A colourful mosaic of power, potential and diversity

Too often, “Asia” is primarily equated with the People’s Republic of China, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The non-Chinese Asia-Pacific region is, in all respects, larger and more significant than the PRC. India alone, a clear regional superpower, now surpasses China in population. When combined, the economic strength and potential of non-Chinese Asia far outstrip that of the PRC.

For this brief analysis of the Indo-Pacific region excluding China, the global superpower USA—also a Pacific giant—is considered here only in terms of security aspects.

Nevertheless, it is evident that non-Chinese Asia comprises very diverse states. Accordingly, the analysis is divided as follows: First, India; then Japan and Korea; next Southeast Asia, meaning ASEAN; and finally the Pacific region, Australia, and the islands. All these countries share a primary challenge: balancing security interests, shaped by the need to counter Chinese expansion and maintained by the ongoing “Pax Americana,” against economic interests, which require a “working relationship” with China.

India: At a Crossroads

India has recently concluded parliamentary elections, resulting in a substantial surprise. The authoritarian and grandiose Narendra Modi—who has publicly and seriously questioned whether he was born of a mother or sent by the gods for India’s welfare—will remain Prime Minister but must now integrate his Hindu party into a coalition.

The nation stands at a pivotal moment. Either Modi and his party recall India’s history as a democratic multiethnic state with an independent judiciary, or he leads India, despite the people’s mandate, to the brink of civil war: the poor versus the (newly) rich and Hindus against Muslims and other non-Hindu minorities. Should he lack insight, he risks squandering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Due to a somewhat successful economic policy under Modi and a continent-wide shift away from China, India can become the standard-bearer of non-Chinese Asia.

This, however, remains in the future. In terms of security, Modi’s India has already made a fundamental shift from non-alignment to de facto integration into the non-Chinese defense front against Beijing. Economically and socially, much remains to be done before Delhi achieves the global power status Modi prematurely claims.

Japan and Korea: Balancing Acts

Japan is undoubtedly one of the few regional superpowers. The balancing act between the USA and China is particularly pronounced here. After roughly 30 years of stagnation, the Japanese economy is booming again, thanks to government stimulus measures—interest rates have finally turned slightly positive—and the growing global “move away from China” sentiment among companies and investors. Nevertheless, China remains a crucial factor for the Japanese economy, both in manufacturing and investment.

In security matters, Japan clearly perceives China as a threat. Tokyo is currently undertaking massive rearmament. Consequently, Japan is a founding member of the anti-Chinese Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, along with the USA, Australia, and India). Even more critical is Japan’s rapprochement with AUKUS (Australia, UK, USA), directly targeting China militarily.

These are also defensive measures to deter China from dangerous actions regarding Taiwan and support for North Korea, both of which could have devastating effects on Japan; for instance, the blockade of the Taiwan Strait would severely impact Japan’s foreign trade. Bilaterally, Tokyo is placing obstacles in the path of Chinese expansion in the region. For the first time since World War II, Japanese troops are to be stationed in the Philippines to resist Beijing’s brazen militarization of the South China Sea.

Overall, Japan is one of the USA’s close allies in the region. Therefore, Tokyo is deeply concerned about losing a reliable Washington if the unpredictable and irrational Trump were to reenter the White House.

Korea surpassed Japan in per capita income a few years ago and continues to be a thriving economic miracle with a resilient democracy. However, two factors could hinder its political and economic growth at the current pace. Domestically, hawks—currently in power but having suffered a setback in the recent local elections—and doves, who still see peaceful reunification with North Korea as a priority, are increasingly at odds. Economically, Korea is transitioning from an economy dominated by large conglomerates (Chaebols), which have excelled in manufacturing and technology since the 1970s, to an economy that develops and produces its own technology (chips, AI) in necessarily smaller units.

ASEAN: The Heart of Asia

What unites the ASEAN countries, despite their differences, is the belief that they represent the true Asia, the soul of the region, and the understanding that only together can they develop independently against the giants in the room—the USA, China, and India. Here, too, the balance between the security pole of the USA and the need for economic relations with the great neighbor China is evident. ASEAN will neither become an Asian EU—too diverse in every way—nor join an Asian NATO, which would mean open hostility to Beijing. Security policies are primarily bilateral, whether with the USA, Japan, or Australia, and sometimes even with China, such as in Thailand.

Several ASEAN countries are successfully working to increase their attractiveness as “non-Chinese Asia” for manufacturing and global exports by foreign companies (Indonesia, Vietnam, partly Malaysia, and, of course, Singapore). They are also relatively stable democracies, with the notable exception of Vietnam and increasingly Thailand, providing a degree of legal certainty—at least more than in China. Some important ASEAN members that rarely appear in European media deserve mention.

