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Democracy champions in a post- COVID world

July 2, 2020 | Expert Insights

Kuni Miyake, former Executive Assistant to the Office of the Prime Minister of Japan, and Director Research, Cannon Institute of Global Affairs, participated in the 12th Synergia Foundation webinar which sought to understand and unravel the saliency of democracy in a pandemic scenario.

Different countries, with varying systems of governance, have responded differently to the containment and control of the pandemic. Some countries have taken advantage of this turbulent scenario to push forward their geopolitical goals. Wuhan was the epicentre of the pandemic, and China's brand of recent aggression is what forms the crux of the topic under discussion. The focus points are China’s international policies in global geopolitics, and how countries can seek to counteract this aggression, in a post-pandemic world. The issue, which merits examination in light of the geopolitical realities of a post-COVID world, is whether democracy as a form of governance can hold up given the authoritarian measures necessitated to contain the pandemic.


Explaining his hypothesis on the recent Chinese aggressiveness, Kuni Miyake said it was triggered by the internal dynamics of the Chinese political structure. Mr. Miyake drew a parallel to the political conditions prevailing in Japan in the 1930s.  Like China of today, in the 1930s, Japan was the rising power, aspiring to match or topple American hegemony.

Japan had seen how the European colonial powers had leveraged their conquests of far-flung empires to soak in resources and generate prosperity for their people. Japan too wanted its place in the sun, and its expansionist designs were propelled by a dogmatic military.  For Japan in the 1930s, the acquisition of Taiwan, Korea, and the push for Manchuria was a strategy to match other imperial powers, acquire colonies and raw materials, form trade blocs, etc. 

China, today, has a much more diffused strategy of projecting its power outwards -- it seeks to establish economic rather than military influence in different countries. Yet, there are critics who claim that BRI and the Silk Road Initiative are neo-colonialism disguised as development strategies and label China as the 'New East India Company'. 

The feudal structure of the then Japanese polity, while having a prime minister and a parliament (Diet), failed to exercise any control over the powerful military, right till the day of surrender. Japan lacked strong democratic structures which could rein in the militarists, and this failure ultimately led to the destruction and collapse of Imperial Japan.  

The Communist Party of China (CPC) has no opposition and no structural check backs to restrain the power of Xi Jinping, the Secretary-General for life. Course corrections and checks and balances may not be as forthcoming as in vibrant democracies.  With a captive media and heavily policed social media, there is no system of real-time feedback to the rulers, and like war-time Imperial Japan, the CPC too runs the risk of making unilateral decisions without adequate debate and analysis with an open mind.

Mr. Miyake has a message for the citizens of democratic countries who tend to take democracy and democratic processes for granted.   “Democracy is a luxury, and while democracy does not always guarantee perfect solutions, in the long term it is far more effective than autocracy which only guarantees short-term solutions,” he says.

Yet another important similarity between 1930s Japan and present-day China is the approach towards establishing a perimeter of defence eastward, to deter the U.S., through a combination of activities -- militarisation of the South China Sea, investment in missiles, and improving relations in key islands of the South Pacific, etc.

Similar to the Japanese effort to mobilise the core structures of militarism and nationalism, Mr. Miyake said China is now seeking to overcome the historical trauma of the Opium Wars through a similar process of projecting power eastwards and establishing hegemony. 

Stressing that China has to be contained and deterred, Mr. Miyake pointed out that given the size of the country, all deterrence efforts must follow a concerted policy.


  • With U.S. power in the Indo-Pacific on the wane, , Japan and other likeminded countries have to come up with a roadmap to minimise the damage of pandemic and to maximise national and global interests. In fact, Japan coould take the lead in drafting a fresh charter for the Indo Pacific for the post-pandemic world. Strengthening the Quad would also be a good option. 

  • China's recovery from COVID has been much faster, and it is already in a post-COVID status, economically and geopolitically, while the West continues to struggle. In case the recovery in the democratic world is slower and the impact of COVID more severe, it is bound to tempt China to see this as a window of opportunity to accelerate its milestones toward global hegemony.  The democratic world needs to recognise this and act accordingly.  Coordination, not competition, between democracies, is the need of the hour.