Travis Kupp, a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the impact of internal
chaos on Asian futures through his eighth blog post. The views expressed are
those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
It is said that nature abhors a
vacuum. While the truth of that proposition may be debated in the physical
sense, it is almost certainly true of power politics. In Asia, the incumbent
powerhouse is headquartered in Beijing, where one could say that all major roads
under construction on the continent lead. However, for much of recent history
this has not been the case for China and, even with a substantial lead today, it
is not a guaranteed future. If China were to soon fall into a state of internal
turmoil, the rest of the continent could experience a period of political and
economic refactoring. Alternatively, the collapse of an even more powerful China
in the future could leave the rest of Asia in a state of dangerous disarray. As
and when the country undergoes such a massive shock, Asia’s future will change
In a near-future turmoil scenario,
China’s still incomplete work of hegemony over Asia may allow for a gradual
shift in the center of gravity. Southeast Asia could take back ownership of its
manufacturing base, decreasing dependency on their giant neighbor and giving
rise to a rebalanced ASEAN with a more assertive bloc of the smaller nations.
However, with a more volatile partner and less attractive market to their north,
these states will need to look elsewhere for reliable trade partners. These will
likely be found westward.
Meanwhile, India and Russia would
find themselves in a struggle to lead the continent’s economy and to pursue
their agendas in Central Asia more tenaciously with one major player distracted.
The full potential of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) dashed, affected
nations will be left indebted to a nation unable to effectively enforce its
covenants. New projects could take control of and repurpose some of this
existing infrastructure to more strongly connect Russia and Europe to India and
the Southeast. The net effect would be an Asia now led from its West.
If China is able to keep major
change at bay until after the successful entrenchment of the BRI and significant
military expansion, the rest of Asia may react in a more extreme manner. In this
future, Japan’s debate over remilitarization will be resolved overnight in favor
of protecting itself from an unpredictable neighbor. The island nation would
likely also need to quickly overcome its differences with South Korea in order
to establish a stronger defensive position. China’s struggle for sovereignty of
its coastal waters would heat up quickly.
Resentment toward Chinese hegemony
in BRI-dependent states would also begin to boil over as dependent economies
collapse. India and Russia would see opportunities for strategic advantage in
greatly weakened Central Asia, Pakistan and Kazakhstan especially, but would
need to tread carefully. China would be in a position to retaliate swiftly and
forcefully if threatened by such encroachment, assuming the military takes a
leading role in re-establishing stability in the state. However, rising threats
in the East could weaken this position.
Whenever a tumultuous social and
political change strikes China, its neighbors will be obliged to act. Peaceful
outcomes would involve significant rethinking of economic flows and
relationships across Asia with an opportunity for China to reintegrate when it
stabilizes. If China’s turmoil occurs after its rise to dominance is more
complete, the continent would at best be thrust into a state of heightened
tension, and at worst into the next global war. Asia and the world can only hope
that any major difficulties in China will occur slowly enough, and perhaps soon
enough, to avoid such an outcome.