What does 2021 hold for Asia, US-China relations, Hong Kong, and Australia’s trade with China?

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KISHORE MAHBUBANI

Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and author of the book Has China Won?

Here’s a dream scenario for 2021. Joe Biden stuns the world by announcing a total suspension of the trade war with China, with a reciprocal rollback of all tariffs. The markets jump with exhilaration. China, which now has the world’s largest retail goods market (US$6 trillion, compared with US$5.5 million for the US), “arranges” an import surge from the US. American agricultural exports to China also shoot up.

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In an historically unprecedented move, Biden sends a high-level medical team from the US to East Asia (especially China, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam) to understand why these societies manage Covid-19 better. Some lessons are learned and applied. By Christmas of 2021, the Covid-19 nightmare is becoming a memory.

And here’s why the dream scenario won’t happen. The US strategic establishment has reached a deep consensus that maintaining the “primacy” of the US globally is more important than the well-being of the American people.

Joe Biden’s America needs to learn from the world, not vice versa

The late, great master strategist George Kennan, who always emphasised that the key strategic goal of the US government should be to improve the “spiritual vitality” of the American people, would have heavily disapproved of this strategy-free geopolitical contest launched by the US, as I document in Has China Won? Yet since a mighty anti-China consensus has built up in the American body politic, Biden’s hands are tied. The trade war will continue.

Even though his hands are tied (mostly), Biden can still mount a more intelligent strategy than Donald Trump. Here’s a simple but powerful tip. Before launching his East Asian strategy, Biden should send senior envoys to the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to listen carefully to what this region wants and expects. They want the US to play a bigger role. But they also don’t want to be forced to choose between the US and China.

In short, Asean will advise Biden to adopt a more intelligent, thoughtful and diplomatic strategy towards East Asia. He should heed this wise advice.

YUN JIANG

Co-editor of China Neican, a newsletter analysing Chinese policy

With no obvious off-ramp, the escalating tensions and harsh rhetoric between Australia and China are likely to persist well into 2021, with the political elites in both countries seeing each other as the unreasonable one.

The deterioration in the political relationship may start to filter into other aspects of bilateral ties, including people-to-people links. This could be exacerbated by Australia’s recent foreign relations legislation. The federal government may use its new-found power to void existing cooperation agreements with China, including at local council or university level.

Nationalism is increasing in both countries as the relationship worsens. This nationalist sentiment could be taken out on people within each country. Australians will be less welcome in China and people of Asian heritage in Australia will continue to experience increased racism and suspicion.

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The new US administration may be less confrontational in rhetoric against China, but may also expect its allies to do more in standing up to China. From Australia’s perspective, it wants the US to focus more on the Indo-Pacific, specifically on the challenges posed by China, as it fears being abandoned by the US. Both factors may make the Australia-China bilateral relationship more difficult.

China is unlikely to dial back its increased assertiveness, which causes concern in countries such as Australia. China wants to be seen as a great power and act like a great power throwing its weight around. But Australia still wants China to go back to Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” era. As China becomes more dominant, it is also less likely to back down from other countries’ criticisms of its human rights record. This can cause further frictions.

On trade, China’s actions against specific Australian sectors are likely to continue, to put more pressure on Canberra. Some industries in Australia may be severely affected, but overall trade may yet be largely unscathed.

DAVID LAMPTON

Professor Emeritus of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and currently Senior Fellow at its Foreign Policy Institute. Co-author of Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia

At the moment, I am more worried about US-China relations in Donald Trump‘s remaining days than I am about the year following Joe Biden’s January 20, 2021 inauguration. Once Biden has assumed office, a pattern of interaction between Beijing and Washington will rapidly congeal, setting the framework for a long time thereafter. If there is a chance to change the current steep downward course of bilateral ties, the next year represents that opportunity.

The initial China-relevant agenda for Washington should be avoiding crisis (not least in the Taiwan Strait), establishing a rational policy process, and putting someone very senior in charge of China policy with a mandate to coordinate agencies and develop a more shared vision. In short, stabilise, rationalise, deputise, and jointly visualise a better future.

