A Crucial Year for the Asia-Pacific Region: Gauging Elections and Strategic Transformations

Authors: Richard J. Cook and Maximilian Ohle*

With the increasing severity of the Sino-US peer competition, the Asia-Pacific faces a crucial year. South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Australia, all linchpins of Washington’s regional security order, face major elections, which have the potential to impact the wider regional strategic constellation, with lasting ramifications. Concurrently, the lack of any foreseeable results from the attempted détente between Beijing and Washington last November 15th, renders the relationship fraught, with distrust, misunderstandings and increasingly aggressive rhetoric, depicting a Scold War. Beijing seeks a controlling stake in regional trends and developments, more prominently influence over changes to the regional status quo in a way favorable to China without exacerbating perceptions of a China threat. Washington by contrast seeks to retain regional supremacy and continue to patron a regional order for democratic actors. The competing regional visions are identified with the narratives of Beijing’s idealistic-sounding “Community of Shared Destiny for Mankind” and the United States’ “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. In the foreground of this competition, fancy footwork of balancing security with the US and economic benefits from China has served local actors well, however with competition gearing up for the long haul, this playoff is now struggling to come to terms with new uncertainties, as the elections show.

Since coming into office, President Biden stressed the importance of regional alliances and partnerships, and signaled a commitment to revitalizing and even expanding them. However, Biden thus far has not been able to deliver an alignment directive befitting to the US partners’ political strategies amid the Sino-US peer competition, and therefore protracted a solid basis of US leadership, despite a resurgent demand for it. Also, in the foreground, are a range of region-wide concerns about China’s behavior, involving inter alia the territorial claims in the South China Sea, the wider geopolitical impact of the Belt and Road Initiative, the handling of Hong Kong SAR and cross-strait relations. Moreover, Beijing appears somewhat aloof when attempting to reconcile signals and actions, which have noticeably pushed Asia-Pacific states away from its regional leadership aspirations. So, how will the 2022 elections impact the wider Asia-Pacific strategic transformations and what might this entail for the Sino-US peer competition?

The Race for the Blue House

March 9th will arguably see the region’s most significant election in South Korea, between the incumbent Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) with Lee Jae-myung as presidential nominee and Yoon Seok-youl’s conservative People Power Party (PPP). The Presidential race, in which President Moon is unable to run due to presidential term limits, is largely seen as a neck-and-neck competition.

Here, the contrasts between the regional strategic conceptions of the parties are notable. The DPK thus far has hinted a ‘more of the same’ government program, primarily as it appears set on continuing a quiet strategic balance with the Sino-US competition as a means to cooperate with China over the DPRK. The DPK have also continued efforts to initiate an earlier handover for full operational control (OPCON) of the military, a significant step to signal a peacetime security condition. It is hoped that this may aid the inter-Korea détente by de-emphasizing wartime footing, a crucial agenda for the DPK designed to build upon Moon’s preference for enhancing inter-Korean dialogue, which is now showing signs of reversed fortunes due to Pyongyang’s recent missile tests. The PPP by contrast represents greater strategic clarity. Strong signals of support for the rules-based liberal international order, all but insinuating their stance towards Beijing, is the name of their game. This chimes well with the conservative reaches of South Korea being more skeptical in dealing with the DPRK. The PPP would also likely lean towards cooperation with the QUAD in order to shore up security partnerships in the region. Surprisingly, both parties hint at improving trilateral coordination with Japan and the US, although it is unclear how far this can go, given historical grievances and nationalist overlays.

In Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un’s new year address didn’t feature nuclear weapons, despite the DPRK having resumed strategic deployment and missile carrier testing. Kim’s address also struck unusual tones, in admitting various domestic and economic shortcomings, largely in part to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, recent weapons testing can be seen as a means to gauge Seoul’s election response, in part to give Kim a peak into what he might be dealing with post-election, and to signal that despite Covid-19, the regime in Pyongyang is still firmly committed to developing its deterrence posture. With expected provocations, Kim may well be an impetus for Seoul’s increased Northeast Asia cooperation with the US, which may inadvertently challenge China’s own security concerns with the US and its allies, particularly in regional security integration, as well as missile detection and defense technology.

