Covid-19 and geopolitics, Part 2

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

Covid-19 and geopolitics, Part 2

Michael Green
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

In my column last month, I pointed to five geopolitical impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic. It feels like a year has passed since then, but reviewing those five areas in this column, I can see reasons for both pessimism and optimism.

1. Increased nationalism rather than cooperation

The lack of international leadership in the current crisis continues to be a striking contrast to the decisive roles played by democracies like the United States and Korea in response to previous global disasters. The Bush and Obama administrations established the Group of 20 after the 2008 financial crisis to ensure that governments do not worsen the impact of the crisis by engaging in competitive currency devaluation or increased protectionism.

We see the opposite today as the United States and Europe fight each other to procure face masks and Japan and Korea are being scolded by the World Health Organization for politicizing their travel policies. While President Moon Jae-in tried to organize a G-20 lessons learned discussion on Korea’s response to the crisis, the effort sputtered, and now the U.S. media is reporting that Korea hired Washington lobbyists as part of a self-promotion campaign designed to increase praise for the Blue House performance. There is still stunningly little altruism among world leaders — a reflection of the sudden panic caused by the pandemic but also the growing influence of populism and nationalism across the globe.

On the brighter side, scholars around the world are calling for greater collaboration, and it is doctors and scientists who are emerging as the most credible voices in the crisis rather than politicians. Korea’s comparatively strong performance reflected the challenges already encountered with Middle East respiratory syndrome, and the United States and Europe will now be better prepared for the next pandemic because of the current bitter experience. When governments reflect on how to do better next time, the experts will tell us that preparation will have to be local, national and global.

2. An intensification of U.S.-China ideological competition

Over the last month U.S.-China ideological competition has only intensified. Beijing’s global propaganda campaign to provide medical equipment and trumpet the superiority of China’s authoritarian system has made inroads in more desperate countries, but it has largely backfired in countries like India, Britain and Japan, where there is growing anger over the cover-up of the number of cases in China and deaths in Wuhan.

In Washington, the Chinese propaganda campaign is only confirming suspicions the national security establishment already had that Chinese President Xi Jinping seeks to undermine U.S. leadership through a combination of gray zone coercion, ideological warfare and targeted economic inducements of smaller states. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesmen and nationalist state-sponsored media in China have propagated outrageous conspiracy theories that the U.S. Army deliberately started the virus, revealing something disturbing about Xi’s China.

Yet the Trump administration has itself been too preoccupied with winning the ideological war against Beijing. The White House and State Department Asia leads have a coordinating group to counter Chinese propaganda but not one to work with Asian allies in response to the crisis. This myopia has prompted a group of bipartisan Asia scholars and former officials led by George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser Steve Hadley among others (including me) to write an open letter urging cooperation with China on the pandemic even as we compete strategically and economically. The Chinese ambassador in Washington took some risk when he criticized his own Foreign Ministry spokesman’s nationalistic rumormongering. There will be competition, but saner voices in both countries are calling for cooperation where it is clearly in our interests.

3. Reduction in U.S.-China trade friction but more decoupling

There is a raging debate about whether globalization of supply chains will now die. Importantly, those engaged in business are the ones saying globalization will bounce back after the pandemic, and they are probably right. At the same time, legislation is quietly gaining momentum in the U.S. Congress to reduce dependence on China for medical components, and some further decoupling of U.S.-China economic relations is likely.

4. Threatening incumbent parties

One of the first tests of the impact of Covid-19 on domestic politics will be Korea’s National Assembly elections this month. The ruling party has been helped by the government’s effective response to the crisis and by continuing confusion and infighting among the conservatives. President Moon may also benefit from the delayed impact of the crisis on jobs.

U.S. President Trump will not be so lucky. Unemployment rates in the United States are at historic highs and are not likely to recover until after the U.S. election in November. Trump’s poll numbers are up at present, but his “rally-round-the-flag” bump is tiny compared to the support Jimmy Carter won after the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. The most reliable predictor of election outcomes in the United States is a combination of unemployment numbers and whether the electorate thinks the economy is improving. That does not bode well for the president, though things could change.

5. Shaking Pyongyang’s confidence

Kim Jong-un faces potential disaster if Covid-19 ravages his flimsy health care system. Previous disasters for the North Korean people like the famine in the 1990s did not lead to regime instability because the elites were protected. Covid-19 will not be as discriminating.

Pyongyang is benefiting from the distraction caused by the crisis and the deteriorating strategic trust among the surrounding countries in Northeast Asia. Like Covid-19, North Korean proliferation feeds on friction among the major powers. North Korea has not become unstable, but we will have to watch carefully going forward.

On balance I remain pessimistic about the near term but optimistic about the longer term. The United States has successfully recovered from 12 recessions since the Great Depression, and public opinion polls suggest the American public still desires a strong leadership role for our country in the world. We will lead by working with democratic allies first but also including cooperation with China where we can. First, the world has to defeat this virus.
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)