Indonesia is ASEAN’s anchor state. A smooth government transition has occurred this year, continuing the relatively open economic policies. However, the new president’s vice president is the son of the previous president Widodo, which might mark the start of a new political dynasty with all the corresponding cartel risks. Economically, Jakarta wavers between a new “greener” direction—funded by the new Indonesian sovereign wealth fund to finance the transition to a sustainable economy—and the traditional raw material base relying on fossil fuels. The construction and operation of the new Indonesian capital, Nusantara, in western Borneo, intended to be both an administrative center and an economic hub alongside Jakarta, will show how serious Indonesia is about becoming Asia’s “green” center.

Vietnam remains under the control of the Communist Party, which, unlike China, has so far allowed private enterprise relatively free rein. However, within two years, two state presidents—the second-highest office in the state after the Communist Party General Secretary—have resigned following convictions of their immediate subordinates for corruption. One of Vietnam’s richest individuals, entrepreneur Truong My Lan, was sentenced to death for corruption and fraud. The open question for foreign investors is whether this is genuine corruption fighting or internal power struggles within the elite, as in China.

Thailand has become the economic “basket case” of the former Asian Tigers under the ruling military, which dresses up in civilian clothes for elections and forms a political party. The GDP has been declining for ten years, and the inequality rate has increased, disadvantaging the rural population. The relatively young king, unlike his revered father, has become even more unpopular after appropriating state property—formally assigned to the crown—into his personal wealth. The military and king currently hold power; a coup spearheaded by the youth or a return to power by the Shinawatra family—father and daughter were prime ministers—possibly in collusion with the military, are both conceivable.

In Malaysia, the increasing Islamization is striking. Unlike Indonesia, an Islamic state striving for a modern, moderate Islam except for the Hindu island of Bali, Malaysian Muslims follow a Wahhabi-influenced, conservative Islam. This exacerbates the religious divide in the country given the large Chinese and smaller but active Indian minorities.

In contrast, Singapore has traditionally nipped religious tensions in its multiethnic population in the bud through rigorous state intervention, which is easier in the small city-state. Interestingly, Singapore, the “Switzerland of Asia,” offers its residents a living standard close to the Swiss but has a national debt of 170% of GDP, more than four times that of Switzerland, without a debt brake modeled on the Swiss.

The Pacific: Australia and New Zealand

From Europe, Australia and New Zealand, let alone the Pacific islands, seem “far away,” exotic, and primarily known as holiday destinations, making them politically underrepresented in our media. The robust self-image of the Aussies (Australians) is quite different. They rightly point out that their continent covers a significant portion of Asia’s western edge and, geographically at least, dominates access to the Indian Ocean with India. Thus, they hold a strategic position in the Indo-Pacific region, the focal point of this century.

Australia, a still predominantly Western country, is deeply concerned about China’s totalitarian reach into the region. Canberra has been working for some time with other Asian democracies to find an institutional response to Beijing’s aggression. The first pillar of this coalition, AUKUS (Australia, UK, US), involves an agreement to use American technology and British manufacturing to build nuclear-powered but conventionally armed submarines in Australia to reinforce the new East (China)-West (USA) front line in the Pacific Ocean.

Economically, Australia is trying to use its vast reserves of natural resources and land more internally, moving away from the previous model of raw material exports.

New Zealand is primarily an agricultural exporter and has long taken a softer approach toward China due to its economic interests. Under a new conservative government, this seems to be slowly changing, bringing the Kiwis (New Zealanders) back into closer security alignment with their traditional big brother, Australia.

Except for the large island of New Guinea—whose western part belongs to Indonesia, while the independent Republic of Papua New Guinea covers the eastern half—the Pacific islands may have small landmasses scattered over hundreds of individual islands, but they command enormous maritime territories in the Pacific. This makes them the focus of interest for underwater mining rights. Geopolitically, a tug-of-war is underway between China on one side and the USA/Australia on the other to secure bases along this East-West front line in the Pacific.

Conclusion: The Future of Non-Chinese Asia

The Asia-Pacific region beyond China is a vibrant and diverse mosaic of power and potential. Each country and region within this vast area faces unique challenges and opportunities, yet they all share a common goal: balancing security needs with economic growth. By working together and maintaining strong bilateral and multilateral ties, these nations can continue to thrive and assert their significance on the global stage, independent of China’s shadow. This collective effort will shape the future of the region, ensuring stability, prosperity, and a brighter future for all its people.

Source of Information: Journal 21, Switzerland, Daniel Woker


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