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How is the corona pandemic changing the world? This is what our series "World Power Corona" deals with. Here the Indian-American bestselling author Parag Khanna writes about the geopolitical perspectives of Asia.
We entered this pandemic as a single, interconnected civilization - with air connections that allowed infected people to get from Wuhan to Seattle and from Milan to New York in no time. Close networking will also play a decisive role in the new world order that is now emerging, not least due to the increasing number of fiber optic cables. But at the same time there will be a tendency towards greater regionalization in North America, Europe and Asia. And Asia will recover faster and better than the other regions of the world.
Many wonder what the future geopolitical power structure will look like. They assume either the USA will regain strength or China will dominate again, a "G2 competition" between the two great powers, or a more complicated constellation based on individual powers. Something completely different has been emerging for a while now: a distribution of power that focuses on regions rather than nations.
Europe naturally sets the standard for integration beyond the nation state. Without the regulatory power of the EU, without the size of the common market and the euro area, the European nations would practically not appear in geopolitical debates. Despite this collective power, the EU is all but forgotten in American debates on the newest favorite topic, "rivaling great powers". This is a misunderstanding of realities. Because in America there is a parallel development, at least on an economic level: The trade war between the USA and China caused the US trade volume with the People's Republic to fall to below 270 billion US dollars. At the same time, the U.S.'s trade volume with Canada and Mexico exceeded $ 300 billion each in 2019. The Trump administration is baiting multinational corporations to produce more on American soil again. Trump hates the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but his policies have accelerated the gradual rise of a North American union.
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What about the Asian economic region, whose population from Saudi Arabia to Japan and from Russia to Australia numbers almost five billion people - around two thirds of the world's population? In the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, interdependencies in Asia have increased significantly. The supply chains between China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea generate an annual trade volume of over four trillion US dollars. West Asian oil and gas exporting countries (which should not be called the "Middle East", please) such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates do more trade across the Indian Ocean to South and East Asia than anywhere else . The same applies to Russia, which is drawing closer and closer to China politically and economically. The two authoritarian powers are now also directly linked by oil and gas pipelines. The result of all of this is that sixty percent of Asian trade and much of Asian foreign investment takes place within Asia.
This is not new, it has been the case since 2005. That is why fears after the financial crisis of 2008 that the export-dependent Asian economies would be unable to compensate for the loss of Western demand were unfounded. They've taken it well, and Asia's rise continued even during the current pandemic disaster.
At the end of 2019, Asian countries decided to create the world's largest trade zone with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). US President Donald Trump had previously made the mistake of breaking the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. Now American companies in Asia have to invest a lot more in order to get access to its huge markets. The same goes for the Europeans. They seek trade and investment agreements with the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries and with India, and they have concluded a free trade agreement with Japan. Conclusion: Asia used to move towards the West, now the West has to move towards Asia.
So will Asia continue to network with itself - and turn away from the rest of the world? Clearly: yes. But that doesn't mean the whole region is centered around China, as most Western commentators believe. What is mostly overlooked: First, around half of the world's population are non-Chinese Asians - including Indians and Pakistanis, Indonesians and Filipinos. Almost all of them have experienced colonialism and were under Western patronage during the Cold War, almost all of them live in democratic societies with lively (albeit oppressed) media. China's aggressiveness puts them on high alert. It is therefore both painful and funny when American diplomats warn their Asian counterparts against Chinese neo-colonialism - as if they had not already had a lot of experience with it that can serve as a guide for them today in dealing with China. There may be gullible or grateful Italians, South Africans and Brazilians who fall for China's "protective mask diplomacy" or Beijing's brusque Twitter propaganda. To put it bluntly: No Asian would be that naive.
In Asia (and the rest of the world), trust in China waned long before the pandemic. Its military aggression in the South China Sea and its dominance in the award of large infrastructure contracts as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (also known as the "New Silk Road") arouse considerable suspicion from Kenya to Pakistan and from Sri Lanka to Myanmar. These and other countries are increasingly leaving Chinese companies with lucrative contracts for large-scale projects such as dams, power plants and rail projects. In doing so, they want to regain control of costs and negotiate a bigger piece of the pie for their own companies. The Belt and Road Initiative triggered a kind of arms race in the infrastructure sector, in which Europe, Japan, India and the USA have now started their own competing projects. It is also about slowing down China's "diplomacy of the debt trap", in which investments are often combined with large loans to weaker countries, which thus become dependent.
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