Autocracy maintains its grip on China, North Korea, and other Asian nations. The cold stares of security forces in Tiananmen Square and the empty chair of Liu Xiaobo at his 2010 Nobel Prize ceremony showed Chinese and foreign observers alike that China remains decades, perhaps generations, away from political freedom. As long as China remains un- free, democracy and autocracy will remain in a stalemate.
Yet autocratic regimes face their own grave dangers. There is probably no more important risk factor for Asian politics in the coming years than China. Talk to ordinary citizens in Beijing or Shanghai, and their pride in their country’s economic growth quickly turns to silence about its political future. Despite its economic successes, the Chinese Communist Party has become ever more isolated from the citizenry and is seen as corrupt, inefficient, and often brutal. With over two hundred thousand protests of varying sizes every year, China’s society is at more risk than most people realize. The party has kept a lid on dissent, but it has been able to do so in part because of the country’s huge economic gains. As growth starts to wane, unrest will very likely increase.
Visitors to Southeast Asia come away with similar concerns for long-term social stability. The question of whether to allow greater political participation is central to the politics of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, where the ruling parties are all grappling with how to maintain power while defusing popular demands for more open electoral systems. On the other hand, democracy can be swept aside, as in Thailand, whose continued instability appears to be a quasi-permanent threat to democratization. For Vietnam, how to ensure Communist Party control yet provide continued opportunity for business, as in China, is the overriding concern. The ultimate test will be how governments and their societies react to growing pressures and unmet expectations.
Although Asia’s nations face many of the same problems, there is little that links those nations together. Beyond a rudimentary sense of “Asianness,” there remains no effective regional political community. There is no NATO, no European Union in Asia that can try to solve common problems in a joint manner or to address bilateral issues in a broader framework. This lack of regional unity constitutes the fourth region in our risk map.
The danger is that there are no mechanisms for mitigating such deep antipathy, certainly between major players such as India and China or Japan and Korea. A nation like China is all too ready to threaten economic or political action in response to its antagonists. The various nations have few working relationships that can help defuse crises. Nor is there a core of powerful liberal nations committed to playing an honest broker’s role or trying to set regional norms. How well can Asia weather another regional economic crisis like the one in 1997, or a major border dispute?
This litany of economic and political risks might be enough to cause observers to alter their long-term assumptions about Asia’s prospects. Yet there is a fifth risk to be mapped, the most dangerous of all: war and peace. How close is Asia to seeing conflict erupt, and where? Not every dispute threatens peace, but today, the Indo-Pacific region is regressing to a nineteenth-century style of power politics in which might makes right. With the world’s largest and most advanced militaries other than the United States, and including four nuclear powers, a conflict in Asia could truly destabilize the global economy and spark a conflagration that might spiral out of control.
The immediate cause of rising insecurity is simple: as China has grown stronger, it has become more assertive, even coercive. Beijing has embraced the role of a revisionist power, seeking to define new regional rules of behavior and confronting those neighbors with which it has disagreements. Japan and Taiwan, along with many countries in Southeast Asia, fear a rising China, as does India, though to a lesser degree. That fear, fueled by numerous unresolved territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas and by growing concern over maintaining vital trade routes and control of natural resources, is causing an arms race in Asia. The region’s waters have become the scene of regular paramilitary confrontations. These fears and responses are triggering more assertive policies on the part of all states in the region, which only raises tensions further.
The “Asian Century” thus may not turn out to be an era when Asia imposes a peaceful order on the world, when freedom continues to expand, or when the region remains the engine of global economic growth. What it imposes may instead be conflict and instability.
If we wish to avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of a war in Asia or a widespread economic collapse, we need to understand the diversity of risks the region faces and to begin thinking about how to manage those risks. Given the importance of the Indo-Paciﬁc, we have little excuse for being taken by surprise by an Asian crisis. Nothing in this book predicts or presupposes any particular dire outcome, yet the very act of identifying dangers and thinking them through can lead to wiser investment decisions, policies, and intellectual engagements. This is risk analysis on a broad palette.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues.
Image: Shanghai skyline at night. GoodFreePhotos.com/Li Yang