The strategic situation in East Asia 2021 onwards
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Two most relevant events are likely to shape the geopolitical landscape in East Asia starting 2021 onwards with truly far-reaching implications. The first one is the beginning of the newly elected US President Joe Biden administration. Keeping distance from four years of tumultuous Trump foreign policies that shook the regional political dynamics - from empowering the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un without opening the process of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, dangerously tensing the alliances with Japan and South Korea, to largely ignoring a robust strategic dialogue with ASEAN, among others – the new US administration will likely start to show true leadership and build multilateral consensus over an upgraded version of the “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific, the “Secure and Prosperous” Indo Pacific, even though is yet to be known exactly how to build it against an empowered China. On the territorial disputes, besides the continuation of US FONOPs in the South China Sea and reaffirmation of the US-Japan alliance against China, Washington will likely promote a wide international coalition in defense of the rule of law, and the year may witness a more robust presence of Indo-Pacific, Australian and European ships in such waters, as well as improved US bilateral security cooperation with regional partners such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Moreover, to infuse vigor to an improved Quad initiative, the US, together with Australia and Japan, will probably continue requesting India to commit more in that direction, even though it is still premature to calibrate the level of New Delhi’s commitment as it maintains own border disputes in the Himalayas and a deep economic integration with China.
A second relevant factor for the East Asian geopolitical landscape in 2021 is the (yet unpredictable) way the Covid-19 pandemic will evolve, and the level of damage it will inflict on the region´s economies. Unfortunately, unlike China, most economies in the region are struggling for a rebound, while East Asian countries hope to recover in 2021 or even 2022 to pre-pandemic levels of development. By contrast, China already showed since the third quarter of 2020 to be the only Asian economy to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. This represents both an opportunity and a risk for most Asian economies that are struggling to move the engines of their economies. For most Southeast Asian states that depend on Chinese exports, report annual trade deficits with Beijing, and nervously wait for a US economic recovery that a nation-wide vaccination should lead, economic dependency on a mild recovered China may only aggravate. But as the US-China economic war will likely continue to ravage under the Biden administration, it is also most likely that the Chinese government plan to utterly develop its “dual circulation economy” aimed at lowering the country’s reliance on overseas markets and technology and fostering domestic consumption and advances in technology will proceed at a faster pace. As difficult it is to predict the long-term effect of such a measure -as it was envisioned to face a protracted economic war against the US- the effects on Asia can be disastrous. For this reason, and in part of the already existing damage on the supply chains originating from China, some foreign firms (most notably Japanese ones), will continue to opt for moving out of China to their home country or to other Asian countries. Meanwhile, as Chinese pandemic-era soft power shows no sign of success -its “mask diplomacy” being not effective as planned and its “vaccine diplomacy” still well behind its global aspirations-, Beijing hard economic and political power will likely be deployed amid a refurbished and not so promising Belt and Road Initiative.
Both the pandemic developments in East Asia and the regional impact of a new US administration -deeply contrasted against the visceral policies result of Donald Trump’s vision of the world- will shape East Asia sets of alliances, partnerships, and individual countries’ priorities vis-à-vis China’s presence in every sphere of regional human activity. East Asian nations will be presented with roughly two choices amid a Covid-19 pandemic affecting the economy: hope for a soon-to-be-recovered US that engages in regional leadership or align with an economically better positioned China that is most likely to charge in the future an expensive political bill to those nations it helped. As difficult for some East Asian countries to shape international relations through their capacity of agency within the regional structure, it is important to note that the new post-Covid reality will shake traditional conceptions of ally, partner or adversary that have shaped the current geopolitical discourse in the region.
B.A. in International Relations, M.A. in Asia and Africa Studies, and Ph.D. in History (The University of Tokyo), he is coordinator of the Asia Pacific Studies Program (PEAP) in the Academic Department of International Studies, and full time Associate Professor and Researcher of international relations and Asian studies at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de Mexico ITAM in Mexico City. He has worked as instructor at several Japanese universities, as full time Associate Professor at the University of Tokyo, and as news anchor at the international service NHK World in Japan. Author of academic book and articles, he is a regular news analyst on Asian events for mass media, including AFP, CNN, BBC, Radio France Internationale, Xinhua, People’s Daily and China Daily, among others. Overseas, he is a regular participant at international conferences and has participated in special courses and executive conferences at numerous venues including East China Normal University in Shanghai, Hokkaido University in Japan, the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Chile, the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, the Foreign Service Institute in the Philippines, as well as the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.