Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 07, 2020
COVID-19 and international collaboration in a leaderless world

This year 1 April marks the 70th anniversary of India-China diplomatic ties. In a letter to his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed on “interconnected nature of our world today and the need therefore to adopt a truly global response to it”. This is not an easy call in an era of dual crisis. One is of international leadership, when we are in an interregnum, with the old order gone and a new order yet to come. Another is of COVID-19, which has literally taken up more than 190 countries. The pandemic could not happen at a worse time when we are entering into a leaderless world, and the death number is increasing rapidly and a coordinated global response is still not in place.

For now, a more urgent concern is finding back the spirit of international collaborations. Trump administration is finding the global leadership a burden of its revival of American greatness, and since the day he has taken office, Mr. Trump shows little interest in preserving international leadership and injects an inward-looking sentiment into American foreign policy. With outbreak of COVID-19, Mr. Trump is not only caught in unpreparedness but also destroying the fragile trust among states to combat the virus together. Take a step back, while it is understandable to blame another country to conveniently shirk from taking possible political punishment in a public health crisis like COVID-19, it should not get in the way of coordinating a domestic plan, if not a global one. He spends more time ascribing the outbreak to external factors than fighting a real war against the virus and on domestic front his populist mindset even prevents professionals to do work of saving the lives of hundred-thousand of Americans.

Some are envisioning a competition for global leadership when they aim that China is taking advantage of its current position to expand its influence worldwide. Unfortunately, a closer look of current major power politics can find that the competition is not real since neither US or China is willing or capable of undertaking the role. It is generally believed that the US has insufficient willingness, and China has insufficient capability. There are more points that should be made clear. World history proves that leading state is not always in position. While researches show that a leadership position tends to enhance the leading state’s responsibility and care for international society, many cases also show that states are reluctant to take up more tasks or tend to abuse the prestige, in both cases they will lose leadership voluntarily or involuntarily. With US as an example of overstretched superpower, the quest for international leadership is still a hot debate in China, indicating a reluctance, and the concern on weaker strength is a valid argument too.

Unlike what is commonly perceived and worried as global leadership is not a one-time deal that you can simply win by manufacturing and exporting PPEs in a pandemic. Not to mention that international leadership is not free of costs and even the once all-century superpower is shirking from the tremendous costs and responsibility embodied in that role. Sinking costs is a tricky idea in the discussion of world leadership but it does deter some states because it can only realize and sustain when the state keeps behaving as a responsible and responsive leader for the world, and this is a tremendous task, when it does, the whole world will benefit.

Concerns on the impacts of a leadership transition are all legitimate, but a worse situation is that we don’t even have basic trust among major powers to cooperate, it will be pointless for any assumptions that states would follow any leader, which would indicate a more advanced status of cooperation. There is no supreme leader in international society, and the relationship between the leader(s) and the led ones are based on hard facts whether the former ones deliver. No state is entitled with sufficient capability and corresponding willingness to undertake the role of world leader. At any best situation, we are likely to enter into a world without a leading state and more demanding followers.

A reasonable forecast of post-COVID-19 era is that globalization as a practice and spirit will see a weaker foundation when many states enjoys less of its profits but take fairly the same, if not larger share of its consequences. As two most populous countries in the world, China and India together take up more than 40% of world population and the pandemic can only be called into a halt when both tide over the Covid-19 crisis. With increasing sense of Asian century, a coordinated response starting from the regional level will set an example for others to follow.

Here is why Asia should play a leading role in forming global response to COVID-19: first is so far Asia’s overall better reactions of coherent and strong steps to control the contagion and raise the public awareness to higher levels. Major countries in Asia are taking decisive actions. China has taken tight measures and still maintains a high alert on a potential pandemic comeback, India enforcing intensive measures to flatten the COVID-19 curve with an early alarming of exported cases, Japan, South Korea and Singapore and many other states in Asia are also taking the disease very seriously and didn’t waste any time in quick response.

Another good thing is that Asian countries don’t like a Trump-like leader. States governments in Asia could share their data, medical resources and best practices to better each other’s response. Asian experiences are proved to be more effective and these should be shared to the states who have less technology and access to global knowledge on the fighting against COVID-19. The quality of global governance will be measured by how fast we can contain the virus, how much we can limit the casualty and what we have done to make this world better after the test. This is a call to all governments, and to all human beings. 

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Xie Chao

Xie Chao

Dr. Xie Chao is Assistant Professor at the Institute for International and Area Studies Tsinghua University. He got his PhD from the Department of International ...

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