East Asia: Likely Trends in 2022
Prof Rajaram Panda

A year has just ended and we usher into another one. Many parts of the world witnessed dramatic developments in political, economic and defence/security realms. In a globalised and inter-connected world, no part of the world remained insulated from developments happening in another part of the world, how remote that part might be. As the world was grappling with many problems, the nasty coronavirus or Covid-19 as it was labelled subsequently by the WHO intruded to human lives that not only disrupted human lives but compelled all countries to reset theirs economic and foreign and security policy priorities to cope up with this new challenge.

This being so, what could be the likely scenario in East Asia, mainly in Japan, China, both Koreas and also in the Southeast Asian region in the coming twelve months?

As regards North Korea, Kim Jong-un is firmly settled in office without any immediate threat to his regime. But the regime continues to remain fragile though Kim is assiduously trying to secure legitimacy by ruthless means such as purges, executions, punishments for minor crimes and information control. In the past years, the main emphasis has been on weaponisation and missile developments and enormous resources were spent at the expense of people’s welfare and removing poverty. Many peace initiatives such as summit meetings with Moon and then President Donald Trump failed. One cannot expect any change from such a course in 2022.

However, Kim seems to have realised the need to develop economic and infrastructure development and is likely to focus on these areas while not abandoning its nuclear and missile development programs. At the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held on 27-31 December at the Party’s Central Committee building, Kim laid down a new guideline for development. There were only a few mentions on external affairs or inter-Korean relations. It transpires therefore that Kim’s main focus would be to develop the country economically with less emphasis on reaching out to the US for another round of summit diplomacy. This does not however preclude occasional cry to keep up the tempo by releasing statements aimed at the US whenever the US conducts programmes such as the joint military drills.

India has remained reticent so far on the Korean issue. Since India maintains missions in both South and North Korea, besides having benign historical relationship touching an emotional bond, one might propose that India shed its disinterestedness on the Korean peninsula issue and take some proactive initiative by reaching out to both the Koreas offering to host a summit between President Joe Biden and Kim Jong-un in New Delhi to find out a solution on the nuclear issue. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi puts experienced diplomats on this job and negotiates to this possibility both with Biden and Kim, Modi’s global standing would have been considerable enhanced. Given the bonhomie that Modi has developed with the American leadership and strong ties in recent times between India and the US, the author seriously feels that the proposal is eminently doable.

South Korea is going to elect a new president on 9 March. Kim’s attitude is unlikely to change irrespective of whichever party leader becomes the next President. If a hardliner becomes the winner, Kim is likely to toughen his position further. Even in the closing days of his tenure, Moon still remains upbeat to work for peace in the Korean peninsula. That may remain a will-o-the-wisp for now. As regards relations with Japan, the long festering abduction issue is unlikely to see a closure. Also, a summit meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, which the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried hard, is unlikely to be realised.

In analysing the likely trends in the year 2022, one cannot miss the fact that there shall be political change in many countries in Asia. There shall be presidential elections in the Philippines, South Korea, Timor-Leste, and a federal election in Australia. There shall be legislative elections in Japan too. Though this might have little impact on top leadership change, the political implications of whatever outcome that may be cannot be overlooked. Even in China where Xi Jinping comes under no threat whatsoever, there shall be a shake-up of political leaders at its once-every-five-years Party Congress, and that could pose a new challenge to Xi Jinping.

Within ASEAN, Myanmar shall remain a challenge for the new ASEAN Chair Cambodia. Though ASEAN as an organisation shall try to persuade the military junta to restore democracy in the country, the organisation’s leverage shall remain limited as local dynamics are too different to keep the military in power.

As regards the Covid-19 pandemic that disrupted human lives throughout the world, some Asian countries such as South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan took early measures to contain the damage in the initial stage of its spread. Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam were even cited as model states that others could emulate. However, this proved to be short-lived as the surge of the virus was so overwhelming that most nations had to adopt various measures to control the spread of the virus.

Needless to say, the pandemic is destined to change human lives forever. Like countries in other parts of the world, the East Asian countries are also to revisit their life styles. The trend that started in 2021 beginning with lockdowns, restrictions on international travels etc, is likely to continue in 2022 too. The new norms will be work from home, meetings, seminars/conferences going online, online delivery of goods and food, acceleration of digital payment for services, teaching opting for mostly at virtual and sometimes on hybrid mode, and many more. Health care shall receive greater focus. Economies of nations are going to be more stressed as finding funds to meet the new goals could be a herculean task. Overall, human lives shall see a dramatic transformation in almost sphere of human activities. East Asian nations cannot be an exception. In the midst of growth in digital capitalism, lives have retreated to family cell, with burden of stress and frustration growing more than ever before.

