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For many, the turning of the calendar on December 31, 2020, was cause for more than the usual new year’s celebration. We saw glimmers of light at the end of the pandemic’s tunnel and imagined an economic rebound — begun already in China — that would soon ripple across the globe. We were bidding farewell to a year that had seen violent expressions of racism against Black and Asian Americans; and roughly half the American public, and many more around the world, were celebrating the departure of a U.S. administration they blamed for badly tarnishing America’s standing in the world.
One year ago, it wasn’t difficult to itemize our hopes and dreams for the new year, in Asia and beyond: Rush production of vaccines. Jump-start the recovery. And begin a kind of global healing.
One year later, it’s hard to say that 2021 was a great improvement. The year saw a maddening, one-step-forward-one-step-back see-saw in the pandemic recovery, and violence against Asian Americans failed to subside. It also brought profoundly unsettling developments that had nothing to do with the coronavirus.
First, though, the good news. Even the most optimistic public health experts had not imagined a COVID-19 vaccine arriving as quickly as it did. The first shots went into arms in the latter days of 2020, barely a year after the virus took hold. In the history of vaccine production, nothing like that pace had ever been achieved. “Warp speed,” indeed. And while the relative efficacies of individual vaccines were judged and measured, this much seemed clear: We were turning a corner. As vaccine rates rose, infection rates fell. So did the number of fatalities. Travelers set out again; shuttered manufacturers got back to work; children planned returns to classrooms; public life resumed; GDP figures and global markets moved in the right directions.
Public health experts cheered the curve-flattening prowess of several East Asian nations — South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam in particular. Leaders in China, India, and the U.S. declared their own versions of “mission accomplished.” Xi Jinping said “the pandemic once again proves the superiority of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.” India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party passed a resolution cheering its standard-bearer, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against COVID.” At a White House Independence Day gathering, President Joe Biden proclaimed “independence from this virus.”
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Alas, 2021 may instead be remembered as the year of the COVID counterpunch. The much more infectious “delta” variant of the virus, first discovered in India, tore across the globe, bringing case levels in many countries to new heights. And while the development of the vaccines marked a real human triumph, getting shots in arms proved to be another story: The COVAX initiative fell far short of its promise for the world’s poorest nations, while large minorities in vaccine-abundant countries resisted inoculation. As of this writing, 42 percent of the world’s population has yet to receive a single shot; in more than 30 countries, fewer than one in 10 people have been fully vaccinated. For a virus that knows no boundaries, it’s not nearly enough.
Almost every corner of the globe has taken a beating. Not long after that “victorious nation” boast, India was pummeled by a new surge of cases so severe that the country — a major vaccine exporter — shut down promised deliveries to other nations. Some of those early East Asian success stories were hit hard as well.
None of this was a total surprise. In an Asia Society program in December 2020, Saad Mohseni — a media executive, not a public health professional — had pushed back against bullish forecasts for 2021: “You’re assuming we have enough vaccines, and no new strains of the virus,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking there.”
Indeed there was. And that wasn’t the only prescient alarm Mohseni sounded last December as we looked collectively to the year ahead.
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The Afghanistan Debacle
Among Mohseni’s media properties is TOLO News, the first all-news television network in Afghanistan, which he founded soon after the Taliban fell in 2001. At that Asia Society event a year ago, Mohseni warned of “very difficult decisions” that loomed for the U.S. in Afghanistan. “The Biden administration’s hands are tied behind its back,” he said, referring to President Donald Trump’s February 2020 agreement with the Taliban. A peaceful exit, he warned, looked unlikely.
The risks inherent in a troop withdrawal were hardly a secret, and they ran well beyond concerns for the U.S. military and the Afghan interpreters and contractors who had worked at their side. There were also concentric circles of Afghans dependent on the U.S. and other forces for security, and thousands of people who held jobs that would have been unimaginable under Taliban rule: relief workers, small business owners, journalists, artists, educators, women’s rights advocates, and female members of the Afghan parliament.
Surely there would be plans for the safety and security of most, if not all, of these people, as the Americans withdrew?
What followed was as dispiriting as any global event in 2021 — a wrenching, hard-to-watch debacle. Gone in one terrible August fortnight: virtually every gain made in Afghanistan civil society in the preceding 20 years; any security Afghans in those new, post-Taliban-era professions had enjoyed; and, with the Taliban back in charge, any guarantee that the country would be free of extremist militancy — the very thing the U.S. had come to ensure two decades before.
