Considerations on the Post-Pandemic World – GB Interview with Bilahari Kausikan
GB: Let’s start with post-pandemic China. How do you see post-pandemic China shaping up?
BK: One of the big things that has happened over the last 10 years – even before the pandemic – is a significant diminution in China’s international image globally. The degree may differ from country to country, but while China’s achievements have been widely recognized – nobody would deny them – the wrinkles and warts have begun to show much more than before. The Zero-Covid policy was just one example: the chaotic forced exit from Zero-Covid certainly did not help.
I think that China is still a great story. It is the greatest story of the 20th century. And it will be an important geopolitical player. But everybody now a better understanding that this is not some supernatural entity that is destined to rise indefinitely with supernatural powers or something like that. It is a country with great strengths but also great flaws – both of which the pandemic threw into sharp relief.
Everybody now a better understanding that this is not some supernatural entity that is destined to rise indefinitely with supernatural powers or something like that.
GB: What are some of these Chinese strengths and weaknesses coming out of the pandemic?
BK: The pre- and post-pandemic strengths and weaknesses remain unchanged. The pandemic just highlighted them. China has always been able to set goals and pursue them relentlessly over the long term. That can be a great strength when compared with some of the more changeable Western democracies. However, the ability to set and pursue goals over the long run is only a strength if the goal that you choose is the correct one in the first place. Two ends of the spectrum in this regard are Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Mao’s decisions to pursue the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were unmitigated disasters. Millions of people died. On the other hand, Deng Xiaoping’s decision to open up and reform was the correct one, with results now known to all.
Now, I do not think that in any other system, a man who has spent his whole life on one track could one day get up and take a look at his life’s work, decide that it is all going wrong and, with very little opposition, turn it around. So Deng Xiaoping’s decision was right, while Mao’s was wrong. Where does Xi Jinping stand in this? Answer: Somewhere in the middle, but certainly tending toward mistakes. His record of governance has not been a stellar one.
Where does Xi Jinping stand in this? Answer: Somewhere in the middle, but certainly tending toward mistakes. His record of governance has not been a stellar one.
I often challenge people, and I similarly challenge GB readers around the world: Think of a single initiative that Xi has led on his watch, over the last 10 years, that you can honestly say was a complete, unqualified success. I cannot think of any. There have been successes, but ones like the eradication of extreme poverty built largely on the work of previous leaders since Deng Xiaoping.
As for the management of the pandemic – the Zero-Covid policy, the way they dealt with it, and the chaotic retreat from it – we cannot say that this was a policy success for China. Do not forget that there were very large, spontaneous demonstrations across China – probably the largest since Tiananmen. These demonstrations brought together what is a very dangerous combination of workers and students – for anyone who knows Chinese history. Xi therefore had to change course.
And now – some people might say – he is mitigating his controls over the tech sector. That is true, to some degree, but he is doing that within a new fence that he has erected around the sector. Of course, it is too early to say whether that is the way to deal with a creative, dynamic sector. I myself would quarrel with the methods but not the goal in this case.
Xi was trying to deleverage the property sector, and that is a huge bubble. Perhaps up to a quarter of Chinese GDP is ultimately based on overvalued property. This is a systemic risk – a systemic disaster in waiting. Certainly, Xi was not wrong for trying to deleverage. We can, again, quarrel about the methods, but suddenly he had to retreat from there as well. Once again, this is a forced retreat because growth began to slow. So what does Xi do? He reaches for the familiar tools that stimulate. But, at core, he is just postponing the problem.
In foreign policy, his record has been a dismal one. Before he took over, China was largely riding high throughout the world. Everyone had some concerns about Tibet and human rights abuses, but by and large the country had a strong image globally. But now I cannot think of any country – including some that are very dependent on China – that does not harbour some concerns about one aspect or another of Chinese behaviour. Canada is a good example. Just before Xi Jinping, the Canadian image of China was generally positive. China was viewed as an opportunity – maybe a bit too hopeful on the political side, but a great opportunity nevertheless. This was a country that was coming out of isolation and playing a major role in the world. Then suddenly… What do they do? They go and kidnap two Canadian citizens on trumped-up charges.
