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How could a China in turmoil affect Asia?

Posted By Travis B. Kupp, Monday, August 24, 2020

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 radically.


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.


© Travis Kupp 2020

Tags:  Asia  politics  turmoil 

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