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This post is part of a series from Asia Unbound. This post is authored by Park Cheol-hee, professor at the Graduate School of International Studies and director of the Institute of International Affairs at Seoul National University.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 not only throughout East Asia but also across the United States and other Western nations has raised a warning bell about global public health management. The pandemic originated in China, but has spread across the world. Cases in South Korea seem to have peaked at the end of February and have relatively stabilized. The United States is experiencing rapid spread at the moment.
Rising numbers of patients and a high death toll in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and other Western countries have molded a new image of Western great powers. The virus does not discriminate, and Western powers, including the United States, have been the hardest hit by COVID-19. This does not mean, however, that countries in East Asia will accrue a power advantage from this crisis or that the global balance of power will shift immediately following the pandemic.
Short-term impacts of COVID-19 will be shockingly grave. First of all, the hyper-globalization trend will slow as tendencies toward inward-oriented protectionism strengthen. The interconnected network of global supply chains will be sharply curtailed in the short and medium term. Voices calling for higher walls against unchecked and unidentified movement of people will grow, along with the appetite for nationalism. Also, in the short term the idealistic notion that global citizens should cooperate in areas of non-traditional security, including pandemic preparedness and mitigation, may not appeal to the public. Rather than naively believing that international collaboration is inevitable, political leaders and their constituents will call to ‘save our citizens first.’
The difference between the United States and South Korea in handling this pandemic lies not in the government’s ability to manage it, but in the readiness of the social security and healthcare system. In South Korea, universal health insurance is available to all citizens, making the test and treatment for COVID-19 relatively cheap and manageable. Medical care is available at reasonable prices almost everywhere in the country due to the demographic concentration of people in metropolitan areas, where public and private hospitals are numerous. South Korea’s experience with the turbulent spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015 and resulting pandemic-related knowledge and medical crisis management system have also contributed favorably to its disease control efforts.
What long-term effects will COVID-19 have in terms of changing confidence and trust among nations in East Asia?
First, will South Korea tilt more toward China after this pandemic? The rapid spread of COVID-19 has reminded South Korea and its allies that Korea, like many other countries, relies heavily on China for intermediate supply goods. Semiconductor and automobile companies have had no choice but to stop or reduce production temporarily. However, this will not necessarily encourage a move to China. Instead, the South Korean business community has increasingly discussed how to reduce over-reliance on China. Since the business community cannot escape China and its market instantly, it has begun to shift to a strategy of ‘China plus one.’ China’s imposition of economic sanctions on South Korean firms following the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployment on the Korean Peninsula in 2016 has facilitated this strategic choice.
China’s handling of COVID-19 has also emerged as a source of concern. People in Korea have expressed uneasiness with the Chinese way of managing crisis, especially with the lack of transparency and timely and accurate disclosure of information, the harsh style of blocking movement of people, and high-handed attitude in handling requests from neighboring countries. It is both premature and unconvincing to judge that South Korea will move toward China after this pandemic.
But will South Korea lose confidence in the United States, its long-term ally? No. Though the United States will undeniably struggle in the short-term, the Korean people have not lost their confidence in the American system. Koreans understand that the United States has cutting-edge technologies and accumulated knowledge in disease control and will eventually take the lead in developing vaccines and medications to address COVID-19. South Korean parents will continue to aspire to send their children into the U.S. higher education system regardless of this short-term crisis.
The main challenge to the United States stems not from external pressures but from within. Weakened or lost confidence among American citizens in their own system will pose the greatest challenge. Growing political temptation to erect walls in favor of protectionism, to block global movement of people to curry favor with nationalists, and to serve the spirit of ‘America Only, not First’ at the sacrifice of global leadership, provides an additional challenge.
U.S. leaders should clearly understand the importance of taking global leadership in non-traditional security areas such as global health crises, as well as of assuming responsibility in the global community to mobilize knowledge to enhance human civilization for all. International collaboration does not arise naturally. It should be promoted by a global leader that remains confident in its role and mission.