The two years of China-U.S. relations preceding the coronavirus outbreak were overshadowed by “new cold war theory” — trade war, economic decoupling, high-tech competition and geopolitical confrontation.
The sudden and dramatic outbreak earlier this year and the continuously mounting tensions between China and the U.S. are further evidence of what the post-COVID-19 era will look like.
This analogy may seem valid on the surface, but it ignores the important historical fact that global political participation has been expanding and deepening in more countries.
In my view, taking a long historical view, the four waves of postwar global political awakening have, to some extent, mentally prepared the international community to avoid a new cold war.
The decolonization movement marked the first wave of the great global political awakening. After the postwar collapse of colonialism, a large number of new nation-states emerged across Europe. These states looked forward to achieving economic autonomy and modernization as soon as they could gain their sovereign independence. They also hoped to participate in global politics as a new force.
However, the Iron Curtain of the Cold War was a huge hindrance to this current. The Bandung Conference in the 1950s, the Non-Aligned Movement and the new international economic and political order proposed by third-world countries can all be seen as a collision of the first great global political awakening and the competition for supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union.
But the Cold War, which was characterized by a high degree of military, political, economic and ideological fragmentation, as well as intense confrontation, greatly weakened the awareness, motivation and ability of these fragile emerging nation-states to participate in global politics. Many of these countries had to choose to align with either the United States or the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War marked the start of the second wave of the great global political awakening. In the 1990s, the end of the Cold War meant the collapse of a highly confrontational global political structure. China, India and other great powers that had isolated themselves during the Cold War began to participate fully and deeply in international political and economic affairs, and began to achieve remarkable development as part of the existing international order. Japan, Germany and other great economic powers that had become so-called postwar “semi-sovereign” states also began to think about how to participate actively in global politics. The vast number of small and medium-sized countries tried to maximize the space for strategic autonomy through the expansion of regionalism, through such vehicles as ASEAN and the enlargement of the European Union.
In addition, after the end of the Cold War, the United States was the sole superpower. Its thinking began with the perception that it was the victor in the Cold War, and with its superior military and economic power, the vector of global politics seemed to be moving in the direction of Pax-Americana. The second wave of political awakening evolved from the collision of pluralism and U.S. hegemonic stability.
The 2008 global economic crisis marked the start of the third waved. Taking this crisis as an opportunity, the global diffusion of power by and within states and non-state actors triggered an unprecedented deepening of global political engagement.
First, emerging economies such as China, India, and Brazil began actively participating in globalization and their power expanded. They began to demand an international order more reflective of their interests and further awakened their global political awareness. Examples include the birth of BRICS and China's efforts to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Second, in the face of vulnerabilities brought about by the rapid post-Cold War globalization, many countries, including U.S. allies, became more conscious of the need to solve this problem by means of multilateralism, regionalism and globalism. Their motivation to participate in the restructuring of the global political landscape was stimulated to an unprecedented degree. For example, we have seen that Japan continued to push ahead with the TPP even without U.S. involvement and that the EU supported the 2015 framework agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue despite U.S. opposition.
In addition, a wave of political populism, brought about by the global economic crisis, and a wave of global political awakening interacted to become a prominent feature of the third wave.
The global COVID-19 pandemic this year is likely to lead to a fourth wave of the great global political awakening.
The impact of the pandemic on the global industrial and supply chains will not lead to deglobalization. Rather, it will expand globalization to neglected countries and regions. As they become more involved in the process of globalization, these countries and regions will begin to awaken politically.
While some countries are skeptical of multilateralism, a further political awakening of the world’s major countries to its importance could contribute to the solution of global problems such as epidemics and climate change, which have posed major obstacles to economic globalization. Their solution requires leadership from both sovereign states and international organizations.
Meanwhile, international cooperation featuring transnational actors, such as international organizations, social movements, and foundations, is bringing about a great global political awakening that goes beyond the original framework of sovereign states.
During the ongoing pandemic, active cooperation between China and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the U.S. — the second-largest contributor to the World Health Organization — is taking place despite high tensions between China and the United States.
Moreover, the transnational cooperation of local governments in the fight against COVID-19 can inspire a global political awakening at the sub-national level.
In April 2020, the governor of New York thanked the Ma Yun Foundation and others in a tweet for donating 1,000 artificial respirators to his state through the assistance of the Chinese government.
Of course, we also need to be aware that countries are still highly dependent on the individual efforts of sovereign states in the anti-pandemic effort, which means that vulnerability to global crises can easily lead to a clash and interaction between the “my country first” impulse and the current wave of the global political awakening.
The four waves of political awakening across the globe in the postwar era show that we have every reason to believe that the post-pandemic era will not bring a new cold war of confrontation. Nor will it be a dark age of fragmentation in international relations. Although the future of international relations remains fraught with uncertainty, one must be cautiously optimistic about the cumulative evolution of human wisdom.