Most years look fairly like the ones before since large changes in international affairs tend to be part of broader trends. There are exceptions to this such as the Covid pandemic or the 9/11 attacks – but even these can be viewed in the context of earlier events such as the 2003 SARS outbreak or the 1993 first, unsuccessful, bombing of the World Trade Centre. Using this logic, the Asian region can expect 2022 to be one of the further security challenges, but not more than that – unless someone badly miscalculates.
If that someone happens to be nuclear-armed China, all bets are off – but it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which it would seek to plunge the region into a major conflict because it would feel the effects immediately. The country is still highly dependent on energy imports and despite efforts to re-orient the economy away from the export of manufactured goods their overall value has remained about the same for the last 15 years.
In a war, the energy traffic to China – especially from the Middle East – would face major disruptions. Similarly, trade would be massively hurt. Combining the two, living standards for all but the wealthiest of China’s elite would be lowered – though to what extent is difficult to predict. The CCP is always mindful of internal unrest – understandable given China’s complex history – and retaining internal stability if the economy experienced a major contraction would become that much more difficult.
The obvious flashpoint remains Taiwan and it is hard to imagine things changing that much in the next 12 months. This is because threatening military action plays to an internal, nationalistic constituency that appeals to certain types of people. While China is not a functioning democracy in any normal sense, the CCP nevertheless pays close attention to what the masses are thinking and saying – particularly by closely monitoring and limiting social media – and if it can boost its popularity with a bit of sabre-rattling at Taiwan and its main backer the US we should expect this to continue.
The reality is that Taiwan is not going to unilaterally declare independence in the foreseeable future because all sensible people are aware of the consequences of doing so – namely, it would supply Beijing with the justification for military action that it currently lacks. The situation is even more complex because the constitution of Taiwan recognises it, and not Beijing, as the true ruler of all of China so to declare independence would be divorcing the country from itself, so to speak.
The best that can be hoped for – until China adopts a more sensible, conciliatory, and realistic approach – is that everyone keeps on muddling along. This is not a particularly sound structure because it relies on trigger happy pilots not unleashing a missile under pressure or a ship switching on its fire-control radar, or any one of a number of things happening that could easily go wrong.
Perhaps Beijing will finally get the message that the more it threatens to use military force the greater will be the pushback by friends of Taiwan, which includes – but is not limited to – the US; Japan; some ASEAN nations; Australia and an increasing number of European countries. If President Xi really wanted to isolate Taiwan the best thing he could do was to completely ignore the issue and let the rest of the world forget about it.
In the context of Taiwan, a special mention must be made of Singapore. In a small news item in mid-December, it was revealed that the two countries have resumed military relations, with a small number of Singaporean paratroopers currently participating in exercises on what China officially regards as a renegade province. They join an equally small number of US troops – believed to be in the low dozens – who have also been based there for several years.
How is it that Singapore has achieved the extraordinary result of having cordial relations with Beijing, Washington, Tokyo – and Taipei? Most countries would regard this as a feat of diplomatic alchemy similar to turning lead into gold. Exactly how Singapore has achieved this is unclear – and that alone gives a clue. Singapore is a quiet achiever, doing a lot behind the scenes and in a carefully crafted thoughtful way, avoiding the spotlight but known to be a skilful and honest broker in Asia and beyond.
As soon as it achieved independence in August 1965, the young nation was surrounded by much larger regional powers, many with unfriendly intentions. This was met by a combination of skilled diplomacy designed to build relationships and investing in the armed forces – trying to create the circumstances for regional cooperation and prosperity, but also preparing for the worst. In security terms today, this is a continuation of the “poisoned shrimp” approach – you might be big enough to try and swallow us, but if you do you will get very sick, possibly with fatal consequences for yourself.
Fundamentally, Singapore accepts the proposition that when China has been wealthy all of Asia has prospered. That applies to the trade-dependent island nation more than most. Having said that, Singapore is also independent and proud of it. Other much more powerful nations have been far less successful in constructing alliances because they are often loud and belligerent – and tend to provoke those responses in equal or greater measure from others.
To conclude with a quick regional wrap: after the military coup of 1 February, Myanmar is sliding in the direction of a major civil war because of the unnecessary brutal approach of the military. Unless something changes soon that country is on the precipice of major internal violence. There seems little that ASEAN can do to influence events and even China, should it wish to become involved, has influence on, but not control of, the Tatmadaw.
Many other parts of Asia will continue to be internally focused as the recovery from the Covid pandemic remains patchy and uncertain. The unfortunate people of North Korea will still suffer great hardships while the ruling elite lives in luxury, President Kim Jong-un’s recent weight loss notwithstanding. Indochina faces a long road ahead to a return to relative prosperity; much the same can be said of the Philippines. Indonesia is growing in stature as a major economy and a regional power, though some troubling signs of a return to a more authoritarian style of rule are apparent, especially in the form of the current Defense Minister and possible future President.
The relative strength of the US continues to decline – but slowly and not irreversibly. Overall it remains a force for stability in Asia. The greatest hope for 2022 is that Washington and Beijing can agree to bury that hatchet – just not in each other’s heads.
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