crisis” is eye-catching. It argues, “In times of emergency, particularly war, central banks have often handed freshly printed banknotes to governments. The fight against resultant inflation was postponed until after any crisis.” As policymakers have promised to do whatever it takes to prop up economies, they should do it now.

Some argue that the U.S. may regain its global leadership if President Donald Trump loses his re-election bid this autumn. But his “America First” foreign policy is neither an entirely new phenomenon, nor a solely Republican idea in the history of American foreign policy. As British journalist Gideon Rachman asserts, it would be “an illusion to see the victory of the Democratic candidate turn back the clock and reset the U.S. geopolitics to one before 2010.”

A gravely troubling aspect of the “America First” policy in the U.S. today is that isolationism, often advocated in U.S. diplomatic history, failed to prevent a series of conflicts that led to international warfare. The current “America First” policy may infect the world with self-centered diplomacy and could form a prelude to dangerous global instability in the post-coronavirus era.

When the coronavirus subsides, the world will enter an era of instability with no effective stabilizer. Confrontation and competition could become fiercer, potentially developing into violence. Whether the international community will resume cooperation and joint undertakings, or states seek out their own interests, is not up to the coronavirus to dictate to us. Humanity has a choice to make.

Makio Miyagawa is a Special Advisor on National Security, National Security Secretariat, the government of Japan. The above thoughts are his own and do not represent the official views of the government of Japan.

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