He Yafei: The COVID New (Ab)Normal: Cooperation a Necessity, Not an Option


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He Yafei: The COVID New (Ab)Normal: Cooperation a Necessity, Not an Option


By: He Yafei    Source: Asia society    Published:2020-08-31

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a game-changer in both domestic and global affairs which fundamentally reshaped ways of life, ways of production and the overall social fabric across the globe, overturned globalization 1.0, thus leading us into a more anarchic and riskier world for years to come.

Thomas Friedman wisely opined that COVID-19 divided the world into one before the pandemic and one after. The post-pandemic world landscape unfolding right before our eyes is full of surprises with increasingly greater uncertainty and risks.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc with global governance, rendering in particular the public health system – including its crisis management – in disarray, portending to a future where non-traditional security threats such as pandemics, energy supply disruptions, food security, cyberspace security, and climate change will be on top of the list, while the dangers of geopolitical rivalry and military confrontation continues to stare us in the face.

The pandemic seems to have pushed globalization back to the years prior to the 1980s, as countries locked down and sealed borders with COVID-19 still spreading globally with no end in sight.

The pandemic disrupted world commerce, free trade and the free flow of people, broke down global supply chains and brought the global economy into negative growth. The IMF recently estimated that 2020 world GDP will be minus 4.9% if not worse.

A Singaporean scholar sighed that after the pandemic it would be “limited globalization” and Chatham House CEO Robin Niblett predicted that globalization as we know it is coming to an end.

The pandemic has accelerated major power strategic competition both in scope and depth, increasing risks of deepening geopolitical conflicts, sparking further confrontations such as trade wars and tech-decoupling between China and the United States. Essential cooperation in the provision of global public goods in support of a functionable global governance system is fading fast with more intense geopolitical entanglements.

The pandemic has served as a catalyst quickening the shifting balance of power, which has further fanned the flames of power politics. U.S. strategic anxiety over the change in the balance of power is pulling its foreign policy to the extreme, teetering on the precipice of confrontation with its “major strategic competitors”.

For example, the emerging decoupling between the U.S. and China, especially in the high-tech field is particularly worrying, though it is not yet certain that decoupling has a solid consensus among wider American society as a whole. It certainly will not be a full reality soon.

China will not be forced into decoupling in its entirety, though some degree of tech decoupling is unavoidable.

More precarious is the emerging pervasive U.S.-China ideological entrenchment and confrontation which could pull two countries into a downward spiral into the infamous “Thucydides Trap.” The Trump administration and U.S. Congress have announced a series of executive decisions and put in place bills against China, which harm China’s core interests by encroaching on China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national security.

The United States and China should have engaged in much needed cooperation in fighting the pandemic and in strengthening research and development on vaccines and cures. Regrettably, the two countries instead fell into an ugly blame-game on COVID-19. That is another example of deep mistrust and animosity which undermines a healthy bilateral relationship.

Secretary of State Pompeo’s recent speech at the Nixon library declared the failure of the U.S. engagement policy with China, and advanced instead the U.S. approach of “distrust and verify” toward China – signaling the start of a new cold war with China, trying to pull China into a destructive geopolitical rivalry with the U.S. that neither will win and could end up hurting everyone. Yet it takes two to tango. China will resolutely resist sleepwalking into a new cold war and continues to offer cooperation while firmly defending its core interests.

The post-pandemic world economy will no doubt experience years of the most serious recession since the 1930s with a “free fall” in global trade and investment, as well as mounting financial risks against the backdrop of a tech revolution moving faster than ever, creating both huge opportunities and unprecedented challenges.

The world-wide pandemic has caused global aggregate demand to plummet as many medium and small businesses went into bankruptcy, especially in the informal economy, and the service sector, in particular including tourism. This has eliminated jobs across the economic spectrum. As Secretary-General of the International Mountain Tourism Alliance, I know the tremendous damage done to tourism. One NGO forecast shows that so far 50 million tourism jobs were lost because of COVID-19, accounting for 12-14% of the global total, and the number is growing as economic activities are slow to recover under the current abnormal circumstances. Many countries are troubled by the huge difficulty in getting a balance between controlling the pandemic and recovering the economy. One South African scholar told me that for many laborers who rely on their income for survival it is a cruel choice between dying from hunger and taking a chance by continuing to work.

As for global supply chain readjustment, it needs extensive consultation and negotiation among countries, in the interest of global economic stability and growth, to maintain the essential elements of the supply chain while shifting some necessary parts to form a new supply chain.

Multilateralism as the pillar of global governance has been fatally weakened, if not destroyed, by COVID-19, which changed everything we know. The European Union, once a beacon of global governance, is almost certain to hit further snags in its regionalism and regionalization. In the post-pandemic era, were the World Health Organization, a technical and professional global public health body, to become dysfunctional, the prospect for even a modest degree of global governance will become even dimmer, a harbinger of a more anarchic world where the law of the jungle will once again prevail.

