Global challenges for 2022
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A 21st century event as powerful as the inventions of letters, the wheel or steam engine — or as devastating as a world war — could be the breaking out of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Its spread transformed the centuries-old practice of reporting to work into working from home. The international order is not free from the cataclysmic shift. As we move into the third year of the pandemic, let’s take a look at global challenges ahead.
Most noticeable is the retreat of globalization and the shutting down of borders, which wreaked havoc on international exchanges and multinational enterprises. Globalization on the political, economic and cultural fronts suddenly came to a halt.
The biggest victim of the pandemic was the tourism industry, which saw the number of global tourists drop to 381 million in 2020 from 1.46 billion in 2019. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates the resulting losses will reach $1.3 trillion — eleven times the financial damage from the Wall Street-triggered financial meltdown in 2009. For instance, the Maldives — which relied on tourism for two thirds of its gross national income — saw its number of inbound tourists plunge between April and September 2020 by a whopping 97 percent over a year-ago period. Unless the virus disappears, the global tourism industry cannot recover.
Before the spread of the virus, international organizations were prioritized over states in solving global energy and environmental problems. That changed immediately after the role of governments was underscored in battling the pandemic, as seen in their heated race to buy vaccines. International bodies such as the World Health Organization (WTO), in particular, became a laughing stock due to their incompetence in fighting the disease. The WTO was ridiculed for siding with China, the alleged epicenter of Covid-19.
An outstanding feature of the crisis is advanced countries’ failures to effectively respond to the pandemic. They showed even higher infection and fatality rates than other countries, including in Asia. In the United States and the European Union, over one million positive cases are being reported on a daily basis after the spread of the Omicron variant.
In the competition to acquire vaccines, America showed a selfish image as a superpower gobbling them up with other developed countries like the UK and Canada. As a result, while G20 countries grabbed nearly 89 percent of all Covid-19 vaccines, less than 7 percent of the populations in Africa and other underdeveloped regions have received one shot so far.
To exploit the imbalance, China aggressively played vaccine diplomacy targeting poor countries. While America was engrossed with purchasing vaccines for its own people, China attempted to distribute its own Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines to over 80 countries for free. President Xi Jinping went so far as to declare that China would provide 1 billion doses of its vaccines to underdeveloped countries in Africa and Asia.
In the meantime, the international environment surrounding the Korean Peninsula is expected to fluctuate sharply. Inter-Korean relations will likely be in a stalemate until a new administration launches in May. Though President Moon Jae-in still wants to press on with a declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, the idea cannot gain traction due to Pyongyang’s hope to deal with its new counterpart in Seoul.
Given its track record, North Korea will most likely make a military provocation such as a test of advanced missiles, including ICMBs, to get the attention of Washington. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will likely open his borders after shutting them tight for two years, because such a ruthless ban on cross-border trade only deepened its economic plight.
The U.S.-China conflict will likely worsen this year. After Washington finishes its review of global supply chains and military deployment strategy, it will surely intensify its offensives against Beijing given the need for “China bashing” ahead of the mid-term elections in November. The White House will continue to expel China from global supply chains while reinforcing its alliance through the Quad and other allies to contain China. Yet the Sino-U.S. conflict will not likely trigger a military clash due to China’s military inferiority.
Barring unexpected variables, Korea-U.S. relations are expected to stay on course. Whoever wins the March 9 presidential election in Korea, Biden will not deviate from the decades-old alliance. Nevertheless, bilateral relations could be affected by whomever wins the election given the fundamental difference in approach to North Korea between ruling Democratic Party (DP) presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung and his rival Yoon Suk-yeol from the opposition People Power Party (PPP). While Lee wants to stick with President Moon’s rapprochement with the North, Yoon puts top priority on denuclearization.
For China, 2022 is a very important year. The country must first upgrade its relations with other countries through the Beijing Winter Olympics in February and elect Xi Jinping to his third term in the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October. Amid mounting pressure from the West, Beijing’s demand for Seoul to take its side will become stronger. That will force South Korea to walk a tightrope.
For the Kishida Cabinet in Tokyo, it will be concerned about an Upper House election in July. Considering Kishida’s relatively dovish attitude toward Korea, Tokyo could take steps to thaw frozen ties after July unless a new Seoul government starts to liquidate Japanese companies’ assets in South Korea to compensate forced labor.