Prognosis for 2018: The Asia-Pacific Region and Southern Asia
Prognoses for the countries of the Asia-Pacific region and Southern Asia (the results of 2017 are examined in detail here).
North and South Korea: the growth of tension around the DPRK
The heightening of tensions around North Korea will continue in 2018. Neither Pyongyang nor Washington will be unable to back down from warlike rhetoric and public declarations that have been made during the last year. The party that makes concessions the first in the Far East will be seen as having ‘lost face’, which will have a negative effect on the prestige of that side.
On the one hand, this will give opportunities for Russian and Chinese roles in the region, which can make use of the corner that the US has painted itself in by offering it a profitable solution to deescalate the problem without a loss of face for both the Americans and North Koreans. On the other hand, without the presence of such programmes or in case of their failure the risk of an armed conflict (even caused by pure coincidence, and at a moment of very high nervous tension this option isn’t impossible) will rise.
The possibility of a war will be decided by the DPRK’s real chances to execute a retaliatory strike against the US and its allies with an unacceptable level of damage (and the more time passes, the bigger these chances get) and by America’s chances to destroy an opponent that isn’t receptive to persuasion or pressure. The Olympics in South Korean Pyeongchang will give even more time to the DPRK to perfect its military technology.
From the neocon point of view, the DPRK should have been eliminated far earlier when it hadn’t yet created intercontinental missiles that can reach US territory. A threat to American dominance would have been destroyed, and Washington would have demonstrated what happens to those countries that dare to challenge it. But this did not happen (perhaps because the neocons aren’t all powerful in the Trump administration, and a continuous balance between the Bannonites and the neoconservatives is upheld), and Pyongyang has received critically important technology.
In 2018, tendencies that have been laid down earlier by the team of Xi Jinping will continue. The process of the strengthening of his personal power will see further development. Personal contacts between the Russian and Chinese leadership will continue. A more active Chinese involvement in solving the Syrian crisis and the process of Syrian national rebirth is possible.
In the sphere of military policy, China will continue reinforcing its positions in the South China Sea, making use of the fact that the US’ attention is drawn to North Korea.
The PRC is not interested in regime chance in the DPRK or a physical destruction of the neighbour that provides a military buffer that separates China from American bases and troops in South Korea. This is why China will never stop secretly supporting North Korea and will not accept measures that would fully and definitely strangle Pyongyang’s economy.
If we take into account the relative softness of South Korean leader Moon Jae-in and his willingness to begin a dialogue with Beijing, we can expect that the PRC will try to use this factor as well.
China will continue large scale military construction projects, primarily the creation of a modern ocean-going navy. The opening of new Chinese military bases or service stations in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Pakistan is possible.
As far as Japan is concerned, now that Shinzo Abe has the necessary number of deputies in both houses of parliament, he can initiate a referendum about changing the ninth article of the Japanese constitution. What is more, supporters of Kiike could theoretically back him on this. We can expect that such a referendum will be held as soon as 2018.
Based on such a perspective, a maximal level of pressure around the DPRK would be good for Abe in order for him to use a fear of North Korean military capabilities as a stimulus, so the Japanese would vote in the right way. What is more, it would be logical to hold the referendum when this fear reaches its nadir.
Abe will continue a policy of cooperation on the Kuril Islands with Russia and an emphasis on his personal ties to Putin, but if we take Tokyo’s clear pro-American policy and its readiness to allow the deployment of anti-missile systems and additional army units, Russia will not allow the dialogue to go further than the sphere of economic cooperation in one region.
Japan’s pro-American policy will continue. As a counterweight to the DPRK, the country will try to use not only the US but India as well, in addition to competing with China for investments in Africa and several countries in the East-Asia region (the Philippines are one example).
Cambodia’s policy of rapprochement with China will continue in 2018. Russia will also be of interest to the country’s leadership, mainly as a source of arms. Western sanctions will also push Cambodia to look for new markets, one of which might be Russia.
The pro-Western opposition might give battle, but it won’t do so legally, seeing as the main opposition party has been dismantled and will not have the possibility to take part in the elections. It is possible that they will try to destabilise the situation before the elections by provoking mass protests and anti-Vietnamese pogroms in the country.
