Looking Past China’s Rise for the Trends Shaping Asia

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken, far right, speaks to China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, left, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, second from left, in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18, 2021 (pool photo by Frederic J. Brown via AP).

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 have undermined the country’s democratic institutions and rule of law, with the prospects dim that his newly inaugurated successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., will be an improvement. 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.

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Last month, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo noted that the country’s first-ever presidency of the G-20 in 2022 was a sign of its growing global stature. The remarks spoke to how Jokowi is walking a fine line between selectively engaging abroad, while also seeking to advance his immediate policy priorities at home.

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, 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.

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.

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.

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 ongoing coronavirus pandemic poses a risk not only to regional economies, but also to the supply chains on which global trade is currently based.

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

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