Yang Jiemian : International landscape roiling with changes brought by pandemic

March 30 , 2020


Yang Jiemian, Academic Advisor of CCG,
former President of Shanghai Institute for International Studies (SIIS).



During the global coronavirus pandemic, analyzing the situation to generate responses in a comprehensive, dialectical and forward-looking manner is much needed.

Most changes in the international strategic landscape over the centuries were the result of major security challenges. Prior to World War II, traditional security factors – mainly wars – were the main contributor to changes in the strategic landscape. Since the 1950s, however, non-traditional security factors have been on the rise. The September 11 attacks in 2001 and the 2008 global financial crisis had a significant impact on international security. Major epidemics including SARS, H1N1 and Ebola have also contributed to how new security threats are dealt with.

As the SARS outbreak 17 years ago was considered as a unique one-off event, scientific research, which could have helped us better understand and deal with the coronavirus epidemic, was curtailed, said China’s top respiratory specialist Zhong Nanshan. 

The same could be said about international strategy studies. Yet late is better than never. We must double efforts to learn lessons from past experiences and conduct continuous and in-depth research on major non-traditional security issues, including pandemics. This is how we will learn to cope with similar or even greater challenges in the future.

The coronavirus pandemic is exerting a profound influence on the study of international strategic culture. In the face of this crisis, race, religion, wealth, ideology, and economic and social systems must take a back seat.

For most people in the world – exceptions include some US politicians – fighting the virus is currently the greatest common contributor to international solidarity and cooperation. Despite some unresolved historical issues, China, Japan, and South Korea are coordinating efforts to cope with COVID-19. Europe and China are also helping each other. The understanding that the world is a community with a shared future has taken on new meaning amid the global pandemic. 

The coronavirus outbreak will help to accelerate adjustments in the strategic ethos of major world powers. The pandemic has raised the status of non-traditional security issues in the international strategic blueprint and may force the US to reconsider its own strategy, which has remained focused more on traditional issues.

The outbreak will elevate the position of public health in non-traditional security domains. Public health is likely to become another focal point apart from finance, counter-terrorism, and other major issues such as the plight of refugees.

Major world powers may require a lead-in period in terms of international strategic adjustments. Major countries, excluding the US, have reached consensus on a number of non-traditional security issues. They know they must reduce frictions and strengthen coordination based on their existing consensus on multilateralism, global governance and responses to other certain specific issues.

The coronavirus pandemic is also reshaping the content and form of international strategic communications. In the past, US-led Western countries alone engaged in exchanges regarding major global issues. With the increasing number of severe non-traditional security challenges, however, communication between major developing countries and developing and developed nations is increasing. Not only are political, security, and economic issues being discussed. Non-traditional security challenges such as the financial crisis, terrorism, and public health have become priority topics.

The pandemic and other non-traditional security challenges have also strained international cooperation. Concerted actions have been difficult to muster, as countries have responded to the pandemic in a variety of ways. Some only looked after their own interests. Some took action at the expense of others. Some squandered the window of opportunity that China provided for the world at huge cost and sacrifices.

Effective coordinated mechanisms have been difficult to achieve. The United Nations and the World Health Organization lack authority and power to implement a global response. At the regional level, some public health mechanisms exist in name only.

Some backward thinking, such as populism, nationalism, xenophobia and unilateralism, has been on the rise during the pandemic, exerting a negative impact on the global fight against the virus.

The coronavirus outbreak also makes clear that there are new missions for scholars to study in relation to international strategies. Scholars should devote themselves to the battle against the pandemic, observing non-traditional security issues from the perspectives of international politics, world economics, scientific and technological revolution, and social transformation. They should also carry out research on non-traditional security challenges from a historical point of view and with big-picture thinking.

Scholars need to lead discipline construction with modern wisdom and mechanisms. Cross-discipline cooperation should be built, and new specialty disciplines should be established to meet the needs of the current fight against the pandemic.


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