So we all have to deal with China, and we always will. However, I think that there are some fundamental changes at play here on Xi’s watch.
GB: Let’s do a quick tour d’horizon of some other Asian countries post-pandemic, starting with Japan and South Korea, and passing through North Korea.
BK: Japan has come out as well as can be expected. Theirs is a system that very rarely does brilliant things, but very rarely does disastrous things either. It is something of a golden mean. You had a very exceptional leader in Mr. Abe. His foreign policy record was spectacular. He was probably the best foreign policy leader Japan has had since Yoshida, the post-war prime minister. His domestic record was not as great, but respectable enough.
South Korea, for its part, as with all of the Northeast Asian countries, China included, at least in the initial stage, dealt with the pandemic better than most of the West. We can speculate about the reasons for this. They are both cultural and political in nature. It is not necessarily a question of having a superior system, but rather that of different cultural and political instincts and habits. South Korea is very much in that frame. It, like Asia more generally, including some Southeast Asian countries, will come out stronger after the pandemic. Asian countries have, to be sure, been hurt by the pandemic – all of us have been hurt – but we are better prepared than many Western countries. We will come out in better shape.
It is not necessarily a question of having a superior system, but rather that of different cultural and political instincts and habits. South Korea is very much in that frame. It, like Asia more generally, including some Southeast Asian countries, will come out stronger after the pandemic.
My own country, Singapore, was badly hit economically, but we had been preparing for this rainy day ever since we became independent, so we had the means to deal with it. Nonetheless, we will be dealing with it – all of us, Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, you name it – for many years to come. We have just declared the green condition in Singapore. There are no more restrictions. But the effects – lingering social and economic effects – are going to be there. On the social front, of course, we have all developed some new habits.
GB: What about North Korea?
BK: North Korea – we do not know. If you believe them, they did not have any Covid cases.
It is very hard to tell, but North Korea has a very resilient system. This is my conclusion from long ago. It is resilient in a very brutal way. None of us would want our countries to be resilient in that way, but they will survive, and Kim Jong-un is playing the cards that he has, which means shooting missiles. I hope that he does not do another nuclear test, but that cannot be ruled out since that is the only major play that he has. Still, North Korea is there to stay. We will all have to deal with that country. We cannot just avert our eyes because it offends our sensibilities.
GB: What about ASEAN countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore?
BK: We have come out quite well. Singapore will be dealing with the aftermath – especially the economic aftermath – of Covid for some years to come. We just announced a budget that is very generous in helping the lower socioeconomic classes, because for us – and for every country – Covid has had the effect of increasing inequalities. We have to deal with that somehow, and fortunately we have the means to do so.
Vietnam is going through some kind of political purge, as I would call it. This is a purge within the ruling party. It is not a systemic threat. It is a quite stable country in the systemic sense, and is doing well overall. Indeed, insofar as people and countries are trying to diversify against their China risk, Vietnam has benefitted and will continue to benefit. They do, of course, have some problems.
Insofar as people and countries are trying to diversify against their China risk, Vietnam has benefitted and will continue to benefit.
Indonesia is going into an election season. Mr. Jokowi’s term limit is up. They will have an election next year, but I am afraid that the politicking has started rather early. Still, Jokowi has done well. In fact, I would say that, of all the post-Suharto presidents, Jokowi’s term has been the most consequential. Habibie, Megawati, Gus Dur – they were all still trying to stabilize the system. Bambang Yudhoyono completed the stabilization of the system, but then really did not do very much in his two terms. Jokowi has put into place new economic frameworks and new legal regulatory frameworks. You can argue whether the cup is half empty or half full in that big country, but I would rather say that it is half full, because he has done more than any other of his predecessors. He is also pushing back against very intolerant types of Islam. I hope that he succeeds, even if his problem is time; he does not have much left.
GB: How about Malaysia?
