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Decoding 2023 | Conflict & The Power Struggle In Asia

Just when we were done fighting a global pandemic, we were greeted with a destructive war that can result in economic turmoil. If it wasn’t enough to see our loved ones die in our arms from a deadly virus, our bloodthirsty world leaders needed a new way to entertain themselves.

So they engaged in a bloody war where innocent lives will be lost while some individuals and corporations will pile up on money from the military-industrial complex. While the poor and developing countries will starve due to a disruption in the global supply chain, the superpowers will engage in a scuffle to maintain hegemony.

The Cold War That Never Ended

It took a war between Russia and Ukraine for the world to realize the cold war actually never ended. Over the years, the power struggle between the west and other world power became more visible, and the rising tensions in 2023 will serve as a stark reminder.

2023 will be an important year for Asia, where many countries will try to define & shape democracy. The notion of democracy that was interpreted by the west is slowly altering. It is becoming a thing of the past, a facade of freedom where people are given the privilege to elect their government.

The idea of democracy was modern and so well accepted, it spread like wildfire. By the early 2000s, democracy had spread from 44 to 140 nations worldwide in just 15 years. Despite the optimism in the early 1990s that the world was bending towards Western concepts of an open, rules-based society, many feared democracy would devour itself and will not last.

While most countries are hanging on to the essence of democracy, some have deemed the western conception of democracy to be “outdated.” The foundation of democracy is eroding further and further.

The coming year will see a global reset. An iteration of a power struggle between liberalism and autocracy. Some countries are already romanticising an electoral autocracy in the shroud of democracy.

So how will the struggle between liberalism and autocracy play out in the coming days? And are we heading towards a paradigm shift in global politics?

Since the beginning of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24, it is becoming painfully obvious that most countries are now split between backing the west or supporting the new alliance that is emerging with other key world powers.

We will talk about the emerging world powers and the momentous shift of western hegemony in detail. But first, let’s talk about Asia and the geopolitics around it.

The Power Play In Asia

The tussle between China and the US is nothing new. For years during the cold war era, the US and the soviet union fought proxy battles all across the world. Fortunately, the battle with China is not happening on a war front, at least for now. It’s more of an economic and strategic battle with China. Although both of these superpowers have allies in Asia who are in a decade-long standoff.

So what is China’s strategy towards Asia? Especially with the southeast and Taiwan. It’s all about influence, dominance and trade. Till the last decade, the US had a stronghold in Asia. It all started by the end of world war 2 when America decisively crushed Japan and went on to emerge as an Asian powerhouse. The US started to build military outposts in the region and Japan became an important ally in the Indo-pacific.

US imperialism in Asia was undermining China’s dominance till now. But things have started to shift in the opposite direction. The US will have a hard time maintaining its hegemony in this part of the world. Today, the novelty is that a second superpower, communist China, is striving for supremacy in Asia. And they are persistent!

With China’s Xi Jinping consolidating power, he has echoed the changing reality: the Asia-Pacific is no one’s backyard. This sends a clear message to the US. China won’t like a military power play in their hood.

But losing Taiwan would be a huge blow to the US and its status quo.

For China, Taiwan is a piece of its unfinished puzzle. An undivided land of the great Chinese empire, Taiwan was always considered a breakaway province by China. China even has plans to unite the island with the mainland by 2049, but many political analysts suggest that it is going to happen sooner than expected. And this will have global ramifications and could break out into an all-out war with the US.

China’s successful annexation of Taiwan would send a strong message to the rest of the world. Not only it will reinforce its dominance in Asia it will also put a huge question mark on American hegemony.

Losing The Status Quo

The US is already playing a losing hand in Asia. Remember how the whole world mocked the US when they pulled out from Afghanistan? Following the withdrawal of Western forces, the horrible sights of desperate Afghans attempting to flee Kabul were a prime illustration of US betrayal, vacillation, and poor diplomacy. The Western-backed government collapsed like a house of cards within months of withdrawal. Even though the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was long overdue and inevitable, the manner they did it—leaving the nation in ruins—made them a laughingstock.

Not only it was an economic and military defeat, but it was also a moral defeat for the US. Even their allies in the west heavily criticized their decision of a messy withdrawal.

After pouring in trillions of dollars, and killing thousands of innocent civilians the US achieved nothing out of this war against terror. Well, some people actually did make a fortune out of it because a huge chunk of it was funnelled back to US government contractors.

The Chinese state media even mocked the operations in Afghanistan and said “When you feel life is going nowhere, just think: with 4 U.S. presidents, 20 years, 2 trillion dollars, 2,300 soldiers’ lives… the regime of Afghanistan changes from Taliban to… Taliban.

