The novel coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the state of modern countries and international relations, which we had taken for granted to date. Many national borders and traffic routes are now closed and the freedom of people’s movements is also greatly limited.
“The coronavirus pandemic will forever alter the world order” — so reads the headline of a recent contribution by Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, to an American newspaper. In referring to the current economic crisis, he points out that “The contraction unleashed by the coronavirus is, in its speed and global scale, unlike anything ever known in history.”
It is not worrying if the situation will change for the better, but there is a risk of heightened conflicts and rising tensions in some regions. Now is the time for the international community as a whole to deepen discussions to maintain its framework of mutual cooperation.
In retrospect, infectious diseases have threatened humankind at turning points of global history. In the Middle Ages, a deadly plague spread throughout Europe, apparently after arriving from the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in history. After Italian explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, smallpox and other infectious diseases were brought from the Old World, killing many indigenous people. Conversely, syphilis and other communicable diseases emanating from the New World spread to the Old World.
One is tempted to wonder what consequences the current coronavirus crisis will leave on the modern world. The question primarily concerns the outcome of economic globalization. This is because the current global pandemic emerged just as countries around the world were fostering deeper levels of mutual dependence and as traffic of people and items across the globe increased drastically. That the coronavirus quickly spread across the globe from China, a country dubbed as the “world’s factory,” literally symbolizes one of the consequences of globalization.
A backlash against globalization had already been observed in different corners of the world. The United States ushered in the administration of Donald Trump, which advocated an “America First” ideology. After many twists and turns, Britain finally broke away from the European Union. The ongoing coronavirus crisis could accelerate such anti-globalization trends.
The current viral crisis came about amid the absence of a world leader due to the waning influence of the U.S., which had spearheaded the postwar international order. While the U.S. tops the world in terms of the number of coronavirus cases and deaths, it has temporarily halted funding to the World Health Organization, effectively relinquishing its own role as a global leader.
The future of U.S.-China relations, which had already soured since before the onset of the coronavirus scare, is also a source of concern. In part to turn eyes away from its responsibility, the Trump administration is stepping up criticism of China for concealing information at the early stage of coronavirus outbreak. U.S. citizens’ sentiment toward China has indeed deteriorated.
Washington is also wary of China’s possible boosting of its global influence after it apparently managed to curb the spread of the coronavirus ahead of other countries. If the conflict between the U.S. and China deepens further, it may give way to a new Cold War.
China, meanwhile, is also riddled with its own problems. With the global economy far from showing signs of recovery, it is not easy for China to keep its economy afloat on its own. As the coronavirus crisis has exposed an array of problems stemming from China’s authoritarian rule — such as its nature of covering up facts, which apparently led to the delays in distributing essential information on the coronavirus — criticism against the Xi Jinping regime is also smoldering at home.
China has been under fire from the international community over its dogmatic moves, such as providing medical aid to areas along its “One Belt, One Road” broad economic initiative and continuing to engage in maritime activities in the East and South China seas.
If the confrontation between China and the U.S. drags on, it will become difficult for the international community to take concerted steps to assist developing countries. If coronavirus infections keep spreading in those nations, there is no way we can contain the virus globally.
Harvard University professor Joseph Nye has advocated the need for Washington and Beijing to cooperate in both the humanitarian cause and the interests of their own countries, with the possibility of the second and even third waves of COVID-19 infections arriving from developing countries in mind.
The coronavirus pandemic has also posed difficult challenges to democracy, as it is sometimes necessary to limit individual rights to prevent the spread of the virus strain. In Eastern Europe, where democracy remains vulnerable, governments have attempted to reinforce their authority on the pretext of responding to the pandemic.
Many countries are scrambling to track down viral infection routes by utilizing smartphones and artificial intelligence. However, AI can also be used to beef up surveillance of citizens, as seen in China. The use of those technologies can also allow information technology giants to amass even greater volumes of data.
While many of the authoritarian leaders in the world are struggling to deal with the coronavirus chaos, female leaders in Taiwan, Germany, New Zealand and elsewhere have been highly praised for their crisis management. If they can serve as a good example of a mature, well-functioning society where women are given due recognition, it could provide an insight into what our societies should be like in the future.
As numerous countries are pressed to spend massive public funds on their battle against domestic coronavirus cases, it will be no easy task to recover their economies anytime soon. Without international cooperation, there apparently is no way the world can end what could be a prolonged battle against the coronavirus and get back on its track of prosperity.
Japan, whose prosperity has been secured under the free trade system and regional stability, has few options it can take. If there is a role for Tokyo to play, it would be to seek the reconstruction of the system of international coordination by asking Beijing to exercise self-restraint and maintaining constant communications with Washington. Japan should also join hands with countries in Asia and Europe that share common interests.