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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives for a meeting in Beijing. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, arrives for a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, April 25, 2019 (Photo by Kenzaburo Fukuhara for Kyodo via AP Images).

Looking Past China’s Rise for the Trends Shaping Asia

Monday, May 18, 2020

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has begun to more aggressively challenge America’s role as the key economic and political power in Asia. Increasingly repressive at home, Xi has not shied away from asserting China’s regional influence, positioning Beijing as the powerbroker on everything from trade routes to the ongoing efforts to denuclearize North Korea. And with its Belt and Road Initiative, China’s influence is spreading well beyond Asia, into much of Africa and even Europe. China’s ascendance is also evident in how much attention other global powers are paying to Beijing and its policies. U.S. President Donald Trump made his trade war with China the centerpiece of his first term in office, and has publicly vilified China over its response to the coronavirus.

But while China’s rise often makes headlines, it is not the only trend shaping events in Asia. Nationalism has become a force in democracies like India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode the wave of Hindu nationalism to a massive victory in the country’s 2019 parliamentary elections, and the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s electoral gains in midterm elections in 2019 left even fewer checks on his increasingly autocratic behavior. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s government continues its persecutions of Rohingya Muslims.

Though democracy has taken a hit across parts of the continent, South Korea and Japan continue to offer models of liberalism. Both face challenges, though, primarily of the economic variety. South Korea is attempting to tackle corruption while deepening its ties with other parts of the continent, and Japan’s government is hoping a new imperial era will mark a shift toward more economic opportunity. But uncertainty over the trade war between the United States and China, as well as fallout from the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, have dampened the region’s economic prospects.

Regional flashpoints also remain. Tensions between India and Pakistan rose again after aerial skirmishes and tit-for-tat attacks in early 2019. Afghanistan faces an uncertain road ahead, as the U.S. seems determined to end its nearly two-decade-long military presence in the country whether or not the government in Kabul manages to secure a peace deal with the Taliban. And North Korea remains a perpetual wildcard.

WPR has covered Asia in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will rising trade protectionism deal a blow to Asia’s dynamic economic growth? What will growing strategic competition between the U.S. and China mean for the region? How will the coronavirus pandemic affect the region’s economies—and politics? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Vietnam Halted Its COVID-19 Outbreak. Now Comes the Economic Fallout

Thanks to a number of proactive, aggressive steps its government took shortly after the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, Vietnam has had just 320 confirmed COVID-19 infections and no reported deaths. With its outbreak apparently contained, Vietnam is looking anxiously at what comes next.

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Politics

It is a worrying period for democracy on the continent. Alongside the emerging authoritarianism in China and the Philippines, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has become increasingly regressive, and Thailand’s prime minister won office in a managed election after having headed the country’s military junta. There are some glimmers of hope, though. In a landslide election last year, voters in the Maldives kicked out an increasingly authoritarian, China-backed regime and replaced it with a party that campaigned on eliminating corruption. And the protests in Hong Kong demonstrate that the appeal of democracy is still strong in the region.

Economy and Trade

The U.S.-China trade war cast clouds over the economic outlook for a region that, despite trouble spots like South Korea and Japan, had been projected to continue its steady development. Although the “phase one” deal between Washington and Beijing signaled a cease-fire in the trade war, that was already subject to change depending on the outcome of upcoming “phase two” talks. Now the coronavirus pandemic poses a risk not only to regional economies, but also to the supply chains on which global trade is currently based.

The U.S. Role in Asia

U.S. President Donald Trump has taken an uneven approach to the region. His administration is fixated on the “China threat,” but he seems unconcerned about the rise of autocratic leaders across the continent, cozying up to Duterte and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Long-time allies, like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have gone out of their way to flatter Trump in a bid to avoid his hostility and U.S. tariffs, but those efforts are no guarantee against his volatility.

China’s Relations With Asia—and the World

Though the Belt and Road Initiative has drawn increasing global scrutiny as it expands into Africa and Europe, the plan’s impacts are still most keenly felt in Asia—and particularly in Southeast Asia. Observers fear the heightened economic leverage will in turn grant China expanded political influence over a number of countries, particularly those that are heavily indebted to Beijing. Meanwhile, global powers increasingly calibrate their regional ties through the prism of China’s rise.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.

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