However, the chaos in Afghanistan was only a reflection of how the US is losing its dominance in Asia.

Many are worried that America will ditch Taiwan and straddle the fence. Even though they are clear on their foreign policy regarding Taiwan, it is hard to gauge how the US will intervene if China decides to annex Taiwan as it can lead to a potential war.

Why Taiwan Matters?

As Chinese power has grown, so has its aggression towards Taiwan. Its growing confidence and military strength make an attack on Taiwan very likely in the coming years. But it’s not just about strength and asserting dominance, there is also a sense of fear that can trigger this conflict.

Many US presidents have vowed to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty and thriving democracy. President Joe Biden even stated several times that America would defend Taiwan if it were attacked. Even if America doesn’t support Taiwan’s independence explicitly, the US wants the Taiwanese people to decide for themselves.

This ambiguous support for Taiwan makes it even more concerning for China as they have to keep guessing America’s intentions towards Taiwan.

Despite its intense desire to seize control of Taiwan, China is delaying action in favour of taking it swiftly. Unlike his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Premier probably will not engage in a reckless gamble with Taiwan soon. President Xi Jinping will probably assess all the scenarios and think about the counter-offensive from the west before taking Taiwan. And after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China will learn from the mistakes the Russians did with their military operations and will have a clear view of how the US and the west would retaliate.

And they will certainly take some time to think about proofing China against the kind of sanctions and economic blockade that have crippled Russia. China is dipping its toes now and then by conducting military drills near Taiwan to show its dominance in the region and see how America reacts. Yet while the temperature around Taiwan will rise in 2023, it is unlikely to boil over into a hot conflict.

China’s Influence in South Asia

For now, China will be more interested in gaining political and economic influence in Southeast Asia. China’s investment is transforming its smaller Southeast Asian neighbours like never before. It’s transforming south Asian countries into economic hubs where they can export Chinese goods and provide Chinese companies with low-cost alternatives outside China.

Additionally, China is making significant investments in infrastructure projects, particularly those connected to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For China, this will open up a safer and more effective trading route.

China’s foreign policy is pretty straightforward: it’s recruiting other countries as supporters by becoming strategic and development partners. On the other hand, it’s turning poorer countries into clients by funding development projects.

China, in contrast to the US, does not wish to meddle in the internal affairs of other nations.

So it really doesn’t bother China how other countries are governed unless it clashes with their interest, which is significantly favourable for autocrats. Its financial aid and development projects are luring despots as customers, and its lack of scruples about abuses, democracy and human rights serves as an example to nations unhappy with the American-led status quo and their moral policing. Additionally, it opens the door for widespread corruption in nations with low democratic indices.

China does not wish to impose its communist ideology or political system on other nations. They don’t necessarily want countries to adhere to a set level of human rights or democracy; instead, what they truly want is a global order that exerts less influence over the policies of any sovereign nation.

China will also assert its dominance in the south China sea and will try to keep the tension in the region by provoking a crisis surrounding Japan’s disputed Senkaku islands.

North Korea In Play

But it’s not just China making the headlines in 2023, North Korea will also have its fair share of attention as the Nuclear thugocracy keeps the world on its toes with its sporadic nuclear warning. With North Korea, it’s always a minute to midnight.

In 2022, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, warned that his country had the right to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike in the event of an attack or if they simply feel threatened. Kim keeps making fiery statements about North Korea’s missile program and its full preparedness for an actual war.

If isolation can make you go insane, then it can’t be more true for North Korea. Being isolated from the whole world and dealing with all the sanctions from the west, North Korea is becoming frustrated and conducting a crazy amount of missile tests.

Kim Jong Un will most likely cause controversy by detonating a nuclear weapon before the end of 2023, probably much before. This will be the state’s seventh test and its first since 2017. He wants to expand the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities for self-defence. Additionally, he will probably demonstrate his nuclear capabilities and use them as a negotiating chip to obtain diplomatic and financial perks from the United States and its allies.

Just when there were whispers about Russia’s intention of using tactical nuclear weapons, North Korea joined the madness. And North Korea is a threat that’s very uncertain and can’t be measured. There is also a claim from Washington about North Korea helping Russian forces with missiles. This will further escalate the situation. North Korea lives with a fear of invasion and Kim Jong-un would go to any length to defend his country. And how North Korea reacts will depend a lot on the bilateral relationship between the US and South Korea.

India’s Balancing Act

Another region that’s been heating up lately is the high altitude of the Himalayas. No, not because of climate change, it’s the Sino-Indian border dispute that’s been going on for decades and the sporadic conflict between the two powerful neighbours. This conflict dates back to the colonial era when the brits established these murky borders when they were India’s imperial power. In 1962, China unilaterally declared a cease-fire to conclude the India-China war after India lost the border conflict. Both countries have tried to arrive at a lasting peace, but this border conflict has eluded them.

