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East Asia’s Evolving Regional Order

Given the outsize impact of US-China competition on East Asian countries, even slightly improved bilateral ties would bode well in the near term. Nonetheless, new risks and political arrangements ensure that the region will continue to be characterized by great-power rivalry and many flashpoints.

WASHINGTON, DC – For several years, tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, along with the heavy impact of COVID-19 among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) economies, have posed serious diplomatic challenges in Southeast Asia. But recent developments in Northeast Asia, including escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula and deepening ties between North Korea and Russia, are equally troubling. A pall has been cast over the region, even as the prospects for a somewhat more stable Sino-American relationship have improved.

Still, given the outsize impact of Sino-American competition on East Asian countries, even slightly improved ties between the United States and China would bode well. US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s November 2023 meeting in San Francisco helped put a floor under an increasingly acrimonious rivalry, and the resumption of some military-to-military communications and regular diplomatic meetings among senior officials has reduced the risks of miscalculation and unintended conflict.

At the same time, expectations of slower economic growth in 2024 may dampen China’s urge to pursue a high-risk confrontation with the US or its East Asian neighbors over maritime and economic disputes. With cooling Chinese demand potentially hurting some businesses in the region, the US and other regional players might use the moment both to improve bilateral relations and to seek markets in other parts of East Asia.

A more stable US-China relationship would help other regional players. While the US, Japan, and South Korea have strengthened their cooperation, Japan and South Korea have also expressed an interest in repairing ties with China. South Korea, in particular, is looking forward to hosting a China-Japan-South Korea leaders’ summit this year, following a four-year hiatus, but it will need to court China to ensure that the event is a success.

Equally, a recent victory for the Sino-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan’s elections will not necessarily translate into greater cross-strait tensions. Since no party won a legislative majority, and since President Lai Ching-te received less than 50% of votes, the DPP lacks a mandate to alter the status quo, and a super-majority of Taiwanese do not want it to try.

On the economic front, US export and investment restrictions aimed at China are unlikely to ease even with improved Sino-American relations, though multinational companies based or operating in East Asia will face less uncertainty. Semiconductor manufacturers and tech firms that have taken steps to “de-risk” – that is, reduce – their ties with China will continue to adjust to the new supply-chain ecosystem that has emerged in the face of “weaponized interdependence,” and countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia will continue to benefit. The ASEAN countries that are becoming more integral to the new technology ecosystem could be poised for faster growth this year.

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Developing countries across the region will continue to receive Chinese capital and investment through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and gain from increased funding furnished by the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others seeking to counter Chinese influence. That said, China’s need to address domestic economic concerns, coupled with increased sanctions and outbound investment controls against Chinese firms, may slow the overall rate of BRI investment this year.

Now we come to the worrying developments on the Korean Peninsula. Early this year, North Korea fired approximately 200 artillery rounds near the South Korean border, and the South Korean military responded with several hundred rounds of its own. Equally ominous, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ended his country’s longstanding policy of favoring reunification, instead declaring South Korea a foreign enemy state. All signs, including North Korea’s rhetoric, point to further provocations on the peninsula.

These inter-Korean tensions will have regional and potentially global repercussions, as the US, Japan, and South Korea enhance their security cooperation and increase their defense and deterrence capabilities. At the end of 2023, the trio fully implemented a real-time missile-warning system and established a multiyear plan for trilateral military exercises. Bilateral ties between South Korea and Japan also will continue to improve, despite some domestic resistance. Even if South Korea’s liberal opposition party gains more seats in the National Assembly following the general election this April, escalating threats on the Korean Peninsula will create a strong rationale for a deeper security partnership.

After all, with both Russia and China in its corner, North Korea feels emboldened. Relations with Russia will continue to deepen as the Kremlin provides economic, technical, and military support in exchange for North Korean munitions. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to travel to Pyongyang, following Kim’s meeting with Putin in Russia last September. White House officials describe the new Russia-North Korea military cooperation as “unprecedented,” warning that it could “drastically” change the nature of the threat in the region.

It remains to be seen what role China will play in the emerging axis with Russia and North Korea. The Chinese remain wary of strengthened US alliances in East Asia, which they criticize for heightening tensions and reinforcing a “Cold War mentality.” But China’s own behavior has pushed US allies – including Japan and the Philippines and Australia and South Korea – to boost their own bilateral defense ties. To avoid containment and encirclement, Xi may offer his full support to Putin and Kim as they pursue a common objective of undermining America’s regional influence.

Looking ahead, East Asian countries will continue to adapt to a new economic order characterized by de-risking, supply-chain resilience, and policies to protect critical and emerging technologies. Strategic competition between the US and China will remain the elephant in the room, framing geopolitical decision-making for political leaders regionwide. But as the two countries take pains to sustain dialogue, there may be slightly less drama in the near term.

With the approach of this year’s US presidential and congressional elections, however, domestic political pressure on both major parties to demonstrate resolve against America’s rival will heighten anti-China rhetoric. It remains to be seen whether regional players can help the US and China exercise ongoing restraint, especially with respect to the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait.