Asia’s 2020 vision
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, Asia continues to bolster its position as a hard-driving economic force on the world stage.
Politically, it is also redefining itself within an Asian narrative as opposed to the one set from America or Europe over the centuries.
Since the colonial era, Asia’s story has been one of political tension in which Western liberalism(earlier seen as the quest to ‘civilise’) has been pitted against the minestrone of political systems, religions and cultures that run through the region.
The result has been several wars, a myriad of insurgencies and now, with China’s rise, there is fear that history will repeat itself with Asian countries once again being asked to choose sides.
The last decade saw the big beasts – China, India and Japan – as regional rivals spending much energy on turf battles to test each other’s strengths. Theseranged from a Sino-Indian military face-down on the remote Himalayan Doklam Plateau to anti-Japanese protests over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
There is now a change of mindset that is likely to gather pace in 2020.
Partly prompted by the United States’ distancing itself from regional institutions, Asia has now had an opportunity to imagine its long-term destiny outside the American security umbrella. This has led to a natural osmosis, a confluence of ideas and logistics, and a realisation that if Asia is to succeed, it needs to avoid being torn apart by pending super-power rivalry and find mechanisms to work together without destructive tension.
Hostilities have now eased in the Himalayas and the East China Sea. This development has also given us an insight as to how Asia’s indigenous 21stcentury character might evolveand the wider world might react.
India and China, Asian giants with opposing political systems, have taken the lead by using un-Western and illiberal methods to deal with restlessness within their borders.
Underpinned by thousands of troops and with curfews and arrests, India stripped its only majority Muslim territory of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and followed up with legislation that discriminated against granting Indian citizenship to Muslims.
Meanwhile Chinaput a million of more Uighur Muslims into prison camps and bulldozed their mosques. By year’s end reports of rape, torture and disappearances were plentiful.
Overall international reaction has been muted in a way that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. The US state department issued standard condemnation to both governments while Congress passed lacklustre laws against Beijing. There has been next to nothing from the wider Muslim world.
To the south, China faced democracy protests in Hong Kong, whose wealthy and educated population has been rejecting the encroachment of Communist Party rule.
The protests have found little support within the region and, in their quest for international help, the protestors had to reach across to Washington and London. Even there, what they found was limited.
Some of this can be put down to the leverage China carries against weaker governments which prefer to keep their views below the parapet.
But there is something deeper afoot in that the issue of human rights, that pillar of the Western liberal world order, has far less resonance in Asia than in the West, and how this unfolds may well define Asia’s relationship with Western powers over the next decade.
Running parallel has been the continuing failure of the US to set up a regional military alliance to balance China’s expansion and the Quadrilateral Dialogue, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US, has not percolated as Washington had hoped.
To fill the vacuum, the former colonial powers, Britain and France, are redeploying to the region, creating a spectre of Beijing being kept in check by the very same navies that inflicted China with its Century of Humiliation.
Ironically, such a situation might end up benefitting all.
Despite differing views about individual freedom and human rights, Asian governments know there are lines that should not be crossed if Western sentiment is not be inflamed, particularly in the US Congress. At the same time, the US knows that its capacity to create a China-balancing front of like-minded governments is limited because each country has to decide its long-term relationship with Beijing.
In that respect, 2020 is likely to see a change of challenge in the Indo-Pacific from one of managing the rise of autocratic China to that of managing the rise of Asia that has no underpinning religion, political system or ethnicity.