A world without global leadership may last for a decade: Yan Xuetong

The increase of China-U.S. tensions is likely to drive India to adopt a hedging strategy toward both countries, says Chinese foreign policy thinker

May 12, 2020 10:53 pm | Updated May 13, 2020 12:13 am IST

Yan Xuetong

Yan Xuetong

The response to the pandemic shows there is no single power that is capable and willing to show global leadership, says Yan Xuetong, one of China’s leading thinkers on foreign affairs, professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and author of “Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers”. China faces a great chance to reduce the power gap with the U.S. in 2020, says Yan, who explains why he is optimistic about the future of relations with India “as long as Donald Trump stays in power” . Excerpts:

What has the pandemic revealed to you about the state of leadership among the major powers in the world today? Are we seeing a crisis of leadership?

The pandemic shows the lack of global leadership today. A world without global leadership may last for a decade or more. First, there is no any single power that is both capable and willing to undertake global leadership by itself. President Trump has clearly stated that global leadership is a wasteful burden to the U.S. Other major powers, whether motivated or not, do not have the resources for such leadership. Second, the competition between China and the U.S. prevents collective leadership of major powers. Therefore, although there is a vacuum for global leadership, no country seems ready to fulfil it in the near future.

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Henry Kissinger said that the pandemic will alter the world. Nevertheless, I would argue that it only strengthens the existing international political trends rather than change them. Most of the current international trends occurred before the pandemic. For instance, the anti-globalization trend has started since Eastern European states adopted an anti-immigration policy in 2015, the decentralization of the EU has started since Brexit in 2016, China-U.S. bipolar competition has started since 2017 when the U.S. defined China as the major strategic challenger, and some industrial chains have broken since the U.S. imposed sanctions on Huawei in 2018 . The pandemic will escalate these trends rather than reverse them.

In your writing, you emphasise the importance of a state's moral authority as opposed to only its national power in determining its ability to lead. If we can look at the U.S. first: how do you think the pandemic and its response has affected its global standing and ability to lead?

Since President Donald Trump took the Oval office in 2017, morality of international leadership has been increasingly discussed in academic and strategic realms. This demonstrates the importance of leadership morality in international affairs. Morality is a permanent issue faced by all international leading powers. Regarding the impact of the pandemic on America’s international image, we can examine it in a comparative way because, as I argue in my book “Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers”, international morality is relativistic.

First, people generally judge a government’s responsibility in fighting against the pandemic according to the efficiency of its anti-pandemic policy, mainly in terms of the casualties. The COVID-19 casualty number in the U.S. is the largest in the world. All other major powers, no matter having a larger or smaller population than it, suffered smaller casualties than the U.S. did.

Second, because the U.S. is the most powerful state in the world, it is the most expected state to undertake leadership in the global fight against COVID-19 . Unfortunately, it failed to do so. Although it has recently promised to do more, the world has not seen its actions. That explains why the U.S. is not viewed internationally as a moral leader.

Third, the international image of America’s response to the COVID-19 crisis depends on the views of the majority of the more than 200 existing political entities in the world. As of now, there are fewer countries holding positive views about the U.S. than those with negative views. 

On China: it may have emerged faster from the crisis, but it has seen its global image taking a very big hit because of the pandemic. Do you think this damage will be long-lasting? 

According to the three criteria I applied to judge America’s international image, we can find that China did much better than the U.S. First, the pandemic casualty in China is much smaller than in the U.S. and major European powers. Second, China has provided medical aid to more than 80 countries, much more than what the U.S. did. Third, the list of countries holding positive views of China is much longer than those with negative views. Regarding the issue of the pandemic's origin, I would suggest my government to raise a proposal to the World Health Organization (WHO) for an inquiry on virus research institutes in all countries heavily infected by COVID-19. By now, scientists have found that the types of COVID-19 are not the same in different countries. That means COVID-19 could have originated from more than one place. For the purpose of understanding how COVID-19 originated, it is necessary to do the same inquiry in all heavily infected countries. If the WHO discusses this proposal, China will get more support than the U.S. because the U.S. has the most virus research institutions and the largest pandemic casualties in the world.

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In your previous book Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power , you write that "Only when the international community accepts that China is a more responsible state than the U.S. that China will be able to replace the U.S. as the world’s leading state". How do you assess how COVID-19 has impact China's standing in the eyes of the international community? Which country will emerge in a relatively stronger position after COVID-19?

Due to China’s positive attitude and America’s hostility to the WHO, China has gained better reputation and more influence than the U.S. in this international institution. Accordingly, China’s reputation on international public health is improving, while that of the U.S. is declining. I believe that this trend will continue after the pandemic. Because China resumed economic activities from the pandemic earlier than other major powers, it has a great chance to reduce the power gap with the U.S. and enlarge the power gap with other major powers in 2020. According to the IMF’s forecast, China’s GDP will grow by 1.2% in 2020, while France, Germany, the U.K., the U.S. and Japan will witness negative growth erWA of -7.2%, -7.0%, -6.5%, -5.9%, -5.2% respectively. The forecast implies that China may win more international admiration than other major powers including the U.S. 

Looking beyond the U.S. and China, how do you see the role of middle powers changing in a post-COVID-19 world?

In the current bipolar configuration, middle powers will be likely to adopt hedging strategy toward China and the U.S.. Hedging strategies were initiated by ASEAN states in 2012. They sided with China on economic issues while with the U.S. on security issues. Recently this strategy becomes popular among middle powers such as Germany, Japan, France, and the UK. After the pandemic, middle powers will become more decisive on hedging because they realise that the bipolar configuration may last for decades. 

Lastly, how do you think this trend of worsening China-U.S. relations, which the pandemic is amplifying, may impact China-India relations going forward? 

The increase of China-U.S. tensions is likely to drive India to adopt a hedging strategy toward China and the U.S., because of its own interests. Since India is currently closer to the U.S. than China, India’s hedging strategy will mean improving relations with, rather than confronting, China. Trump’s “America first” principle leaves very limited room for India to further improve its strategic cooperation with the U.S. Therefore, I am optimistic about China-India relations as long as Trump stays in power.

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