Continuity for Canberra

With Canberra’s hardening stance over Beijing, both the ruling National-Coalition led by incumbent PM Scott Morrison and the Labour Party under Anthony Albanese have signaled their intent to maintain strategic continuity whatever the outcome of the Australian Federal Election this May. This is in large part due to an Australian consensus on China’s assertive posturing and growing concerns pertaining to Beijing’s regional aspirations in the Asia-Pacific, and taking the brunt of China’s displeasure over calls by Canberra for an independent Covid-19 investigation into its origin. Long lists of Australian goods were hit with informal trade restrictions as Beijing responded to what it saw as an anti-China stance. Here Beijing’s modus operandi appears to have been rooted in a Chinese proverb, “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys”, yet results have unmistakably backfired.

Canberra’s response has been to shore-up with likeminded partners. Although not exclusively security focused, the QUAD retains a key commitment and developing tool for strategic engagement here to promote a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific for like-minded states–which Beijing views as a potential precursor to a “Cold War-like” NATO alliance. AUKUS, which upstaged QUAD last year, although controversial, is designed to go further as a trilateral military technology accelerator. Equally, the agreement has received bipartisan support. At its core, Canberra evidently sees nuclear capability for the Royal Australian Navy submariner force as crucial in wake of the deteriorating security environment. However, providing this is a long-term strategy, expected to require decades of bipartisan continuity before a nuclear-powered submarine can be operationally delivered.

A more pressing geostrategic concern is Beijing’s developing influence projects in Pacific Islands states, which have come to surface, particularly over foreign aid spending and presence. Nevertheless, the Morrison administration appears to be lackluster in the face of climate issues. Here, Pacific Islands states name climate change as their primary concern, therefore mismatched preferences would require strategic modification in Canberra if Australia were keen to provide its own regional efforts.

Manila’s Fine Line between Washington and Beijing

Since President Duterte signaled his intent to abrogate the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a pillar of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), a lot has changed. With US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s 2021 July visit, the Duterte administration made a dramatic U-turn, not only extending the VFA indefinitely but hammering out a Joint Vision Statement at the Bilateral Security Dialogue last November which reaffirmed the significance of the VFA and MDT. Now the rebound of Washington-Manila security relations appears to be threatened with the May 9th Presidential Elections, prompting efforts to employ gains as fait accompli for security ties with Washington no matter the election outcome.

Lingering questions concerning the reliability of the US security commitment to Manila is still a clear issue going into the elections, particularly in the wake of China’s growing capabilities in the South China Sea and influencing projects in the Philippines. Son of the former controversial President Marcos (1965-1986) and front runner Ferdinand Marcos Jr. currently leads the polls and has signaled intent to return to the earlier Duterte-esqe engagement policy with China. This not only threatens to undo the progress made last year, but represents a strategic headache for the US as the loss of Manila would present a significant geopolitical black hole in the island chain of allies and partners surrounding China.

Presidential candidate and current Vice President Leonor Robredo has called for engagement with Beijing in non-conflict areas. Specifically she noted, “For China, we will collaborate with them in the areas that we have no conflict, such as trade and investments, much like what Vietnam has been doing. But when it comes to the West Philippine Sea, we cannot deal with them without their recognition of the arbitral ruling”. However, this not only seems unfeasible due to obvious differences in Manila and Hanoi’s strategic circumstances vis-à-vis Washington, but also due to Beijing’s rejection of the arbitral ruling. With other Presidential candidates enjoying only marginal polling support, both Marcos Jr. and Robredo are a cause for concern for Washington.

Kishida’s Kokkai Elections

On July 25th 124 of the 245 seats in the House of Councilors of National Diet or Kokkai will face elections. Here, the ruling coalition retaining a majority would largely solidify PM Kishida’s position for the foreseeable future. Success largely rests upon his post-Covid-19 economic revitalization direction, of which a potential constitutional revision termed “New Capitalism” is central. Election victory, would allow his government to set out a sought after strategic vision, which is expected to push for a greater realization of a free Indo-Pacific alliance. Amid this, the desire for a New Security Strategy, National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-Term Defense Program were all signaled as goals for PM Kishida in the recent Japan-US Summit due to a shared understanding of the deteriorating regional security environment. Correspondingly, the summit re-signaled that Article V of the Japan-US Security Treaty applies to the Japan-China Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute, indicating Washington’s indirect security support for the dispute.

