This is the first installment of a four-part series of conversations between Yoichi Funabashi, the chairman of the nonprofit independent think tank Asia Pacific Initiative (API), and Yuichi Hosoya, a professor of international politics at Keio University and senior consulting fellow for API, about how the world may look in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
Funabashi: The novel coronavirus seems to be transforming the global order by frightening societies and battering economies around the world.
Hosoya: We are in the midst of a global decline because of the virus. In the United States, job losses in the past month alone equaled the number seen in the previous 10 years: 20 million.
China’s economy contracted 9 percent in the first quarter compared with the same quarter last year.
About 20 years ago, though, some experts in China theorized that if the country’s gross domestic product growth rate fell below 7 percent, the ruling Communist Party would lose the legitimacy of its reign and potentially its grip on power. China’s GDP growth for this year could be nearly zero percent — an unprecedented figure.
Mass job cuts in the U.S., the stagnant Chinese economy and other events that are happening around the world are emergencies that we had never predicted nor imagined.
As a scholar on international politics, I feel responsible for not fully understanding and for underestimating the impact an infectious disease could have on the world.
Parallels from history
Funabashi: When it comes to a pandemic that opened a new chapter in world history, I immediately think of the plague in medieval times.
Hosoya: Humans have experienced several upheavals triggered by pandemics, the prime examples of which are the plague that raged in medieval Europe and the Spanish flu during World War I.
In medieval Europe, Catholic churches formed the spiritual pillars for Europeans and effectively ruled their society and lives. So people understandably stampeded the churches in search of help without knowing that doing so would create conditions conducive to spreading the disease, known today in Japan as the three Cs — closed spaces, crowded places and close contact with people.
As many places of worship became hotbeds, the bacterial infection spread quickly, and Catholic churches proved helpless in the face of the infection threat, leading to the downfall of their authority.
A third of the population of Europe is believed to have been lost to the plague.
The population decrease changed the social structure: The medieval feudal system was shaken by the relative rise of people from the bottom of the hierarchy. Together with the churches’ fall from grace, this gave rise to a modern society that has a nation state at the heart of politics.
The plague was a key trigger for the transition from medieval times, ruled by churches, to modern times, ruled by states.
The Spanish flu, meanwhile, hugely influenced the tide of World War I that lasted from 1914 to 1918 and led to the establishment of an international organization in the postwar era.
The flu outbreak became a global pandemic in 1918 during the war. Although the precise tally is not known, the death toll is estimated to be anywhere between 17 million and 50 million worldwide, well above the 16 million estimated deaths caused by World War I. The Spanish flu also hit the soldiers of warring countries such as Germany, France and the United Kindgom.
Some research papers argue that the spread of the infection had an indirect bearing on Germany’s loss in the war by making it difficult for troops to fight.
During World War I, warring countries did not disclose the fact that the infections were making their way through the domestic population and soldiers, out of fear of demoralizing their troops and discouraging applicants from joining their forces.
Spain, which remained neutral throughout the war, was the only country that came forward to announce a domestic epidemic. The disease was named “Spanish” because the media reported that country’s announcement to the world.
But there are many theories about the origins of Spanish flu. One suggests it was of American provenance. The flu may have been brought to Europe after the U.S. entered the conflict in 1917. In other words, the troop deployments from the U.S. to Europe are believed to be the cause of the cross-continent pandemic. This can be compared with globalization.
Based on this understanding, the League of Nations that was created after the war promoted awareness that international cooperation was indispensable to combat an infectious disease. The efforts culminated in the establishment of the League of Nations Health Organization in 1923, the forerunner of today’s World Health Organization (WHO).
Just as the plague created modern society, the Spanish flu paved the way for the global order of today. World history shows that historically pandemics have dramatically altered the global order and the way a society is organized.
In a similar vein, the ongoing novel coronavirus situation is highly likely to transform our society and world in ways we never imagined. In view of international politics, countries that predict where we are heading and respond accordingly can be expected to lead the post-coronavirus order.
But it will be extremely difficult to determine to what extent — and in what way — the virus will change things.
Hosoya: Through the ages, some things have changed while others stayed the same. It is very important for us to be able to tell these things apart.
Even in the post-coronavirus world, the international society will continue to function as a society of nations. A national government will remain the people’s last resort to seek help.
The United Nations and WHO don’t offer people essential economic relief nor large amounts of masks. Similarly, we shouldn’t expect much assistance from the governments of other countries. The reality that people can only rely on their own government for aid is likely to incite them to move toward nationalism.
Globalization, on the other hand, keeps advancing. The coronavirus will further accelerate the use of internet-based communications and businesses, conducted both within and across borders.
This means that while politics grows increasingly nationalistic, our lifestyle becomes more reliant on the internet. If this premise is right, a country or a force that dominates telecommunications technology in the post-coronavirus world is expected to hold great sway in forming the global order — just like the British Empire controlled the oceans as the dominant maritime power in the time of Pax Britannica during the 19th century.
Our eyes therefore turn to China, which was quick to make the prediction and act on this ambition before the virus outbreak. It was already aiming to develop telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co.’s 5G, or fifth-generation, mobile communications system around the world so that it could gain full control over telecommunications.