Under Biden, America’s China policy will be tough without being recklessly provocative

Doing this will be a heavy lift in Washington, given the domestic disaster Trump has left in his wake, and given that Beijing apparently is willing to engage in increasingly alienating behaviour, whether it be in its own region or globally.

Xi Jinping‘s struggle to consolidate his personal power at the Twentieth Party Congress in 2022 is part of his context, and President Biden will be constrained by a 74 million-strong and well-financed Trumpist political opposition, along with a balky Congress on a partisan knife-edge.

In short, two questions for the next year in US-China relations are: can we both avoid a disastrous misstep in the next few weeks? And, in the year beyond that, will Beijing and Washington set a more productive pattern for interaction and seize opportunities for cooperation? The pattern established in 2021 is likely to endure for years, if not decades. If we fail, fasten your seat belts.

© Provided by South China Morning Post The possibility of a second term for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor will be in focus in 2021. Photo: Felix Wong

ZURAIDAH IBRAHIM

Deputy Executive Editor, South China Morning Post and Editor, This Week in Asia

In 2021, vaccines will be on everyone’s mind. Getting those injections to as many people as possible in double-quick time offers the best hope of a return to normalcy after a year that has crippled households, firms, and nations. The coronavirus has spread so far, so fast, that vaccination programmes will struggle to catch up. There will be no swift bounce back to health, but a long uphill climb.

At best, therefore, 2021 will be a transitional year, marked by preparation for a still-uncertain future. This will also be the case with the climate crisis – a global danger far greater than the Covid-19 pandemic. At the climate pact meeting in Edinburgh, scheduled for November, the question is again whether world governments can at last catch up to an existential threat that too many took too lightly for too long. By then, China is expected to provide details of its promise to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Pledges by Japan and South Korea, together with the exit of climate science denialists from the White House, add to the air of guarded hopefulness.

Politically as well, 2021 will be a year of preparation and positioning in two of Southeast Asia’s largest democracies. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte will end his six-year term as president in June 2022. Under the country’s constitution, he cannot seek re-election. Tagged as Asia’s Trump because of his authoritarian populist style, next year will reveal if he will also engage in machinations to extend his influence beyond his use-by date. In Indonesia, similarly, President Joko Widodo is not eligible for a third term when his presidency ends in 2024. But there is talk of extending this term limit. In any case, the coming year will be about legacy building.

In Hong Kong, where the South China Morning Post is based, 2021 will clarify whether Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor gets a chance at a second term when she finishes her maiden tour in 2022. Given how her allies have hardly been showering her with love in recent months, the tea leaves do not look promising. If she is replaced, her successor will offer a reprieve of sorts, but the existential angst of steering the “one country, two systems” ship will continue to keep Hong Kong a city perpetually on edge. As for the pan-democrats, the big question is whether, having walked out of the legislature, they will also boycott September’s elections. Like other events in 2021, their decision will have far-reaching and possibly irreversible consequences.

© Provided by South China Morning Post Australian and US navy vessels sail in the South China Sea in April. Photo: Reuters

COLLIN KOH

Research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore

The South China Sea situation in 2021 holds both promises and challenges. On the one hand, with the anticipated improvement in the Covid-19 situation as regional countries commence their vaccination programmes and embark on a gradual economic recovery, there will be reinvigorated efforts between Asean and China to negotiate the proposed code of conduct, which was sidelined in 2020 as the concerned parties were primarily preoccupied with containing the contagion and its economic fallout.

Assuming all parties stay focused on any such reinvigorated effort, it is reasonable to expect a final version of the single draft negotiating text by 2022, if not within 2021. Putting aside the eventual efficacy of implementing the code, the act of promulgating the mechanism may inject some new-found optimism into the management of South China Sea disputes.

Explainer | Why are tensions running high in the South China Sea dispute?

The incoming Biden administration and its South China Sea policy will be closely watched. The bipartisan consensus in the US on the long-term security challenge posed by China makes it unlikely for Biden’s government to roll back some of the policies already in place under its predecessor, such as freedom of navigation operations and blacklisting Chinese entities involved in construction and militarisation activities in the South China Sea.

