Forecasting Asia's Future in an Era Marked with Many Known Unknowns

posted by Eleanor Shiori Otsuka Hughes on December 26, 2020 - 2:02pm

On December 17th, The Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies (CEAP)  hosted a very enriching 90-minute webinar on the prospects of Asia’s future as Washington undergoes a change in government on January 20th. All of the panelists are research fellows affiliated with Brookings: Dr. Richard Bush, Dr. Rush Doshi, Lindsey Ford, Ryan Haas, Dr. Jonathan Stromseth, and Dr. Mireya Solís as the moderator. 

In his brief opening remarks, John R. Allen, President of Brookings, highlighted that this webinar concludes a two-year Brookings-run project entitled “Sustaining the East Asian Peace.” Over the past few decades, there have been security developments and complexities in Asia that have garnered consistent attention like the disputes in the East and South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula, to name a few. On the other hand, Asia has not experienced a major war in 40 years, and hundreds of millions have been lifted from poverty. But in considering the intensification of Washington’s great-power rivalry with Beijing (especially on the technological realm), along with Asia's other regional dynamics, continued dialogues will better determine what this means for Asia’s future and America’s role in this multidimensional continent.

To turn it over to the panelists, Ryan Haas, the Michael H. Armacost Chair at Brookings’ Foreign Policy Program, made a comprehensive outline of the past 30 years and referenced events like the Asian Financial Crisis, the Arab Spring uprisings, and the Trump presidency to demonstrate that Washington has experienced a period of setbacks--and even retrenchment-- in exerting its global leadership. On the other hand, since 1990, China has benefited greatly from the fruits of globalization by joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2001, opening their markets to multinational firms, & aggressively projecting its economic and military ambitions. But as Haas iterated, Asia’s story goes far beyond the scope of the animosity between Washington and Beijing, to which he then brought up the signage of two major trade agreements: the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was just virtually signed in Hanoi on November 15th. 

Next, Dr. Doshi, Director of the China Strategy Initiative, iterated that China has executed its foreign policy based on its perception of American influence in Asia. But in observing Beijing’s behaviors and rhetoric within the past 30 years, he illustrated that Beijing has made incremental steps towards achieving regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. This can be supported by its success in establishing multilateral institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2016 and its propensity to penalize countries who don’t capitulate to their demands in how to engage with China (case in point, Australia). 

Then, Dr. Stromseth, the Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asian Studies at CEAP, highlighted that generally speaking, Southeast Asian countries remain wary over China’s long-term goals, especially when it accelerates its territorial and maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea. However, ASEAN countries like Malaysia have improved their method in negotiating with Beijing over the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), while also expressing their eagerness in engaging with a more receptive Washington, especially on the economic front. 

Lindsey Ford, the David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program, briefly addressed the uncertainties behind the South China Sea disputes. Ford said that though Washington has a vested interest in ensuring freedom of navigation for U.S. military vessels, it’s not a claimant in the South China Sea territorial and maritime disputes. But on the other hand, the Trump administration announced last year that Washington’s defense treaty obligations with the Philippines would extend to a military conflict in the South China Sea. Hence, Washington has a stake in this quandary. But now, the question is how can Washington effectively respond to China’s aggression in this particular maritime arena without resorting to military action?

Dr. Richard Bush, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at CEAP, delved into the complexities of cross-strait relations. Unlike the disputed features in the South China Sea that remain largely uninhabited, Taiwan proper has a population of 23 million people. They, to Dr. Bush, are a hindrance to Beijing’s goal to fully integrate Taiwan into the “One Country, Two Systems” framework, which was initially intended for Taiwan, rather than Hong Kong, but Taiwan’s leadership has always rejected it. And now, per a Pew Research poll from May, at least six-in-ten identify as solely Taiwanese & only 4% see themselves as solely Chinese. But despite that, Beijing remains undeterred in utilizing its own coercive methods in ensuring that Taiwan can find its way in ensuring reunification. 

Dr. Solis then shifted the conversation to America’s alliance network and regional economic integration. In discussing the first topic, a few of the panelists remarked that America’s alliances are extensive, resilient, and enduring. That being said, they aren’t immune from setbacks. In regards to economic interconnectivity, similar to CPTPP, RCEP (which the panelists repeatedly emphasized is an ASEAN-driven economic deliverable) will allow supply chains to fully integrate within signatory nations. This, however, will come at the expense of alienating Washington, since the United States (nor did India, I might add) did not sign onto this trade bloc. This can only be a strategic gain for Beijing, as it continues to mold its economic footprint in the region. 

Dr. Doshi then briefly discussed the three prevailing trends in both supply chains and technology in Asia: onshoring operations, diversification, and duplication. He then said that we have yet to see which out of the three will be most prevalent in years to come. Afterwards, Dr. Solis inserted a few of her comments on RCEP, as it's now arguably the world’s largest trade bloc and took over eight years of negotiations. She also mentioned that this is the 1st time that South Korea, China, and Japan (which are the three biggest economies in the region) will openly trade with each other with a preferential status. 

Before opening the floor to questions, Dr. Solis then posed a question to the panelists on what Washington should do going forward in addressing rising challenges as we usher in new leadership, both in the executive and legislative branches. Answers varied from signing into CPTPP, elevating military deterrence, and increasing the average American’s awareness of Washington’s critical leadership role in Asia. 

My Takeaways:

In sum, Asia is a region saturated with known unknowns. China’s continuing rise challenges the very fabric of a rules-based international order, of which Washington was the primary architect in the post-war era. Additionally, with the myriad of flashpoints in the region like the South China Sea and North Korea’s accelerating nuclear weapons program, many Asian countries’ national security and economic imperatives remain dependent on Washington’s engagement in the region. Lastly, the Chinese government’s method in projecting its hard power through, inter alia, its recent grey-zone activities in the Taiwan Strait and its implementation of economic restrictions on Australian products, is its way in conditioning the world to accept a new status quo, where Beijing’s ambitions to achieve its revisionist-oriented grand strategy in the Indo-Pacific can become realized. 

As the panelists emphasized, let’s not forget that Asia has many other state and non-state actors who are eager in contributing to the overall stability of the Indo-Pacific region. But while these players evaluate their roles in the region, Washington under the new Biden administration will have to do the same, especially vis-à-vis China. Time will tell whether Beijing and Washington’s priorities and interests remain diametrically opposed during Biden’s tenure as U.S. president. But on the other hand, could there be a window of opportunity for cooperation in certain issues and causes? If so, what tradeoffs and risks are either party (along with other regional players) willing to make for this vision to become a reality? Both are tough questions that Biden and his administration will have to assess in a thoughtful, yet realistic manner, with like-minded allies and partners going forward. After all, we live in a very interconnected world, & the aftershocks felt from the ongoing Sino-U.S. strategic rivalry have--and will continue--to drive international relations for years to come.