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East Asia: The view from January 2017

Image credit: Stuart Rankin (Flickr: Creative Commons)

If you’re involved in East Asian affairs, there can be no doubt that 2017 will be a most interesting year. Thanks to a chaotic and unpredictable 2016, the New Year is shaping up to be particularly troublesome. The dominant theme in the East Asian order is uncertainty. Donald Trump’s unexpected ascension to the US Presidency will have planners in capitals across the region scrambling to understand what this means for their power-political positions. The US has been the guarantor of the East Asian security order since the advent of the Nixon Doctrine in the 1970s; Trump’s confusing and muddleheaded pronouncements on American alliances, defence policy and America’s place in the world leaves this role in serious doubt. Old certainties about maritime military strength and the nuclear umbrella no longer hold as much weight as they once did and US allies across the region will need to prepare for diminishing US will to support their strategic interests.

China’s challenges

China has perhaps the most opportunity in 2017. Potentially weakened US resolve leaves Beijing greater latitude to prosecute its power-political ambitions in its immediate maritime sphere. Indeed, it seems that it has all but secured its position in the South China Sea, with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte indicating that he is willing to soften the Philippines’ claim towards the Scarborough Shoal, a key point of contention between the two countries. Beijing’s One Belt One Road initiative has increased Chinese economic penetration and influence across central Eurasia, with cities as far afield as London now directly connected by rail to Chinese manufacturing centres. Furthermore, there are signs that China’s current President, Xi Jinping, has moved to enhance his leadership through a centralisation of Party authority and a crackdown on corruption.

Every silver lining has a cloud, however, and China’s may be literal: its large cities are shrouded for half the year in toxic smog. This environmental hazard is the cause of significant public discontent, problematic for a country where an image of popular and governmental solidarity is all-important. China is also facing potential economic troubles—in the form of massive debt and stagnating traditional industries. There are indications that the ‘miracle growth’ that has sustained China’s economic and societal development may come to a halt, posing a problem for the ruling Communist Party’s legitimacy. Furthermore, strategic uncertainty cuts both ways: Trump recently caused a furore with a telephone call to Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou, indicating the potential for increased US involvement in cross-Strait relations.

Peninsula problems

On the Korean peninsula, issues are more tense than normal. South Korea has just emerged from a political crisis that saw the ousting of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye in a bizarre scandal mixing bribery, religion and politics. This comes at a time when the South could use decisive leadership; Pyongyang is making strides in the acquisition of a functioning, deliverable nuclear arsenal. Concomitantly, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has increased his leadership at the expense of potential rivals and appears to be enjoying heightened control over that country. If Trump makes good on his rhetoric, then Seoul will be forced to deal with a firmly led, nuclear-tipped North that has the confidence to push on cross-border issues. To compound this headache, South Korea’s overreliance on exports and its debt overextension ensures its economy is highly vulnerable to cheaper Chinese competition.

Tokyo’s troubles

Japan’s problems are somewhat less proximate than those of the two Koreas, although it has cause to worry about a deterioration of relations on the Peninsula: North Korean missiles are capable of reaching Japanese population centres in the event of major war. Tokyo’s main concerns are longer-term, however. Its demographic problems have led to the creation of a ‘population bomb’ that has just begun to explode: the proportion of working-age people relative to those retired is in decline. Its economy remains stagnant, due in part to moribund employment practices that may damage productivity. Sino-Japanese relations have been similarly depressed for a number of years, aggravated by historical grievances, and growing Chinese power and authority. Additionally, the potential remains for Japan and China to come to blows over their territorial claims in the East China Sea. The Senkaku/Diayou islands have become a symbol of rivalry between the nationalistic regimes of Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Where to from here?

Of course, no country or international order is ever without problems. Globally, there is less faith in the American-built-and-maintained rules-based order. Most regions seem stricken by rising inequality, weakened economies, burgeoning strategic rivalry and even open conflict in one form or other. Evidently, these are not issues unique to East Asia. In fact, the societies in this region have cause for hope—they are all highly organised, technologically advanced (with the exception of North Korea) and wealthy. Uncertainty can be countered by a willingness to communicate, as well as a collective approach to problem solving. Indeed, the murky waters of 2017 ensure that all states must be willing to work with their neighbours to find creative solutions to the problems that beset them all.

Rob Cullum is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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