However, the Biden administration will be expected to tone down on the rhetoric that the Trump administration has been utilising against Beijing, and it is plausible for the new team to adopt a more consultative and cooperative approach in conjunction with US allies and security partners in handling China and South China Sea disputes.

However, the picture is murkier than one may imagine. The evolving Covid-19 situation may still put the brakes on Asean-China efforts to finalise negotiations for the code of conduct, dragging it beyond 2021. Moreover, based on historical precedents, such as the EP-3 incident in 2001 and the USNS Impeccable incident off Hainan in 2009, it is not presumptuous to anticipate a potential incident in the South China Sea in early 2021 that may test the crisis management ability of the newly inaugurated Biden administration.

Asean can no longer afford to be subtle over the South China Sea

Beijing’s behaviour in the South China Sea in 2021 will also be influenced by the fact that it is celebrating the centennial of the ruling Communist Party. Will there be a promulgated code of conduct that burnishes the party’s (and leader Xi Jinping’s) foreign policy credentials? Or a Sino-American maritime incident in the South China Sea to “rally round the flag” of the party to excite nationalistic fervour to suit the occasion and serve as a reminder of a strong and assertive China?

The year 2021 guarantees to be one fraught with this intermingling of factors that fuel further uncertainties in the South China Sea. All concerned parties are expected to avoid and seek to mitigate any arising tensions in the disputed waterway to focus on mainly domestic issues stemming from Covid-19.

Yet so long as actions are well below the threshold of an outright armed conflict, it is possible to expect the continuation of incidences of coercion at sea, military posturing and counter-posturing similar to that seen of China and the US in 2020, which punctuate the more constant medley of diplomatic activities these parties customarily engage in to manage the South China Sea and more broadly, regional security affairs.

© Provided by South China Morning Post Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has an opportunity to redeem itself through vaccine production and distribution in 2021. Photo: EPA-EFE

SHASHI THAROOR

Current Indian MP and former United Nations communications head

Since the re-election in 2019 of a BJP government in New Delhi, India has witnessed the intensification of its majoritarian agenda, as the ruling party has actively sought to marginalise minority communities, dilute the powers of autonomous institutions, marginalise parliament and override federalism. The Covid-19 pandemic saw these trends persist, along with enhanced surveillance in the name of contact tracing.

But 2020 also witnessed the rise of organic popular movements – the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) early in the year and now the ongoing mass agitation by farmer groups across the country against new agriculture laws – that suggest that Indian democracy is capable of fighting back.

How India responds to a more assertive China will continue to be the dominant narrative in 2021
Shashi Tharoor

Widespread resistance to the Modi government’s tendency to issue decrees without consultation could be the key trend to look out for in 2021. It might prompt a change of course or fuel the temptation to push India in a more autocratic direction.

Externally, the big story of the year has been the border skirmish with China, which took the lives of 20 Indian soldiers, and the resultant strain in the two countries’ bilateral relations, which have affected trade and investment as well. From a foreign relations perspective, how India responds to a more assertive China will continue to be the dominant narrative in 2021, though concerns about Pakistan seizing the opportunity to fish in troubled waters are always present.

China-India stand-off: amid push for fresh talks, a winter of uncertainty

India will also have to carefully manage its relationship with the incoming Biden administration in the US. While there is euphoria over the elevation of Kamala Harris, a vice-president of Indian heritage, it is tempered by awareness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bromance with outgoing President Donald Trump, and the fact that Democrats are less likely to give Modi a free pass on allegations of human rights violations by his followers.

Though the Modi government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic left much to be desired – and its failure to cope credibly with the humanitarian tragedy of millions of migrant workers trudging home during the lockdown remains a blot – it has an opportunity to redeem itself in 2021 in vaccine production and distribution. If India gets vaccines to its own vulnerable people and also makes arrangements to meet the needs of the global population, it could yet regain credibility on the global stage.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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