Great power competition in Asia comes with the need for China and the US to secure alliances and partnership in the region. In the first half of the 2022, four of the major players – Japan, South Korea, Australia and Philippines – changed the government or held elections. In each of these countries how to relate with China was one of the biggest issues in foreign policy. After this electoral round, in Japan, South Korea and Australia there is clearly a negative stance on China, while in the Philippines Bongbong Marcos has yet to reveal his strategic positioning but is more aware than his predecessor Duterte of benefits and costs of siding with Beijing.
China strived to achieve hegemony
To gain consensus among regional and global partners has been at the center of China’s foreign policy since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013.
Through the lens of investments carrying mutual benefits for investors and countries receiving FDI under the narrative of backing the return to a successful shared past – the Silk Road – China attempted to build a large group of countries adopting its worldviews. Such an outcome is instrumental to reduce the costs for China to pursue its own economic interests abroad.
However, failed promises of shared benefits and an increasingly more assertive foreign policy ended in China not gaining the desired international consensus. On the contrary, China’s attempt to set the tone of the evolution of the current world order – as the BRI might be labeled – caused strong counterreactions of regional and global players.
Japan was the first to target China’s rise, at least since Shinzo Abe’s visit to India in 2007, when he pronounced the famous speech on the confluence of the two oceans that is the prelude of the strategic concept of the Indo-Pacific. Busy with other problems – namely, war on terrorism and global financial crisis – the US did not oppose China’s growing influence abroad until Trump came to power, and the Trade War started. If Trump preferred to act alone, the Biden administration is pursuing the same goal but through the establishment of several formalized diplomatic initiatives, such as the Summit for democracy, a strengthened Quad Summit, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, Aukus, Partners in Blue Pacific and more.
Therefore, is important to keep track of the evolution of the domestic politics of regional actors, to understand which side they will take. Indeed, a shift in Australian politics in 2007 caused the failure of the first version of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and, probably, a delay of a dozen years for the resurgence of a coalition aimed at dealing with China’s security concerns (military ambitions?). Something similar occurred in the Philippines, that represented the stronger adversary to China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea until 2016. In that year, Manila won an historical ruling at UNCLOS in June against China’s expansionism in contested waters, but few months later the newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte declared the need to depart from the long-term partnership with the Us and to side with China.
A semester that changed everything
At the time of current elections, the international environment is ever more polarized between the US and China’s camps. Shifting from one side to the other would be a matter of major international discord.
Therefore, being part of the “US’ camp” was not disputed in South Korea and Australia even if the election’s winner were of a different color of the incumbents. Yoon even participated at the NATO Summit in Madrid where the so-called “China threat” became part of its Strategic Compass. Australia’s worried posture vis-à-vis China has been intensifying in the last decade. Indeed, Australia’s economy is very much exposed to trade with Beijing and China leveraged its advantaged position in case of diplomatic and political disagreements. China’s economic coercion was paired with the fear of unfair interference in the local political system and with a new Chinese diplomatic push in the Pacific islands close to Australia. However, the reality of trade structure recommends preserving ties with Beijing as much as it is possible, a concern that is limiting also South Korean desires to fully rebalancing towards the US.
Political change in the Philippines is less sharp than in Seoul and Canberra. Marcos is formally not from the same party of Duterte, but the vice-president – Sara Duterte - is the former presidents’ daughter. In the last six years Manila experienced what it really means to side with Beijing and to distance itself from the US. At the beginning there will be promise for fruitful infrastructure investments and a less confrontational way for dealing with border issues, but at the end the promised investments did not materialize, and China did not compromise on what it asses it is its sovereignty rights over the South China Sea. Now Beijing is once again (after the launch of BRI) involved in a campaign to win new friends and escape from the Us diplomatic encirclement through the launch of the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the reboot of the Brics Summit. That means that new promises from Beijing might come soon, and Marcos seems to be willing to stay in a listening position.
Finally, Japan did not change its government in the last six months, but Fumio Kishida is prime minister only since October and the partial elections of the Upper House last July gave its side a majority able to emend the pacificist constitution, a political issue that characterized the premiership of Shinzo Abe, who was murdered at the vigil of the vote. That means that Japan will probably keep its position of leadership of country countering China’s rise.
The first half of 2022 has been quite an exceptional time. The war in Ukraine deepened a divide between the US and China that was dug in the previous years. Standing with one country or the other will affect domestic politics in Asia in the years to come. At the moment, the US seems stronger in the race to win regional friends, but China has recently promoted its counternarrative, siding with Russia in the call to redesign the international order.