The world may well be shifting towards Asia, but China’s imperialism could be hindered by the resurgence of democracy in Asian countries.
The coronavirus is not only a health and economic crisis, it is a geopolitical one as well. It is upsetting the power balance, speeding up the rise of Asia and the decline of the West. The West has lost its control of world order after losing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria; it has lost its command of capitalism because of the 2008 crash; and the Covic-19 epidemic has shown its loss of control in matters of public healthcare.
Asia is emerging as the center of gravity of the world economy. It will show a 9.5% growth rate in 2021 – over twice that of the world as a whole (4.3%) – and it already accounts for 38.2% of world GDP. It is also the main theater of the conflict between democracies and authoritarian regimes, such as the major confrontation between the USA and China.
Beijing has taken full advantage of democracies’ inability to stand up to the successive crises that have occurred since the beginning of the century, of the destabilizing effects of populism on democracies, and of the withdrawal of the USA into nationalism and protectionism. Beijing’s expansion strategy has broadened in five areas. Firstly, the regime has toughened up on ideology in granting lifetime powers to Xi Jinping and making him the object of a personality cult. Secondly, it has annexed the South China Sea, taken back control of Hong Kong, and threatened Taiwan. Thirdly, it has asserted its leadership in the Pacific by concluding the Asian free-trade treaty on 15th November 2020, a treaty that covers 30% of the world’s population and its business activity. Fourthly, armed conflict with India has increased in Ladakh, which could serve as a testbed for high-intensity combat. Lastly, it has pursued its policy of projecting its totalitarian-capitalism model and encroaching on the West by means of its support for authoritarian regimes, new silk roads and diplomacy in matters of healthcare.
However, at the same time, there are signs that freedom is putting up some resistance in the Asia-Pacific region, and this gives cause for hope.
The best reactions to the Covid epidemic have been in the Far-Eastern democracies of Taiwan and South Korea, and in New Zealand. Taiwan’s success caused anger in Beijing, leading to China’s increasing its levels of pressure on – and intimidation of – the nationalist island by invading its air and sea space.
China’s threats to the Asia-Pacific region have been a wake-up call for the nations in the area, who are now seeking to contain its expansion.
From an economic standpoint, Taiwan is restructuring its supply chains so as to reduce its dependency on China. Also, Australia is refusing to give in to blackmail; just because it asked for an independent international enquiry into the origins of the pandemic, it has been subjected to an avalanche of sanctions targeting its exports of coal, minerals, cereals, meat and wine – which account for 40.4% of its international sales. It has retaliated by reviewing agreements between its collective authorities, universities and companies with Chinese entities. Equipment manufacturers and digital operators – the armed wing of Big Brother in Beijing – are increasingly being banned from the region.
From the strategic standpoint, the Asian democracies are rearming, and are making special efforts with regard to their navies, space and digitization. In November 2020, Australia signed a historic military agreement with Japan that also increases its cooperation with India. As a final point, the USA has reiterated its commitment to protect the sovereignty of Taiwan, to maintain a naval presence so as to guarantee free movement in the China Sea, and, under the Biden administration, it should return to the grand design of pivoting towards Asia by strengthening its links to its allies – particularly within the framework of the Quad agreements – as well as strengthening its military presence.
However, the most spectacular change has come from different peoples – and notably the young – who are no longer reluctant to rise up against authoritarian regimes. Hong Kong was a testbed: when Beijing challenged the restitution agreement of 19th December 1984 and passed the national security law on 30th June 2020, there was a revolt. Beijing scored a tactical victory but a political defeat. The fierce repression of the rebellion did not stop it from setting a precedent.
In Taiwan, resistance has been galvanized. In Thailand, students are defying the authorities and freeing themselves from taboos by contesting the monarchy in gthe person of the extravagant King Vajiralongkorn who lives in Germany and has amassed a fortune estimated at $40 billion. In Myanmar (formerly Burma), the coup d’état initiated by General Min Aung Hlaing on 1st February, after Aung San Suu Kyi’s LND obtained 83% of votes in the November 2020 elections, has had to face huge demonstrations and a civil disobedience movement led by civil servants, doctors, businesses and trades unions. The military junta has had recourse to violence – causing over 60 deaths – but the country is paralyzed, ostracized internationally by all nations, with the exception of China.
Political freedom is no longer something that is the affair of the West; the future of such freedom in the 21st century will mostly be played out in Asia. If the USA wants to maintain its leadership, it will have to conceive of and carry out an effective confinement of Beijing’s totalitarian-capitalism. Europeans must have an Indo-Pacific strategy. Democracies must ally with each other, unify around common values and security issues, and actively support Asian societies that are fighting for freedom.
(Article published in Le Point, 11th March 2021)