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China's Century: Imagining A New, Post-Pandemic World Order

The Covid-19 crisis is likely to reshape globalization while benefiting China and other 'illiberal' regimes.

China will likely come out of the pandemic ahead
China will likely come out of the pandemic ahead
Andrés Serbin

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — The pandemic is, by its very nature, a health emergency. But it is having social and geopolitical consequences as well — and when it's all said and done, the coronavirus outbreak may very well accentuate incipient changes to the international order, with a further degradation of globalization and global governance, of multilateral response capacities, and a reordering of power relations worldwide.

The transition toward a stable, new world order will be prolonged, and possibly unpredictable and unclear in the immediate term. We shall be submerged for a while in an international environment marked by instability and uncertainty.

Recession, in the meantime, will affect both the most developed economies and the most vulnerable, with glimmers of recovery expected for 2021. This opens serious questions on globalization and paves the way for several possible scenarios.

One is the "Goodbye Globalization" idea as spelled out in The Economist, with the process "unwinding" under the pressure of isolationist and protectionist measures. Another is a globalization that specifically benefits China, which will use it to revive its economy. A third scenario is a kind of dual globalization, as imagined by some U.S. analysts, whereby liberal, multilateral bodies exist alongside agencies promoted by China.

Crew members wave goodbye as China's space tracking ship Yuanwang-6 departs from a port — Photo: Ni Dongliang/Xinhua/ZUMA

In any of these scenarios, China will increase its participation in and influence over existing, and emerging, multilateral bodies, while probably respecting liberal economic norms, as it did after entering the World Trade Organization (WTO). But that set of liberal economic values may come to exclude other norms of the "Western" world order, such as protecting refugees, safeguarding human rights or humanitarian intervention.

Such norms could fall by the wayside when they clash with "illiberal" or authoritarian conceptions like the need to control the public or mass digital surveillance.

China will increase its participation in and influence over existing, and emerging, multilateral bodies.

Beijing's woolly "health care diplomacy" cannot hide its belated, overly centralized and opaque handling of the pandemic inside China, nor distract from the reality of a state that takes top-down orders from a single party, regardless of their effectiveness.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in these potential global scenarios and the transition from bipolarity to multipolarity is the role of the organized, diverse and independent citizens who have duly confronted this crisis and boosted the state's democratic functioning. Restrictions on the role of civil society and media have meant lethal delays in fighting the virus, and further impeded rigid bureaucracies from bringing complex responses to critical situations.

Taking such restrictions to the global level will not only mean the end of a "complex" multilateral regime, but also spell the effective end of civil-society participation in forging an agenda to defend and promote global public goods.

*Serbin is president of CRIES, an association of Latin American think-tanks, and author of Eurasia and Latin America in a Multipolar World.

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