The coronavirus crisis has exposed a range of fresh challenges and questions about the future of the US-China relationship, writes Ryan Hass. Taiwan's role in this changing environment depends largely on how the people of Taiwan answer a number of looming questions. This piece originally appeared in the Taipei Times.
Unlike virtually every country in the world, Taiwan has weathered the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic admirably well. Taiwan’s governance system has stood firm in the face of crisis, gaining international acclaim for the competence and efficiency of its response to the outbreak. And the people of Taiwan have garnered goodwill through their generosity, reflected in their donations of medical equipment to the United States and elsewhere.
Sadly, others have not fared so well. Both the spread and death toll of the virus already have overwhelmed countries across the world. As the global thinker Fareed Zakaria has observed, we likely are “in the early stages of what is going to become a series of cascading crises.” A health crisis will lead to a global economic recession, which will cause national defaults, which will strain countries’ ability to cope with rising demands for social services, and so on. In other words, the pandemic will change the world as we know it.
In recent weeks, many analysts have stepped forward to offer their views on what the world will look like after COVID-19. For some, this moment would provide a referendum on the relative advantages of democratic versus authoritarian systems. Several warned that China might seize America’s moment of domestic turmoil to eclipse the United States on the world stage, while others suggested that the pandemic would be a permanent stain on China’s international reputation that never would be washed away.
If history is any guide, predictions made about the future from the fog of crisis tend to offer little predictive or explanatory value. I would be surprised if this experience ends up becoming much different.
We all should be humble about anticipating the consequences of this crisis. But that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore considering some of the key questions that this crisis already has begun to expose. Like the cataclysms of great depression and world war in the 1930s and1940s, this period similarly may end up becoming an era of intellectual ferment, where bold ideas about reform and renewal comingle with immediate requirements for responding to the pandemic.
My grandparents lived through the Great Depression in the United States, an experience that seared into them a habit for frugality. What will be the lasting effects on the generation that comes of age during the era of COVID-19? Will it lead to wariness of spending time around strangers? Will it alter consumption patterns, including in the entertainment, travel, and sports sectors?
At a macroeconomic level, will COVID-19 strengthen countries’ prioritization on national-level industrial mobilization? If so, we may soon begin to see greater emphasis on resilience and self-sufficiency over efficiencies gained through cross-border value chains. Such a shift could have significant consequences for Taiwan’s economy, given its role as a supplier of intermediate goods for complex global value chains.
At a global level, will multilateral institutions stand up to the challenges the world confronts? The early results have not been promising. The United Nations has struggled to mobilize collective action. No safety nets under the global economy have come into view. There is cause for concern that a defanged World Trade Organization will be capable of pushing back against protectionist forces. And there is diminishing hope that the World Health Organization will exercise capacity for creativity in ensuring that timely information is available to the 23 million people in Taiwan. If these institutions prove unworthy of this moment, where will resistance to forces calling for deglobalization emerge from?
At a societal level, will governments that have become significantly more intrusive in individuals’ lives during the crisis retreat back to their self-imposed pre-pandemic levels of surveillance and monitoring? Or will it become the new normal for governments to track individuals’ movements and personal health, all in the name of public safety?
This crisis also will raise fresh questions for Taiwan. It could lead to an intensification of cross-Strait tensions. Chinese authorities might nurture grievances about Taiwan’s early decision to halt shipments of medical supplies and its public references to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus.” Taiwan’s leaders also have no shortage of complaints about China’s handling of cross-Strait relations during the crisis, foremost among them Beijing’s prioritization on diplomatic point-scoring at the World Health Organization over considerations for individuals’ health and safety in Taiwan.
And in the United States, anger is building up around China’s negligent initial response to the outbreak of the virus. Some of this anger already has begun to be expressed through calls for the United States to show more visible support for Taiwan, including as a means of imposing costs on China.
In other words, this crisis has exposed a range of fresh challenges and questions about the future, the answers of which presently are unknowable. But our inability to answer them must not impede our thinking on the types of outcomes that would be preferable, and steps that could be taken now to realize them later. We are standing at a hinge point in history. The decisions made now and in the coming months will have lasting consequences well into the future.