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 territorial disputes. 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.
But while China’s rise often makes headlines, it is not the only trend shaping events in Asia. Illiberalism has become a force in democracies like India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ridden the wave of Hindu nationalism to successive electoral victories. And in the Philippines, former President Rodrigo Duterte’s six years in office undermined the country’s democratic institutions and rule of law, although his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has proven to be an improvement in his first months in office, much to the surprise of many observers. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s already faltering process of democratization came to an abrupt end in February 2021, when the military seized power from the democratically elected government. The subsequent protests and the military’s violent crackdown in response have left the country teetering on the edge of civil war and failed state status.
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 to finally turn the corner on a period of flagging economic growth. But uncertainty over the future of the U.S.-China rivalry, as well as fallout from the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, have dampened the region’s economic prospects.
Regional flashpoints also remain. A deadly border clash between India and China in June 2020 put residual tensions between those two powers back in the spotlight as well. Afghanistan faces an uncertain road in the aftermath of the U.S. military withdrawal and subsequent Taliban takeover in August 2021. North Korea remains a perpetual wild card. And in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the prospect of China using military force to seize control of Taiwan has been the subject of heightened debate.
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 economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine, affect the region’s economies—and politics? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
Our Most Recent Coverage
Taiwan Needs a New Approach in Latin America
Last week, Honduras became the latest country to sever its diplomatic relations with Taiwan and instead recognize the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan has a choice: continue watching countries get picked off one by one due to Beijing’s checkbook diplomacy, or work with its allies to find a new way to relate to the world.
Politics and Diplomacy
It is a worrying period for democracy on the continent. In addition to the more uninhibited authoritarianism on display in supposed democracies like Cambodia and the Philippines under Duterte, Thailand’s prime minister won office in a managed election after having headed the country’s military junta. The leaders of the military coup in Myanmar probably hoped to replicate that model, but now risk creating a failed state at the heart of Southeast Asia. There are some glimmers of hope, though. In a landslide election in September 2018, voters in the Maldives kicked out an increasingly authoritarian, China-backed regime and replaced it with a party that campaigned on eliminating corruption. And before they were crushed by Beijing, the protests in Hong Kong demonstrated that the appeal of democracy is still strong in the region.
- What India’s climate policy is leaving out, in India’s ‘Green Growth’ Climate Spending Shortchanges Adaptation
- What Afghans think about women’s rights, in The Taliban Are Out of Step With Afghans on Women’s Rights
- What South Korea’s ambiguous rhetoric on a potential conflict involving Taiwan masks, in Despite Its Rhetoric, South Korea Has Picked a Side on China and Taiwan
- Why Thailand’s upcoming elections are unlikely to usher in a return to political normalcy, in Ahead of Elections, Thailand Is Still a Political Powder Keg
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, but also those, like Australia, whose economies are heavily dependent on exports to China. Meanwhile, global powers increasingly calibrate their regional ties through the prism of China’s rise.
- Why China’s improved ties with Tanzania rest on a shaky foundation, in Tanzania and China’s Upgraded Relations Aren’t as Solid as They Seem
- Why China is scrambling to limit the fallout of the war in Ukraine, in For Xi and China, Putin’s War Is a Geopolitical Minefield
- Why managing ties with China will remain a challenge for New Zealand’s new prime minister, in For New Zealand After Ardern, China Remains a Tricky Balancing Act
- Why China needs to rethink its approach to Taiwan, in Waiting for Tsai’s Departure Won’t Solve China’s ‘Taiwan Problem’
The U.S. Role in Asia
After an initial focus on restoring ties with U.S. allies in Europe, President Joe Biden’s approach to Asia—and China—is beginning to come into focus. Biden took initial steps to reestablish diplomatic engagement with Beijing, particularly over climate diplomacy. But he has also invested time and energy into strengthening ties with long-time allies; building them with newly emerging partners, like India; and developing new coalitions, like the Quad and the so-called AUKUS security partnership with Australia and the U.K., to put teeth into the U.S. pivot to Asia. For now, however, his outreach on trade has proven to be a disappointment among regional partners.
- How the war in Ukraine counterintuitively advanced Washington’s goal of prioritizing the Indo-Pacific, in Despite the War in Ukraine, the U.S. Pivot to Asia Is Accelerating
- What a new technology cooperation initiative means for India’s ties with the U.S., in The India-U.S. Partnership Has Momentum. Now It Needs Direction
- Why the Philippines’ new president has had a change of heart on ties with the U.S., in Marcos Is Bringing the Philippines Back Into the U.S. Fold
- Why the debate over how the U.S. left Afghanistan is besides the point, in The U.S. Should Never Even Have Been in Afghanistan in August 2021
Economy and Trade
For the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, 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. The uncertain future of U.S.-China ties has now persisted through the second year of President Joe Biden’s term, even as the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic poses a risk not only to regional economies, but also to the supply chains on which global trade is currently based.
- How the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated Laos’ pre-existing economic problems, in Laos’ Debt-Fueled Economy Is Going Up in Smoke
- How populist politics torpedoed Sri Lanka’s economy, in In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksas Made an Economic Crisis Worse
- Why the EU’s infrastructure investment initiative won’t be enough to compete with the BRI in Southeast Asia, in The EU Will Have Trouble Backing Up Its Ambitions in Southeast Asia
- Why the Taliban will find banning the opium trade easier said than done, in The Taliban Will Have Trouble Reining in Afghanistan’s Opium Economy
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.