On the other hand, the simultaneously pro-Western, anti-Chinese, and anti-Vietnamese character of the opposition and the Hun Sen regime’s determination to hold a dialogue with both Russia and the US make Cambodia a unique country, where the interests of Vietnam, China, and Russia coincide, which might positively reflect in the stabilisation of the entire region and the development of anti-American politics in South-East Asia.
Problems with the Rohingya and the genocide story will continue in Myanmar. The problem of Bangladesh’s demographic pressure on its neighbours, including on Myanmar and India, will continue, which means that this problem in theory cannot be solved. India and China will compete for Myanmar by offering the country infrastructural projects. Nonetheless, if we take Western criticism and India’s alliance with the US into account, Myanmar, which is balancing between Beijing and Delhi, will be closer politically and economically to China. The country’s strong ties in the sphere of arms trading with Russia will continue.
Vietnam, Laos, Thailand
The long-delayed general elections in Thailand will be held in the autumn of 2018. The military promises that it will not execute its next coup after the new elections. Changes in election law that have been executed in 2017 and the country’s new constitution are slated to weaken the position of the ‘Pheu Thai’ party and the so-called ‘red-shirts’, i.e. the political forces oriented on former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is currently living in Montenegro and has been accused of corruption. He was overthrown by the military junta in 2206. His sister Yingluck Shinawatra was prime minister from 2011 to 2014 and was also removed by the military. She is now located in Dubai, although she was sentenced in absentia to 5 years in prison.
In November 2018, the symbolically important ceremony of the cremation of king Rama IX will be held, and the official coronation of Rama X is slated to take place in the same year.
Significant changes are not expected to occur in Vietnam and Laos in 2018.
Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia
Significant political changes are not expected to take place in Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. In general, after the destruction of ISIS (a terrorist organisation that is forbidden in Russia) in Syria we should expect terrorist activity in the Asia-Pacific region, mainly in the Malay countries and in the Philippines.
The continuation of the ‘Duterte trend’ is expected in 2018: the execution of drug addicts and dealers and the repression of the local Islamist underground, which is pregnant with an atmosphere of vengeance. The refusal to finally abandon US influence and a half-baked policy towards communist partisans could lead to the re-emergence of communist military activity; we are speaking here mainly about the ‘New People’s Army’ of the Communist Party of the Philippines under Jose Maria Sison. Dialogues with the group hit a deadlock in 2017, especially after the declaration of martial law in the south of the country.
In the sphere of foreign policy, we should expect military-technical contracts with Russia and China. However, Manilla will keep its friendly relations with Washington.
Australia and New Zealand
We should expect a deepening of anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia. It is likely that the ‘Quadrilateral’ against China will get some kind of institutional embodiment. As a minimum, we should expect the intensification of military exercises in the US-Australia-India-Japan triangle. Serious changes that will have a substantial influence on world and regional politics are not expected in New Zealand.
2018 will be marked by India’s further drift towards the US, although the country will keep its formal membership of the BRICS and SCO. What is more, it will continue to build relations with Russia. However, Pakistan and Bangladesh (which will see elections and a potential change of government) will become points of contention between China and India.
The new US national security strategy asserts that it is necessary to deepen the strategic partnership with India and even calls the country the leading power in the Indian Ocean.
If Russia will follow the logic of priority rapprochement with Muslim countries, India, by virtue of keeping the current level of relations, will be less of a priority partner than Pakistan.
Pakistan and Bangladesh
The main problem for both Muslim countries in Southern Asia will be parliamentary elections. In Bangladesh they could take place in a very tense atmosphere, but the nationalist boycott is not a new phenomenon and both the institutions of government and the ruling party know what to do in such a situation. Past year has shown in Pakistan that society succumbs fairly easily to various provocations, which augurs mass demonstrations of the colour revolution type. The terrorist threat in the country is great and in the structures of power, especially in the influential ISI, there are many persons who have earlier worked actively with the US and Gulf monarchies on the one hand and with terrorist and radical groups on the other and who could begin a directed disruption of the vitally important Chinese ‘One belt, one road’ project.
Although the ruling ‘Muslim League of Pakistan’ of Nawaz Sharif is slated to receive a majority according to the polls, the possibility remains that the second place ‘Movement for Justice’ could be used for a colour revolution-esque destabilisation of the country in conjunction with the Western-oriented ‘Pakistani People’s Party’, which is controlled by Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilal Zardari.
A lot will depend on the position taken by the military.
Translated from the Russian by V.A.V.