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1 January 2021, Gateway House

Asian geopolitics in 2021

As 2021 opens, the post-COVID world can expect some changes in the geopolitics of Asia. It will involve altering equations in the Indo-Pacific among major, middle and small powers. These will fluctuate with characteristic familiarity, creating instability, tensions and strife, but not leading to military conflict – barring an unforeseen accident. Post-COVID, the world will be uncertain and complex.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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Soon after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic last March, many intellectuals rushed to speculate about the contours of ‘the post-Covid world.’ It was a premature exercise. Perhaps it remains so even now, as the new year opens. But greater clarity exists, enabling the framing of a series of questions and possible answers about what to expect in 2021 with regard to the geopolitics of Asia. The researched answers suggest that it is all going to be largely uncertain and complex.

First is the transition of power in Washington. Policies of the incoming Joe Biden administration will be an overarching determinant. The president-elect faces at least five key challenges: Covid, economy, Trumpism – if not Trump, polarisation in the U.S., and China. His domestic priorities may demand the greatest attention, but a mix of temptations and compulsions of claiming global leadership cannot be wished away, especially by a Democratic president. How he will balance the domestic and foreign policy priorities provides the backdrop in which other questions need to be considered.

Second is the health and efficacy of the Atlantic alliance. How soon and how well can the U.S. leadership repair relations with Europe and bring normalcy to U.S.-U.K. and the U.S.-EU ties in the light of a major positive development, the U.K.-EU post-Brexit trade deal; all this will merit a close watch. While the issues raised by U.S. President Donald Trump such as Europe’s financial contribution to the NATO budget will not go away, a reasonable expectation is for quick and adequate improvement. The early months will be moulded by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to host the D10 leaders’ conference and the new U.S. administration’s plan to convene a summit of the world’s leading democracies. The latter may take more time to materialize. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s likely visit to Europe in the spring could herald the restoration of traditional amity and solidarity among the U.S., Canada and their European allies.

Third, Asian affairs are going to be deeply affected by the next phase of the U.S.-China equation. Predictions of a swift return to civility and increased cooperation between the two major powers are beginning to give way to a more pragmatic view, namely a tough strategy towards China that has bipartisan support in the U.S. and it is, therefore, the only path for Biden to take. Nevertheless, American options are limited until Washington can persuade its European and Asian partners that Chinese aggression will be met by American assertiveness and determination, that some progress on economic decoupling and raising of the U.S. security profile in the Indo-Pacific will follow. Biden may, therefore, be in no hurry to meet the Chinese president before the former’s meetings with friendly Asian leaders, in particular the prime ministers of Japan, India and Australia.

Four, Russia’s relationship with the west on the one hand and China on the other has considerable potential to impact Asian power dynamics. The West is unable to prioritise its adversaries – China and Russia. The temptation to be tough on both powers at the same time means driving them closer together, an outcome which is harmful to western interests. Yet the European chancelleries as well as the U.S. government are unable to come up with a suitable strategy. The latest development – EU and China agreeing to conclude a trade and investment agreement – could create complications for the new U.S. administration, keen to craft a coordinated approach towards Beijing.  Will  the U.S. and EU  try something new in their relations with China and Russia, and will it work? Meanwhile, President Putin made it clear, astutely, that a military alliance between Russia and China was not necessary at present, without ruling it out in the future.

Five, the relevance and effectiveness of the quadrilateral partnership or the Quad (composed of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia) will come under critical scrutiny by the new policymakers in Washington. The awarding of ‘Legion of Merit’ to Prime Ministers Abe, Modi and Morrison by President Trump as a parting gift, projected the Quad as a signature project of his term. As in the past, China through its acts of omission and commission will mould the Quad’s trajectory in the future too. If Beijing fails to show accommodation to the U.S., India and Australia, the informal quadrilateral combine could turn into a formal institutionalised grouping. At the least, it should accelerate the task to deepen economic and technological cooperation with all Asian players that are willing to push back on China’s antagonism all along its periphery and beyond.

Six, the ten member-states of ASEAN, a vital stakeholder, fears the rising polarisation in the region. Its survival strategy revolves around the ritual insistence on ‘ASEAN centrality’ and ‘inclusiveness’, a mantra everyone chants but no one really believes in anymore. Several individual ASEAN states have already chosen their sides, while others will practise a form of non-alignment. The Quad will continue to work with those ASEAN states that are willing to be non-aligned with a tilt in its favour.

Finally, what future awaits India-China relations in this year? Experts have already judged 2020 as the worst year, after 1962, in the history of this relationship. What happens to it now will first depend on the resolution of the border impasse. Despite six months of protracted negotiations, a productive outcome has been elusive. Endeavours continue. A working agreement that leads to limited disengagement and de-escalation is both feasible and desirable. It could come, particularly since neither side is keen on a larger military confrontation. But what is certain is that the Sino-Indian relations may not regain in 2021 the overall positivity it registered until March 2020. The next Modi-Xi Jinping summit cannot be ruled out; in fact, it will be unavoidable if the BRICS summit, to be hosted by India this year, is in the physical format. But no one should bet on it to produce spectacular gains. This relationship, hobbled by the glaring asymmetry of power and Asia’s geopolitical divide, is set to stay problematic.

In short, changing equations in the Indo-Pacific among major, middle and small powers will fluctuate with characteristic familiarity, creating instability, tensions and strife, but not leading to military conflict – barring an unforeseen accident.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House. He has extensive experience of diplomatic work and study in Southeast Asia.

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