Today the relationship between the two nations is still sore but they are not itching for a fight. Both countries have different objectives for now. China wants its undivided focus to be on Taiwan and India is busy trying to better its economic situation. For years both countries have been trying to avoid war but still confronting each other at times and going back and forth. Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, knows that India will be outgunned in the mountain region. So it’s very likely that India won’t do any such thing to escalate the situation and will expect a calm border.

But China is not on the same page. They are trying to provoke by building a military outpost near its disputed border with India. Or it just could be a display of power from China. whatever the reason is, the undercurrents of tensions between the two nations still remain and will be visible in the coming year.

For now, India won’t be busy with its neighbours because there is still time for the next general election. Like earlier, Narendra Modi will probably exploit the “Pakistan” and “China” issues to further his political stance and gain mileage during the next election.

In 2023 India will be busy shaping its economy and will emerge as an Asian powerhouse. While most south Asian countries were absorbing the economic shock of Covid-19, India came out relatively unscathed. India’s economic forecast shows massive growth in the coming years. The central bank’s rate rises have been less brutal than those of rich countries. In comparison to America and Britain, let alone Pakistan and Sri Lanka, inflation, at around 7%, was pleasantly surprising for India.

India managed to come out strong after the setbacks caused by the pandemic which destroyed many better jobs and sent migrant workers back to the countryside. After the covid restrictions were lifted, migrants were able to move freely which revived the Indian economy and it became the fifth biggest economy, surpassing Britain.

Turbulent Time For South Asian Countries

But it wasn’t all sunshine for India’s neighbours. 2022 was a rough year for most south Asian countries financially and politically. Srilanka saw a massive uprising amid hyperinflation. When the country’s food and fuel supplies ran short, the people began to riot in the streets and the president was finally forced to leave the country. The Rajapaksa government became a prime example of a democratically chosen autocrat and dynastic politics.

This year was disastrous for Pakistan. An even more severe natural disaster struck the nation just as it was recovering from the COVID-19 epidemic. This unprecedented flood in Pakistan came in with economic baggage of $30-$40 billion. It is estimated that Pakistan will require at least USD 16.3 billion in rehabilitation and reconstruction to support the country’s overall resilience to future climate shocks and its adaptation to climate change. Pakistan will also have to worry about its debt repayment.

And Pakistan is not just suffering economically, the next year will be a more turbulent time in Pakistan’s politics. The ousted PM Imran Khan and his unwavering attitude toward changing the face of Pakistan politics are creating hurdles for the current regime. The Pakistani people are tired of the army deciding the course of Pakistan’s politics and Imran Khan has vowed to bring change. Even after a failed assassination attempt Imran Khan standstill.

“I’m more worried about the freedom of Pakistan than my life,” he told the crowd. “I will fight for this country until my last drop of blood.”He keeps pressuring the administration by demanding an early election.

The outcome of the next election will determine whether Pakistan’s Army continues to influence the country’s politics or if a more democratic Pakistan emerges.

Another crisis is escalating in Myanmar, where the Army seized control by toppling the elected civilian administration in a coup. Beginning in 2011, the end of total military control showed a glimmer of hope for democratic changes. However, the military remained to influence of a large portion of the administration.

Since the army took over in a coup last year, many have died. Years of oppressive military rule, extreme poverty, and civil strife with ethnic minority groups have all plagued the nation. The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population was spearheaded by the military.

The opposition formed a shadow government and fighting force joining with the ethnic groups to fight the junta, leading to a civil war and humanitarian crisis that could spill over Myanmar’s borders.

However, the generals are showing no intention of backing down and are becoming more oppressive with China’s unrelenting support. Neither it nor America wants Myanmar to serve as a new arena for great-power rivalry. However, the fuel that was poured will continue to burn the country for years.

Concluding Remark

Even though Biden made remarks about not letting China “win the 21st century”, in reality, China is the one dominating; at least in Asia. The end of the American era had come much earlier and it’s becoming more visible with more countries leaning towards China. China’s nonchalant attitude towards human rights and democracy makes it more enticing for autocrats who don’t like American moral policing of democracy.

But to believe that America would have less of an influence on world affairs would be foolish. America is and will remain a superpower for many more years to come. It’s just that, how influential it will be in the coming years will depend a lot on its internal politics rather than its foreign policy.

Written by Mustafizur Rahman

Mustafizur Rahman is a member of the Daccanomics editorial team.

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