Changes to the global order during the COVID-19 pandemic
Interview with SPF Senior Fellow Bonji Ohara

April 22, 2020

People around the world have been closely following developments regarding COVID-19, but in the context of the pandemic, what are some of the broader issues pertaining to the global order that you have been following?
 
Even while the international community is fighting COVID-19 or the new coronavirus, the United States and China are engaged in severe political warfare.
 
Articles by Chinese media, such as one published on March 4 by the Xinhua news agency entitled “The international community must be grateful for China’s justice” and another published by the Chinese magazine Qiu Shi about President Xi Jinping’s speech on April 15, indicate that China is using the spread of the new coronavirus to strengthen its influence over the international community. China is trying to avoid criticism that asserts that the leadership contributed to the current pandemic by concealing information about the spread of the virus. At the same time, China would also like to promote the image of itself as a savior of the international community.
 
China has already resumed its economic activities after claiming it has succeeded in containing the new coronavirus in the country. However, I don't think it's clear whether China can reach the goal of taking the place of the United States as a global leader because the Chinese economy has also suffered damage along with other countries.
 
China is also acting very aggressively in the international community. China recognized that there is a power vacuum in the Asian region due to the drop in activity by U.S. aircraft carriers, which had new coronavirus infections. China recognized this as a kind of power vacuum, so the Chinese Navy and Air Force have been more active in the region. There are many issues in many domains, so we need to watch this situation very carefully.
 
What do you see as the response from the U.S. side and what might be some of the broader consequences of this situation?
 
The United States has already started worrying about China's challenge to its status as a global leader. So, the United States has started to criticize Chinese behavior in the international community. China is trying to increase its influence with actions not only in military affairs but also through economic activities like trade, ICT technologies, information networks, infrastructure, and also in diplomatic affairs such as trying to increase its influence over UN specialized agencies like the WHO. These kinds of activities all make the United States worried.
 
That said, China also has many problems. As I mentioned earlier, the Chinese economy has already been damaged and China has problems in its domestic political situation. President Xi has been criticized for concealing information about the new coronavirus. At the same time, Premier Li Keqiang is showing his presence by publishing economic stimulus measures that differ from the policy of President Xi. I believe this is an indication of the unstable condition within China's domestic politics.
 
Overall, the current power competition between China and the U.S. has the potential to divide the international community into two groups, even if China is unable to become the global leader. The countries that rely on Chinese assistance for healthcare and the economy may support China in the international community. For example, in Europe it looks like two groups may be forming. One is concerned with China’s challenge to the international community and includes countries like Germany, France, and the Netherlands. In the other group, countries like Italy and Serbia are welcoming China’s support.
 
China is active not only in Europe, but also in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, so I believe this means that the U.S.-China political warfare could possibly divide the international community. This will certainly have a negative impact on the fight against coronavirus and it may diminish the authority of the United Nations and its ability to solve international problems.
 
Finally, where does Japan fit into this issue?
 
Japan of course must fight the new coronavirus, COVID-19, with the international community. At the same time, Japan must be aware of a possible change to the international order that may occur after the fight against coronavirus. Japan does not have much influence over the U.S.-China political warfare, and Japan does not have enough influence on the U.S. or on China by itself. Instead, Japan must consider cooperation with other regions and countries to act in its own national interest and counteract a new world order that may not be advantageous to Japan.

This should be an opportunity for Japan to consider proactive cooperation with so-called middle powers, including European countries and Australia. Of course, these countries have their own national interests, but in light of the ongoing U.S.-China political warfare, middle powers should consider a new cooperation framework pertaining to security and economic issues. We cannot wait for the results of their major power game. Japan also must try to participate in the process ourselves.

Additional links:

•  Profile for Bonji Ohara available here.
•  For more from the International Peace and Security Department, visit the program page.
•  For more English analsysis focusing on contemporary Chinese politics, economics, society, diplomacy and security, visit SPF China Observer.

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