How does China position itself in the New Year? In 2021, Chinese economy started with a new paradigm under President Xi Jinping. The focus was to shift from a model of championing GDP growth to one emphasising on efficiency, consumer welfare and protection, climate change mitigation and environmental protection. It was hoped that the Chinese companies shall be less bridled and more regulated and monitored. The ultimate goal was to build a global manufacturing powerhouse under the overall rubric of techno-nationalism. Such lofty idealism and goals were shattered with the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan. China was accused of concealing information and earned international opprobrium. With the availability of vaccines, the threat has been brought under control. But the damage was done with millions falling victims to the virus.

Chinese economy soon bounced back while other countries in Asia continued to struggle. Controlling further spread of the virus as new variants keep coming, latest being the Omnicron, shall keep the nations engaged, with foreign policy taking the backseat. The fear is that China has started taking advantage of this unusual situation to further its expansionist agenda. How to cope with the Chinese menace while tackling domestic challenge is a major worry for the rest of Asia.

Amidst the new challenge, Asia will continue to face many regional security threats. The truism is that while the world is inter-connected economically, security issue is local, regional and transnational. The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban awakened the Asian nations that they cannot remain insulated from the security issues even with developments taking places far away. The ongoing standoff on the India-China border, the tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea and the uncertain trajectory of Iran’s nuclear programme are no longer localised but the ramifications are far and wide. North Korea’s nuisance value is no less dangerous. This makes Asia now the epicentre of security risks.

Adding further to the worry, Xi Jinping issued a new mobilisation order in early January for the training of armed forces with a focus on developing an elite force capable of fighting and winning wars. Like Putin in Russia, Xi is widely expected to continue in power at the end of the second five-year tenure later in the middle of this year and start a record third term. China’s military now enjoys over $200 billion annual defence budget and Xi’s emphasis on training and constant up-gradation of technology must worry the rest of Asia. With China’s festering territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, clandestine support to North Korea, repeated threats to use force to annex Taiwan and island-building/militarisation of South China Sea are issues of real concern. It remains unclear how the rest of Asia, particularly Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN nations prepare to face China if the latter takes resort to military means to fulfill its long-term agenda of emerging the sole superpower, thereby eclipsing the US. That is a dream far-fetched at the moment but would not be unrealisable given America’s reluctance to remain engaged in activities away from its shores.

What could be Japan’s priorities to reposition itself in the regional context while remaining engaged on domestic economic and political challenges? Japan, besides Taiwan, faces the Chinese heat as a maritime nation it faces huge risk of disruption if China’s expansionist activities continue unchecked. The truism is that no single Asian nation has the means to face China unilaterally. The strategy for Japan as also other Asian nations is to strengthen collective strength through regional forums. Forums such as the East Asia Summit, ADMM Plus, further supplemented by the QUAD and more recent AUKUS are relevant to discuss regional security issues so that peace and stability in the region are not unusually disturbed. On its own part, Japan is also strengthening its own defence capability to defend its own sovereignty if comes under threat.

The new policy thrust started when Shinzo Abe was the Prime Minister. He tried unsuccessfully to remove the constitutional constraints by amending Article 9 of the Constitution, the peace clause, despite enjoying majority in both houses of the Diet. Therefore, other ways were devised to prepare Japan to meet with the emerging challenge. His successor Yoshihide Suga followed in Abe’s footsteps, again without success as the pandemic overwhelmed Japan. Now the present Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has emerged more pro-active and initiated measures to beef up Japan’s defence capability. In the process his government has already breached the self-imposed threshold of defence expenditure not exceeding 1 per cent of the GDP. There are reports that Kishida will not hesitate to further hike defence expenditure in excess of 2 per cent of the GDP. The 2020 Defence White Paper categorically mentioned the urgent need for Japan to defend unilaterally as a first step if the nation comes under attack.

What does it mean in the regional context? The China factor has also driven other countries in Asia such as Taiwan, South Korea and some countries in the ASEAN grouping such as Vietnam and the Philippines to acquire new weapons to prepare themselves to defend their sovereignty if they come under threat. Yet, in a New Year statement Kishida pledged to make the year 2022 the year of diplomacy. Realising that the international situation surrounding Japan has become increasingly difficult and complex, Kishida not only resolved to work to have a stable government but also promised to address global issues and protect the lives of the people. This will be the guiding principles of what he called “diplomacy of realism for the new era”.

As we move further into the year, we are likely to see more relevance of institutional innovations that Abe had spearheaded, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP), and the Quad, both of which have received traction in the Asian context. So long as China remains as the elephant in the room, the rest of Asia shall remain awakened to ponder strategising policy choices as events unfold.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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