The consequences spilled beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Other nations were left with profound questions about the credibility and staying power of U.S. foreign policy. There was fear in India; something of a win for Pakistan, which had long supported the Taliban; and the specter of China stepping once more into a void left by a U.S. retreat. In late July, just one month before the collapse of the Afghan government, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar met in Tianjin, all smiles and handshakes and pledges of mutual respect.
As one former U.S. intelligence official told me, “Give China an opportunity to poke a finger at the Americans, you can bet they will seize that opportunity.”
Which brings us, in a way, to what may be the most important issue of all, as the calendar turns once more: a dangerously frayed U.S.-China relationship, and fears that the two nations are on an inexorable path to conflict.
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An ‘Avoidable War’?
Some years ago, the scholar Graham Allison provoked a global debate with his prediction that the U.S. and China were destined to fall into the so-called “Thucydides trap,” which argues, using ancient Sparta and Athens as examples, that a rising power can never peacefully surpass another on the global stage. Asia Society President Kevin Rudd, himself a scholar of China, responded with a body of work under the heading “The Avoidable War,” arguing that sufficient areas for bilateral compromise exist — and imploring both sides to explore each one, as potential off-ramps from war.
Could it really come to war between the U.S. and China? It’s tempting to say, Of course not. Not when both sides recognize just how calamitous the consequences would be, and not at a moment when the U.S. is retreating from a “forever war” and preaching a distant, “over the horizon” strategy to counter foes, minus the boots on the ground. Not to mention the fact that several long-standing areas of U.S.-China tension — Taiwan, the South China Sea, human rights, to name a significant few — have been managed peacefully over years, if not decades.
And yet the rumblings grew ominously in 2021. Old U.S.-China tensions re-emerged in dangerous ways, and new ones arose: furious disputes about China’s clampdown on Hong Kong and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic; American charges of genocide in Xinjiang; and the Biden administration’s declaration that China had backed cybercrime against the U.S.
Nowhere is the risk of conflict greater than in the case of Taiwan, which The Economist labeled in a much-debated cover story, “The most dangerous place on earth.” Taken literally, it was a preposterous statement. By metrics of crime and COVID and most everything else, Taiwan is as safe a place as any. But the magazine was imagining future dangers, through the lens of China’s formidable buildup of naval capability, its unbreakable principle that there must be only one China, and, as the magazine put it, a concern that “military superiority will sooner or later tempt China into using force against Taiwan, not as a last resort but because it can.”
Add to this already combustible mix the fact that in the four decades since the normalization of U.S.-China relations, Beijing has never seemed so willing and determined to flex its power, and that U.S. policymakers have never seemed so uniformly hostile toward China. Suddenly, war seems less easily avoidable. And those potential off-ramps to conflict begin to look as important as any issue out there.
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A Tokyo Triumph
One final note of optimism because, well, we all could use one.
On the eve of the Summer Olympics in Japan, the International Olympic Committee and officials in Tokyo were roundly criticized for moving ahead with the Games. Surely this would prove the mother of all “super-spreader” events; and given that virtually no fans would be in the stadiums and arenas, going forward seemed unnecessary, a fool’s errand, and a dangerous one at that.
As it turns out, the organizers pulled off an Olympics that was not only safe, but also a tonic for athletes and fans the world over. The Games offered a large dose of something that had been in short supply in 2020 or 2021: reasons to cheer. You didn’t need to be a sports fan to celebrate Hmong American gymnast Sunisa Lee taking gold in a year that had been so difficult for Asian Americans; the medal stash achieved by the graceful swimmers Caeleb Dressel (U.S.) and Emma McKeon (Australia); or the sight of Karsten Warholm, the Norwegian sprinter who blazed past the field, looked up at the clock, and tore off his jersey when he saw how many seconds he had burned off his own world record. Each day brought multiple occasions to smile.
It’s probably too much to hope for — given that politics and the pandemic may both intrude — but perhaps we can find hope in the fact that the 2022 calendar promises both a Winter Olympics in Beijing and a World Cup soccer tournament in Qatar. Sports can do that sometimes — provide moments to look forward to, and celebrate, whatever a new year brings.