Accordingly, the strategic thinking of countries, in particular that of major powers, has to keep pace with the realities of the new (ab)normal in the years to come. The sooner this is done, the better the chances of survival in an emerging world of greater anarchy and even more danger.

The pandemic provides the world another sobering lesson, like with the 2008 financial crisis, that in a global village no country is an island, and none can single-handedly conquer any global challenge or crisis.

Are there remedies to avoid the above-mentioned risks and reverse the downward spiral of major power competition and global governance to prevent geopolitical competition running out of control and make the emerging worldless anarchic and less risky?

It can’t be overemphasized that in today’s world, international cooperation is a necessity not an option, especially for major powers including the U.S. and China. These countries have moral responsibilities to avert geopolitical confrontation and support collaboration on key international issues by reducing ideological differences, repairing the frayed global governance system, and boosting world economic growth.

For instance, during the financial crisis in 2008-2009, the G20 was chosen to bear the burden in tackling the crisis because its composition represented a fair balance between developed and developing countries and a good representation of all economies. The G7 was no longer able to perform the role of a steering committee in global economic governance With the G20 we saw a turning from “governance by the West” to “co-governance by West and East.” China not only went with the historic trend by steadfastly supporting the G20 as the primary platform for global economic governance, but also took a proactive approach to making it a reality. At that time, some G20 members were reluctant to let go of the G7 or G7+ being the focal point in economic governance, but most G20 members including the United States were in favor of such a fundamental move. The G20 Pittsburgh Summit in the fall of 2009 proclaimed this new approach in its Leaders’ Declaration. Being China’s sherpa to the G20 at the time, I personally witnessed the making of history and China’s proactive role in reshaping the emerging world order together with other G20 members. As we enter a post-pandemic world, this is exactly the spirit that all countries need to follow today.

There is a way forward for this new COVID (ab)normal period. First, collective efforts should be made to restore and improve global and regional public health governance systems and their crisis management capabilities. Greater cooperation is in order in research and development on vaccines and cures for COVID-19, not just to finish the job of combating the current pandemic but also to prepare for future ones.

China will not be forced into decoupling in its entirety, though some degree of tech decoupling is unavoidable.

Second, the relationships among major powers, in particular between the U.S. and China, is becoming more complicated with ever greater geopolitical tensions. Some people have labeled this low ebb in U.S.-China relations as “the dark moment,” although I am doubtful about that. To be true to history, the Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship has indeed reached a historic low, but it is far from hopelessly dark as long as the two are not engaged in full confrontation. There is still hope for upturns in this evolving relationship - a relationship which is of critical importance to both countries and to the world as a whole. China is steadfastly resisting a “new cold war” and comprehensive decoupling between the two countries.

Both countries must shoulder their historic and moral responsibilities to engage in dialogue and negotiation on whatever economic, political, and strategic and military frictions they may have, in order to find both short-term and long-term solutions – or at least a modus-vivendi for peaceful and rule-based competition. China will unswervingly continue to develop peacefully and to open up. Yet, as I’ve already noted above, it takes two to tango. In this connection, regional security and its framework, especially in the Asia-Pacific, is the most urgent and critical goal for the type of negotiation I am proposing.

Efforts need be made to balance major power competition and cooperation in favor of the latter in order to avoid full confrontation. Geopolitical entanglements and ideological difficulties should not be allowed to push competition into a vicious cycle. Competition is normal only when it is based on agreed and acceptable rules. Political negotiation and dialogue should prevail over unilateral action or coercion in dealing with bilateral and international affairs and disputes.

Third, the pandemic has caused the world economy to suffer the most terrible setback  since the Great Depression. Collaboration to reinstitute and repair global supply chains and restore free trade and free flows of resources and knowledge is a top priority. Consensus and joint efforts are called for to resist isolationist and protectionist yearnings, in particular “decoupling,” which could spread like cancer.

Economic growth is the key to everything. Jobs must be maintained and created to boost the economies and support social stability. Continued efforts are important to bridge the gap between rich and poor in whatever way possible. Global supply chains will have to adjust to more anarchic scenarios in the post-pandemic world economy, and this must be done through market mechanisms reinforced by governments’ macro-intervention. Regional supply chains or “regional and sub-regional safe bubbles” maybe a stop-gap to supplement global supply chains.

In sum, the pandemic is a stress test and wake-up call for all countries to adapt to the new (ab)normal. There is no going back, even if there are landmines littering the road ahead - or deep and untested waters before us with huge and dangerous whirlpools and tsunamis. As long as countries do not give up on cooperation, there is hope. And hope is what we need, among other things, to move ahead steadily in these post-pandemic years.

He Yafei is Former Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.