For Asia watchers, 2018 was a volatile year as the neophyte Donald Trump administration confronted a muscular Beijing over trade, territory in the South China Sea, and Taiwan while seeking a solution over nuclear proliferation in North Korea. In 2019, the region could experience even more unpredictability, as a tumultuous and turbulent White House struggles to restrain a more belligerent Beijing.
One Asia watcher, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, hosted its seventh annual discussion on Asia in Washington on January 23 and invited some 140 guests and three panels of CSIS senior scholars to help forecast political, security and economic developments across Asia this year.
CSIS posed several multiple-choice questions to the audience, who were able to vote via a handheld device that quickly displayed their votes on overhead screens.
Among the questions asked was, “In 2019, a major security incident is more likely to occur in Korea, South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan or on the Sino-India border?” CSIS had posed the same question in 2018, and the response this year showed profound changes in concern – the top worry for 2019 was over the South China Sea (58%), up from 31% in 2018.
Concerns over the South China Sea eclipsed those over Korea (the top concern in 2018), which fell to third place (16%) – despite South Korea being voted the most problematic ally in the region.
Concern over Taiwan rose from a mere 3% in 2018 to 22% (second place) in light of heated rhetoric in early January between Taipei and Beijing – though Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at CSIS, was quick to play down fears by pointing out that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent speech on Taiwan was “a requirement,” while adding that Xi had set no date for his “one country, two systems” approach to unification.
Last, worries in 2018 over the East China Sea (10%) and the Sino-India border (14%) both fell to 2% among the audience.
Conversely, the audience was asked what would be the biggest boon to security in the Indo-Pacific during 2019. Forty-four percent of the audience believed closer US-Japan defense ties would help stability, while 22% voted for greater integration and interoperability among the Quad (US, Japan, India and Australia) members as a factor. Only 21% viewed diplomatic progress between China and Southeast Asian claimants to the South China Sea as leading to stability, which is consistent with the audience concern over the likelihood of a major security incident in those waters.
Economically, the biggest concern the audience had for China’s economy was sluggish economic growth (44%) rather than friction over implementing US requests for structural changes (14%) or debt sustainability concerns (13%). China’s growth projections, which only 7% of the audience figured would exceed expectations, were likely lowered by the expectation of nearly half the audience that the US trade war with China would not be resolved in 2019.
Last, 40% of the audience thought China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would retrench and rebrand to counter concerns over “debt-trap diplomacy,” while another 40% believed China would maintain its steady expansion, especially in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.
For Asia watchers in the audience like myself, the use of a democratic voting process provided a refreshing alternative to the usual fare of simply listening to a panel of experts, and yielded some surprising results. While there may have been some “bandwagon effect” bias in the voting (as certain answers gained real-time prominence before the voting was finished), and recent news events may have swayed some of the votes, overall the exercise by CSIS presented a unique opportunity for other Asia watchers to help weed out any potential “groupthink” at CSIS, but also for CSIS to challenge some of the public’s misinformed views.