In order to bolster pre-election regional momentum, Kishida has indicated an intention to host a QUAD summit in Japan in the first half of 2022, although this is yet to be confirmed. Nevertheless, an electoral sticking point will be in how to approach Seoul. While the prospect of energizing Japanese-Korean-US trilateral cooperation retains a specter of optimism, a more nuanced nationalist reality remains an obstacle on the issues of comfort women and wartime labor akin to historical grievances. Concomitantly, the on-going Japan-South Korea trade war still requires a conclusion. For the US getting Japan and South Korea to work together under a trilateral framework would cement a Northeast Asia security flank, and would present a strategic breakthrough.

Whatever the election outcome, misconstrued remarks from officials in Tokyo concerning Japan’s policy towards the Taiwan Strait struck a chord in 2021. It was inaccurately suggested that Japan would commit to defending Taiwan, which would mark a major strategic shift for the region. Considering rising cross-strait tensions have come to overshadow East Asian security, and concerns over Beijing’s assertion that it reserves the right to use force on the issue, Tokyo is likely to remain intentionally vague, yet reaffirm 2005 calls for a peaceful resolution to cross-strait relations.

Potential Election Impacts

Conditions in which Washington can solely rely on regional partners to contain most threats in the region, supporting them with economic, diplomatic, and military aid, eliminating endemic free riding, still appear far-flung. A vicious cycle is at work here whereupon allies lack motivation to remedy their shortcomings. They know that Washington can pick up the slack and protect common interests with or without them, recognizing that if they do begin picking up the slack, they will likely incur Beijing’s ire with a certain prospect of economic retaliation, if not the loss of economic benefits. These circumstances are paired with the Biden administration’s ability, if not its culpability, in getting allies to step up and take on definable proactive responsibilities, and remedy capability deficiencies, upon which the Trump administration’s disruptions to the Trans-Pacific alliance structure engrave lingering concerns over US reliability. More pressing for Biden’s efforts are some allies and partners’ recent history of strategic ambiguity over China, wherein they are attempting to not take sides.

The 2022 election results may provide the inertia for closer strategic alignment. A requirement would be the need for Washington to knit together Asia-Pacific allies and partners’ strategies, as no single actor can manage China. This appears problematic for the regional security architecture under the hub-and-spokes system due to its bilateral nature, as it is based on providing bilateral security arrangements, and not designed that US partners in the Asia-Pacific can collectively balance against China. Another identifiable problem however, is hedging–cultivating a middle position that forestalls or avoids having to choose one side to offset risks at the obvious expense of the other–as a regional strategic culture. Hedging, by regional states, nevertheless serves to strengthen the security challenger, and undermines any attempt to restrain the challenger as local actors would forgo any heavy lifting–a result of the aforementioned vicious cycle. Yet, as systemic pressures from Sino-US relations intensify, and due to local actors’ heightening concerns towards Beijing, the space to hedge appears to be shrinking, opening the door for closer strategic alignments. Chinese bilateral trade and investment relations are increasingly securitized and there are greater prospects at strategic convergences with Washington, which are reflected in these elections. Here, Canberra and Tokyo represent states that can tack harder across the Pacific to Washington for their security post-elections, with Manila likely opting for another, if not limited, détente with China. Seoul’s neck-and-neck elections are too close to call, but a PPP victory may trigger a significant strategic transformation in Northeast Asia. While still picking up the pieces from Trump’s inexplicit illiberal foreign policy direction, Biden’s shaky foreign policy record, most prominently the Afghanistan debacle, will likely feature heavily in US midterms in November. Despite bipartisan consensus on competition with Beijing, Biden may opt to take a strong and more assertive stance on China.

Beijing too will be keen to gauge the shifting Asia-Pacific calculus, and more specifically the fungibility of China’s economic clout against the securitization of bilateral trade relations, and the wider reception of Sino-armament vis-à-vis, chiefly, territorial claims. This is of particular concern, as economic relations continue to spill over into political and security relations. China’s economic power has only proven disruptive to US regional supremacy, still limited in its ability to provide comprehensive regional leadership. A telling sign may well be that Beijing has pushed regional states too hard, whereas Washington has not pulled them hard enough. As such, re-alignments are looming in the region.

*Maximilian Ohle is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, Germany. His research interests include China-Russia Relations, Hierarchy in International Relations and International Security in East Asia.

Richard J. Cook
Richard J. Cook
Richard J. Cook Ph.D. is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow of International Relations in the Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University, China. His research interests include China-U.S. Relations, Hierarchy in International Relations and International Security.