But such a future may or may not happen, since China has lost international credibility on some points. The outcome depends on whether countries such as Japan will choose to rely on the 5G system that China has constructed or seek an alternative.
Funabashi: The latest pandemic is a very shocking event. As much as I expect this will foster a completely new world, I’m concerned about what will become of Japan. There is a vague sense of unease over how Japan can continue its nationwide fight against the coronavirus despite the unpredictable future.
As a journalist, I have covered a variety of postwar crises in Japan. These included the U.S.’s unilateral cancellation of dollar convertibility to gold as part of its economic policy in 1971, known as the “Nixon shock;” the oil crisis of 1973; the 1985 Plaza Accord on adjustments to currency exchange rates and the 1991 Gulf War. In the 21st century, I have looked at North Korea’s nuclear program; the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers and the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant.
Each crisis destabilized the global order and had a great impact on Japan’s national interests and strategy. When the crisis passed, I would cover it, write an article about it and publish a book — always left with a sense of defeat of sorts. This feeling stems from what I see as Japan’s problematic handling of crises. Particularly, the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011, exposed a lack of governance as the underlying issue with the government’s crisis response. A sense of defeat, in this case, comes from the belief that Japan was ill-suited to fight a national crisis.
When faced with an external crisis, a country cannot follow through on its strategy — no matter what it is — without effective governance.
The fact that a strategy is only as good as the governance that underpins it was the takeaway from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. During the crisis, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who led the Democratic Party of Japan administration, instructed Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, to draw up a worst-case scenario. But that scenario was already unfolding.
The government should have prepared the worst-case scenario before the crisis happened and kept the plans updated with conceivable new risks in mind. Only when a government can do this can it be considered well-prepared.
After the nuclear accident, I was involved in setting up the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident to publish reports on our findings.
Based on this experience, as a second project, we studied how the Japanese government should approach crisis management and released a book on the topic in 2013 titled, “Japan’s Worst-Case Scenarios: The Nine Blind Spots.”
Among those nine blind spots, the book discussed pandemics alongside risks such as a Japan-China clash over the Senkaku Islands, a plunge in the Japanese government bond market, a massive earthquake directly beneath Tokyo and cyberterrorism.
The section on pandemics was penned by Mitsuyoshi Urashima, who was at the time an associate professor at the Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo.
Dr. Urashima presented his version of a worst-case scenario in the book: “As an unknown virus runs rampant, medical facilities will face risk of collapse due to shortages of equipment such as ventilators, doctors and health care staff. The solution to the limited resources is to decide ‘the order of who dies.’”
His argument was very striking, but it is now exactly the risk looming over us.
In the face of the coronavirus threat, Japan must find what’s necessary to get it off a course toward a worst-case scenario.
No special capabilities
Funabashi: The first point is that it is necessary for us to ditch any illusions that Japan has special capabilities. A day or two after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, many of us had the hope that Japanese technology would be able to eventually prevent a meltdown. Optimism evaporated as the explosion occurred at the third reactor building at 11 a.m. on March 14, however.
Honestly, I still believe that Japan can manage to make it through the latest pandemic. I share the view of Shigeru Omi, vice chair of the expert panel advising the government on the coronavirus, who said that “We are hoping that we will succeed (in combating this virus) by building a ‘Japan model’ based on our successful experience with containing the new flu outbreak in 2009.”
But even if we could win this battle, I would refuse to credit what some argue are qualities unique to Japanese people, such as patience and unity.
The national character is certainly part of the equation, but preparedness, a ruthless risk evaluation and management, as well as leadership among other factors, are essential to national security.
We must always consider a worst-case scenario and get ourselves prepared as much as possible.
A second point is that Japanese technologies have a history of failure when deployed in crises.
One example is the World War II-era Zero fighter planes, which showcased Japan’s aerospace engineering of the time. But the country stumbled over sustainable mass production and retrofitting — the planes lacked the capacity for technological innovations, including radar.
Parallels can be drawn with the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Before the disaster, Japan boasted of its status as a robotics powerhouse. But it was unable to introduce a robot into the reactors to perform automated tasks such as taking photo records or transporting equipment.
The deployment of U.S.-made equipment from iRobot, which came to our aid, gave me a sense of defeat and embarrassment.
Funabashi: I have the same inkling regarding our fight against coronavirus. China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore detect and trace people with the disease, implement social distancing alerts and manage the movement of people with bold applications of digital technology. In this way, these countries are seeking to stem the further spread of the virus and find an exit strategy.
Japan is obviously lagging behind in this effort.
Why is Japan incapable of providing more ventilators? Only a short while ago, the country seemed capable of manufacturing literally anything through three-dimensional printers.
Why are technologies and innovation that can be used to protect people’s lives slow to make strides? Digital innovation, especially, is hobbled.
As previously pointed out, the post-coronavirus world will give rise to a new international order in which countries will battle to survive. Other than scientific technologies and innovations, data, in particular, holds the key.
A country that can apply data to solve social problems and use it to ensure people’s safety will set the example and demonstrate its power.
We are not only fighting against coronavirus but for a position in the post-coronavirus world. Amid the two battles, the question arises as to whether Japan can conceive a post-battle vision. Japan should strive for a historic role.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.