By Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra*
East Asia has seen significant changes this past decade: both domestically within the countries of the region, as well as in their relations with each other. Three broad trends can be flagged to make sense of the many developments that have taken place.
One, East Asia has become more economically and strategically salient in global politics. Two, we have seen the rise of strong leaders across the domestic political landscapes of most of these countries. Three, the parallel tracks of economic cooperation and strategic contestation along which inter-state relations were earlier conducted have been increasingly blurred, with political dissonances impacting the flow and frequency of economic exchanges.
East Asia’s Increasing Salience in Global Politics
In October 2011, then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wrote a Foreign Policy article titled America’s Pacific Century, in which she argued that “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq,” and outlined a US ‘pivot to Asia’ policy. This was a clear indication of American intention to invest more in the region—diplomatically, strategically, economically, and otherwise. It drew from a 2011 development: of China overtaking Japan as the world’s second largest economy with a valuation of around US $ 5.88 trillion (Japan was US$ 5.47 trillion). China was estimated to overtake the US by 2027. Early on in the decade, East Asia became a site of interaction for the world’s three biggest economies.
Further, China’s ‘assertive’ rise became more overt. This was a challenging development for the regional order, and tracking Beijing’s changing course was an important consideration for all actors. It also posed a challenge to the US’ regional and global primacy. US-China bilateral contestation, which is strategically the most important variable in global politics, has unravelled most prominently in Asia.
Japan’s changing posture under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drew further attention to East Asia. Tokyo has actively articulated and pursued its Indo-Pacific strategy, which has had a bearing on its exchanges with Beijing. An ‘assertive’ Japan, as seen over the past decade, will have implications for regional as well as global politics.
Leadership change in North Korea following the death of its leader, Kim Jong-il, and the destabilising impact of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities also occupied much of the international relations limelight. The global security implications of North Korea’s frequent nuclear and missile tests were granted more serious consideration than before. It led, among other things, to US President Donald Trump proposing a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Three such meetings were held.
In 2018, the US attempted to address China’s unfair trade practices by setting tariff barriers. This gradually evolved into a bilateral trade war. In tandem with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will have important consequences for global supply chains.
Rise of Strong Leaders and Nationalist Domestic Polities
East Asian domestic politics also saw considerable changes in the first half of the decade. This shaped not only the internal nature and course of individual countries, but also of the region. ‘Strong’ leaders assumed office, and the popular mood in most of these countries favoured such change. Xi Jinping, who became president of China in March 2013, showed his intent to change Beijing’s “hide your strength” strategy. This has led to China becoming increasingly assertive under his rule. Xi has augmented and centralised power through anti-corruption moves and removing the two-term presidential limit.
Shinzo Abe became prime minister of Japan in December 2012. This was his second term as PM, and his resignation in late 2020 made him Japan’s longest serving leader of the post-War period. Abe began with ‘Abenomics’: a set of policies to revitalise Japan’s economic stagnation and stabilise domestic politics, which was witness to frequent leadership changes. He also sought to make critical defence posture changes by revising Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. In December 2013, Abe introduced the concept of ‘proactive pacifism’ and a five-year plan for military expansion. In July 2014, Tokyo reinterpreted the constitutional provision of ‘collective self-defence’ and allowed Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to aid and defend an ally under attack, which was not allowed earlier.
North Korean politics witnessed generational change in the beginning of the decade. The power transition to the third generation of the Kim family was relatively smooth. Kim Jong-un swiftly assumed power and consolidated his position. Between 2012 and 2017, North Korea conducted more nuclear and missile tests than in all the previous years combined, which were a total of four. North Korea halted testing in 2018 and initiated summit meetings with the US in the hope of sanctions relief. These meetings didn’t produce the desired results.
Things were eventful in South Korea as well. Conservatives such as Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, or the progressive Moon Jae-in, are all seen as strong leaders. Attempts by conservative leaders to restrict the country’s democratic space resulted in a non-violent democratic protest. This led to Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in 2017—the first instance in South Korean history of a president being successfully ousted from office through impeachment. Current President Moon Jae-in has tried to restore democratic space, and has made efforts to engage North Korea.
Taiwan has demonstrated a similar domestic political tendency. It has become less compromising towards China, which was reflected in the 2016 change of guard from Ma Ying-jeou to Tsai Ing-wen. The new leadership claims Taiwan as an independent country; a reality that it would like China to accept.
Interstate Strategic Contestation’s Impact on Economic Amity
Interstate relations in East Asia have historically been conducted on dual tracks. Countries of the region were earlier able to isolate their growing economic relations from disagreements in other domains, especially those of a strategic and political orientation. This separation has increasingly thinned.
In the beginning of 2010-2020, China and Japan faced-off in the East China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which negatively affected their economic exchanges. China-South Korea relations showed positive trends at the beginning of the decade, with the top leaders of both countries meeting over 2013, 2014, and 2015. Seoul also joined the Beijing-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a founding member despite reservations from its ally, the US. Relations however began deteriorating when South Korea allowed the US to install the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) system on its territory. Once again, the economic dynamic suffered as a result.
The China-North Korea relationship has also gone through two phases in this decade: one of discordance, followed by one of reconnection. As leaders, Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping did not meet until 2018. High-level exchanges between the two countries were quite rare, and it was assumed that Pyongyang was not happy with Beijing toeing the international community’s line on sanctions on North Korea. Earlier, gaps in national policy priorities did not have a similar economic fallout.
The most glaring example of political spill-overs onto economic considerations is the Japan-South Korea relationship. This is especially true of the past two years, which has seen both Seoul and Tokyo impose tit-for-tat trade restrictions in response to political one-upping. When South Korea announced its intention to review the agreement on the comfort women issue, and its courts ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations for wartime forced labour, Tokyo removed Seoul from its trade ‘white-list’. This meant that certain Japanese exports to South Korea were removed from the automatic approval list. The annual trilateral dialogue on trade and economic issues between China, Japan, and South Korea that began in 2008 has also become irregular. The most recent one scheduled to be held in Seoul did not take place because of Japan’s dissatisfaction with the forced labour matter.
However, the global pandemic, which has inevitably affected all economies, may prove to be a surprisingly positive catalyst in inducing some political rapprochement in the region. There are indications that regional capitals may be willing to restore the separation of political and economic engagement. One indicator of such a trend is China, Japan, and South Korea signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) in November 2020 despite strategic friction.
Any future prognostication will have US President Joe Biden’s approach towards China and US allies in East Asia as the most crucial variable of analysis. While the US will probably continue down the path of tensions and confrontation with China, it is likely to be more principled. Washington will also be less transactional in its relations with Japan and South Korea, and seek to build more trust into alliances.
The Tokyo-Seoul relationship is presently at its nadir, but this may look up in the coming years. Both countries are aware that any further deterioration in ties will be detrimental to both. North Korea’s nuclear programme will continue to be unpredictable and a cause for serious concern. Pyongyang is unlikely to denuclearise, even though it may formally continue to have talks with Washington and Seoul on the issue.
As in 2010-2020, East Asia will continue to be—and perhaps become even more—central to global politics. As a site of regional and global cooperation and contestation, it will have ramifications that will ring beyond its political boundaries.
*Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.