Chinese Journal Review: How will China try to reshape global systems in light of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Last week, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a speech on US-China relations. Brookings fellow Ryan Hass had the following take on Twitter:

I share Ryan’s observations as good context for this newsletter, in which I summarize three essays in the July edition of Northeast Asia Forum, published by Jilin University, that look at the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on global governance systems like the World Health Organization, G20, IMF, and other bodies.

The first two essays, written by Zhao Kejin of Tsinghua University and Zhang Qingmin of Peking University, make arguments that are in line with observations three and four, above: that China is a steward for world stability and that the US is a source of problems. They see the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity for China to push for changes to existing global governance systems in ways that benefit China. The third essay, by Shi Benye and Ma Xiaoli from Jilin University, takes an even more assertive position, arguing that China should use the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reshape global governance systems, including to use Belt and Road as a platform that helps the world shift away from the “Washington Consensus.”

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Since the first two essays by Zhao Kejin and Zhang Qingmin share so much in common, I’ve included them as a joint summary. Zhao’s essay is entitled “Global Governance Dilemma and Its Roots under the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic” and Zhang’s essay is entitled “Covid-19 Tests Global Health Governance.”

Both authors write that the global pandemic should have created more opportunities for global cooperation. Instead, the opposite has happened.

Zhao argues that the global pandemic has turned many states against each other. He summarizes prominent Chinese international relations theorists who offer explanations why: Tsinghua University’s Yan Xuetong says the international system is still fundamentally “anarchic”; Renmin University’s Jin Canrong argues that governments in the West have shown “racial, institutional, and cultural arrogance” by believing in their own national “myths,” which have led them to shy away from international cooperation.

With limited exceptions, such as coordination between Japan, China, and Korea and ASEAN, global and regional bodies have not risen to the challenges posed by Covid-19, both authors argue. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the “shortcomings” of existing global governance structures, including at the UN, WHO, IMF, WTO, as well as regional groupings like the African Union, European Union, and Arab League, they write. As a backdrop to all of this, the US-China relationship has also become especially tense.

While praising China’s contributions, Zhang argues that the US has failed to help countries effectively coordinate, including by weakening international organizations like the WHO.

Both authors see a role for international organizations and global governance systems — and Zhao notes that existing mechanisms can handle smaller-scale problems in spite of their “deficits” — but global governance systems need reforms to address larger, more global challenges, they argue. Organizations like the WHO are not equipped to fight global pandemics alone because states are ultimately the ones that implement policies and allocate resources, Zhao writes, adding that beating Covid-19 and future large-scale disease outbreaks will require stronger international coordination, stronger domestic institutions, and political will:

“When a country's governance capacity is strong, and its willingness to cooperate with international organizations is positive, the effect of controlling an epidemic is better, such as China's epidemic control achievements. On the contrary, when a country has weak governance capacity or a low willingness to cooperate with international organizations, the effect of epidemic control is relatively poor.”

Both authors see the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity for China to push for long-wanted changes within international systems that increase China’s influence.

Zhang also argues that, as bilateral relations between the US and China deteriorate further, China should be prepared to ramp up its public diplomacy investments to bolster its international image, especially given the likelihood that the US will try to attack China on the global stage. 

In a third essay entitled “Reconstruction of the global governance system in the post-epidemic era with Chinese characteristics,” Shi Benye and Ma Xiaoli of Jilin University write that China should use the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to shift the world away from the “Washington Consensus” to a “Community of Human Destiny,” which is a reference to Xi Jinping’s vision for a new global governance system that puts China more at the center.

Shi and Ma predict that the Covid-19 pandemic will move global power structures away from mechanisms that are state-led to more multi-party, fragmented mechanisms. They predict that this new model of globalism will “lead to the growth of non-US global governance leadership.”

The world was already moving in this direction even before the Covid-19 pandemic because of the United States’ “gradual decoupling from global governance systems,” they write. America’s “retreat” has brought about an “international power transfer” with increased influence for emerging countries and non-state actors.

Shi and Ma conclude with a series of recommendations for Chinese policymakers, including to:

  1. Show increased leadership in existing multilateral mechanisms like the G20 to lead global coordination in the fight against Covid-19 and other epidemics. China should use these fora to promote trade liberalization, oppose protectionism, and create special funding vehicles for especially fragile countries.

  2. Increase China’s influence within the WHO and other global health organizations. China should also propose to the United States that the two countries increase cooperation on vaccine and drug development.

  3. Promote China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a new global governance platform. Within BRI, China should establish a “Healthy Silk Road” program that provides more assistance to BRI countries to respond to public-health challenges. China should establish regional BRI emergency response systems, build province-to-state relationships to increase direct point-to-point assistance, and strengthen supply chains within and among BRI countries.

  4. Improve East Asia integration, including by increasing coordination among regional public-health systems, cooperating on drug and vaccine development, accelerating negotiations to establish a China-South Korea-Japan Free Trade Area, and working together to enhance East Asian countries’ voices within international governance systems.