BK: I have just come back from there. The political situation in that country is fragile. For the first time in Malaysia’s political history, the opposition is totally Malay, totally Islamist – whereas the multiracial part is in the government. This can all be dangerous. This government might last a year or two. If it can last two, then Anwar Ibrahim can probably serve out his term. Of course, that is setting the bar quite low, but I think that people want stability more than anything else. Nobody has any great expectations that Anwar Ibrahim will be able to bring about very significant reform or change, as that would ensure that his government is short-lived.
In order to form a government, Anwar Ibrahim had to take into his government a deputy prime minister whose main concern is to stay out of jail because he is up on corruption charges. That, then, means that you are not going to go after corruption in the country very seriously – don’t you think? So, at least people want some stability. Let’s have one government that lasts its full term for a change.
GB: What do you think of the state of the China-US relationship post-pandemic?
BK: Before the balloon incidents over North America, it was clear that both sides wanted to calm the relationship. And suddenly this happens. I do not know why it happened. Is it a deliberate test, or was it just a mess up? China is not as coordinated as people sometimes think it is, but whatever reason, it shows the fragility of the relationship. Do you think that President Biden had any choice but to shoot the balloon down? I do not think so. On the other hand, do you think that Xi had any choice but to act up after it was shot down? I do not think so either. Of course, there are elements of farce in this balloon matter, even if it also has serious elements. The Internet is awash in memes. And yet the balloons show that how things can quickly go wrong in this critical relationship, and therefore in international relations more generally.
A balloon is one thing, but let us imagine an accident over the Taiwan Strait: say, an American pilot gets killed by accident, or a Chinese pilot gets killed. That is a rather scary scenario to think about. You could contain it in 2001 because there was no Chinese social media to talk about. Today, this would make for a very different situation.
I do think that both sides, at core, want to stabilize the relationship. They are not going to stop competing – that is inherent in the nature of the relationship and in the nature of international relations. But they all do wish – to use the Biden administration terminology – to put guardrails around the competition. Now, whether that is a realistic ambition is arguable. But at least the intention remains to set certain parameters for competition, and to make it the least dangerous as possible. And that is to be applauded.
I do think that both sides, at core, want to stabilize the relationship. They are not going to stop competing – that is inherent in the nature of the relationship and in the nature of international relations.
This could all unravel fast – especially under domestic pressure on both sides. Xi Jinping wants the same guardrails as Biden, but like Biden, he has got a huge number of problems at home arising from the pandemic and other pressures that we have discussed in this interview. In other words, trouble happens and could happen again soon.
GB: How has the Russia-Ukraine war affected Asia, and how does Asia see the war now?
BK: First of all, that war has affected us all in the usual ways – inflation and the supply chain disruptions, especially in agricultural products. These will all be with us for quite some time, as this is not going to be a short war. I do not see either side being able to come to any lasting settlement, politically. So we have to live with it.
One thing that the West – apart from Western allies like Japan and Australia, and also countries like Singapore, which is not an ally but took a strong position – will have to understand is that there is a certain degree of ambivalence throughout Asia about this conflict. Yes, people understand the principle involved, but it is a very distant principle for most countries – whereas the inflation, food shortages and all these things are immediate problems. It does not help, then, to frame the conflict, as Europeans, Americans and Canadians do, as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism, because there are many types of democracy and not every aspect of Western democracy is regarded with great admiration. Similarly, not every aspect of every authoritarianism – say, the Chinese one – is regarded with total abhorrence in many parts of the world, including in Asia.
It does not help, then, to frame the conflict, as Europeans, Americans and Canadians do, as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism, because there are many types of democracy and not every aspect of Western democracy is regarded with great admiration. Similarly, not every aspect of every authoritarianism is regarded with total abhorrence in many parts of the world, including in Asia.
In short, support for the Western position in Ukraine throughout Asia and the Global South is somewhat more tenuous than many people in the West seem to believe. So I do not think that we are wise to frame it that simple way. Instead, it is better to focus on the fundamental principle of international law that was violated.