After watching dozens of webinars, including one co-hosted by the Canon Institute for Global Studies and the Stimson Center, it seems clear that no one knows what will happen to the international order in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reason is obvious. COVID-19 only accelerates or exacerbates ongoing trends or courses of human action and inaction. Who will dominate solely depends on how people behave, not on the disease itself.
What Tokyo must do now is to come up with a road map for Japan to minimize the damage of pandemic and to maximize national and global interests. For the following reasons, Tokyo should start drafting an Indo-Pacific Charter for the post-pandemic world.
1) Japan’s political geography will not change.
Plagues do not alter natural geography. Japan has been and will continue to be a maritime power located off the coasts of Eastern Eurasia in the Pacific. To maximize its national interests, Japan must secure its sea lines of communication while maintaining a balance of power on the continent.
This does not automatically mean that China must be deterred or contained. But the Chinese economy’s seemingly quick recovery from the pandemic as well as a lack of global leadership in Washington could weaken the Western democracies’ ability to deter Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior.
2) The U.S.-China hegemonic rivalry will intensify.
COVID-19 and its potential mutants will exacerbate the existing major power competition between the United States and China. Their hegemonic rivalry resembles the one between Japan and the U.S. in the 1930s. The lesson of this period is that it's time to send the right signal to Beijing.
Although the pandemic has wrought the same degree of destruction in both the West and China, the democratic West could be hit harder than authoritarian China, at least in the foreseeable future. It is highly likely that Beijing will either feel emboldened if the West looks weak or feel desperate and run wild if the West looks strong.
3) The process of digital bipolarization will continue.
Although COVID-19 has forced many people to work from home, the pandemic itself did not create the digital gaps between the rich and poor, and between China and the rest of the world. The notorious Great Firewall of China has been being built and fortified since the 1990s.
The pandemic will only accelerate the ongoing global digital divide. History suggests the coming of a global digital bipolarization. This means that, like in the 1930s, the world economy will be divided into two or several digital economic zones centered around Washington, Beijing and elsewhere.
4) An Indo-Pacific charter must be drafted.
The Atlantic Charter was a statement made by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on Aug. 14, 1941. The document outlined a new model for an international order that was to be realized after the end of the World War II. The charter’s eight principles were:
1. No territorial gains were to be sought by the U.S. or the United Kingdom. 2. Territorial adjustments must be in accord with the wishes of the peoples concerned. 3. All peoples had a right to self-determination. 4. Trade barriers were to be lowered. 5. There was to be global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare. 6. The participants would work for freedom from want and fear. 7. The participants would work for freedom of the seas. 8. There was to be disarmament of aggressor nations, and a common disarmament after the war.
Those principles are the foundation for the post-1945 new international order. Unfortunately, however, they have not been fully applied to and adequately realized in places such as the South China Sea and other areas of the Indo-Pacific region. Now the new coronavirus is eroding these precious principles.
5) The Chinese government's future is uncertain.
It is premature to predict whether the COVID-19 pandemic will strengthen or weaken the authoritarian regime in Beijing. As the 1941 Atlantic Charter states, it is the wishes of the peoples and their right to self-determination that must be fully respected and realized in a new international order after the pandemic.
6) The United Nations may have to be reorganized.
By the same token, ultimately it is most desirable to establish a new and more functional international body after the pandemic. If this is too ambitious, the process of reforming the United Nations, which began in 1995, must be finished.
7) Japan must be a catalyst.
History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. The lesson of the 1930s is that the world community must behave proactively and should not reactively appease to prevent a catastrophe. Unless we act now, we may lose a golden opportunity, as was the case in the 1930s, to make the world a better place.
As in 1941, like-minded nations must embrace universal principles now to rebuild an international order in which the great majority of the peoples in the world, including those in China, can benefit. The principles are both old and new. We can and we must return to those values.
Japan has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of the Atlantic Charter's principles. It is, therefore, high time for Tokyo, together with other like-minded nations, to draft a new charter for the Indo-Pacific. We must not let China repeat the same mistakes that Japan made in the 1930s.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.