TOKYO -- In 1966, Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party of China, launched the Cultural Revolution by inciting the masses to attack his political foes while he was on the back foot in jockeying for power. The de facto mass coup d'etat threw China into a decade of unprecedented chaos in its history.
Though fundamentally different in scale and political backgrounds, the disorder triggered by U.S. President Donald Trump in his own country is reminiscent of Mao's tactics. Trump prompted a mob of his supporters to storm the Capitol building on Wednesday.
Leading what amounts to a Trump party, he evidently wishes to retain his political power in a bid to run in the 2024 presidential election. Trump's momentum, supported by 74 million votes cast for him in the 2020 election, appears unlikely to fade quickly. The developments in the U.S. are extremely dangerous as it could impair the foundation of democracy, namely the election process.
The U.S. is said to be mired in the worst internal division since the Civil War in the 1860s. The latest assault on the Capitol building was the first in roughly two centuries. While Trump did not create the country's income disparities or racial divide, he has stoked the flames and capitalized on them.
The coronavirus is pouring salt on the wounds of the U.S., already claiming more than 370,000 lives, over six times the toll from the Vietnam War. Across the U.S., shops and restaurants have been closed and more than 10 million people have lost their jobs.
Middle- and lower-income whites form the core of Trump supporters and tend to be directly affected by the spread of the coronavirus. The health crisis has sparked discontent and anger among them and added to support for Trump's anti-elitism stance.
More than a year has passed since reports of the first virus infection in Wuhan, a city in the central Chinese province of Hubei. While the U.S. represents an extreme case, the disease has considerably strained other countries' domestic politics. As mentioned later in this commentary, China's political stability carries greater risks in the long run, though the country seems to have escaped large-scale political consequences from the pandemic.
It is time to consider anew the implications for international politics in 2021.
When COVID-19 infections began to spread, the Black Death, also known as the Pestilence, in Europe in the 14th century was often referred to. The pandemic is said to have contributed to an end to the Middle Ages as the Catholic Church was powerless to contain the disease and lost its authority, paving the way for the Reformation.
Objectively speaking, however, the new coronavirus is not powerful enough to drastically change civilization and society. As its feature, the virus escalates existing problems and accelerates negative trends.
The virus is often said to be contributing to a widening of disparity between the rich and the poor. In the March to December period of last year as the pandemic took hold, some 650 of the richest Americans increased their assets by a total of more than $1 trillion amid rising stock prices, among other factors, according to a U.S. think tank.
In contrast, some 500 million people around the world are reported suffering from job losses and diminished income.
The pandemic has also widened disparities between nations. Rich nations, which account for a mere 14% of the global population, have purchased half the supply of promising vaccines, according to Oxfam, an international nongovernmental organization focusing on the alleviation of global poverty. In 67 poor and emerging countries, only one out of every 10 people can be vaccinated this year.
International politics is hardly in a favorable situation. If domestic politics destabilize, the distraction will impede the ability of countries to listen to each other, potentially increasing tensions even over a trifle. Disparities between nations will hamper international cooperation.
There are three main destabilizing trends deserving close attention. Deepening friction between the U.S. and China is, needless to say, the first one. Unlike Trump, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will take up China's human rights problem in a head-on manner, a Biden aide said, stressing that the new American leader will work closely with U.S. allies to exert pressure on Beijing. U.S.-China friction will undeniably increase even if the two countries cooperate in addressing the question of climate change.
"Vaccine diplomacy" will be added to the bilateral friction this year. China has an overwhelming advantage. Eurasia Group, an American political risk consultancy, said China will produce hundreds of millions of vaccines by the end of March and boost the output to 2 billion to 3 billion by year-end. As China has allegedly put infections under control domestically, it can export many of its vaccines.
Exports from the U.S. will be limited until the end of this year as it will remain busy with domestic vaccinations.
As the second risk, Russia is seen certain to align itself closer to China, reinforcing the two countries' anti-U.S. coalition.
Plunging global demand for energy caused by the virus pandemic has increased difficulties for the Russian economy dependent on exports of oil and natural gas. Russia will have no other choice but to become more reliant on China.
Growing collaboration between China and Russia on the military front, furthermore, will serve as a destabilizing factor for the security of the Indo-Pacific.
The third risk is the possibility that friction between the U.S. and the Sino-Russian partnership will further weaken the work of international organizations. As the three countries are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and have veto power, the council may become much less functional in dealing with the civil war in Syria and the question of North Korea.
The U.S.-China confrontation will make it more complicated to manage other international organizations as well.
To address these and other difficulties, Japan, the U.S. and Europe will have to contain the coronavirus through joint efforts including the supply of vaccines. As a prerequisite for the approach, the Biden administration will need to ease the division in the U.S.
The domestic situation in China appears stable but is hardly so in reality. Disparities are as serious as in the U.S., while tensions with ethnic minorities are increasing. For President Xi Jinping, Mao is the model of political style. Xi is concentrating power as if to follow in Mao's footsteps and reinforcing his grip on domestic affairs, but the magma of discontent will not dissipate. The big risk for China is not forces to disagree with and dispute Xi, but the relative lack thereof.
In 1981, the Communist Party defined the Cultural Revolution as "the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the state and the people" since the founding of the People's Republic of China. It said Mao made "gross mistakes" during that period.
Obliviously, the current Chinese situation is not as tense as the Cultural Revolution. But diplomats and China experts agree that it is getting more difficult for inconvenient information and advice to reach Xi's ears.
Unlike the U.S., equipped with congressional authority to apply the brakes when its leader runs out of control, China does not have such a mechanism.
In this respect, domestic politics in China will serve as the biggest risk to international politics in the long run.