and second-largest economy (after the United States, provided the European Union is not counted as a single economic unit).
China was built on Confucian principles. For millennia, it has considered itself a hegemonic power and the center of the world. The country suffered a drastic decline in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was humiliated repeatedly by Western powers, especially the British Empire. Its civil war (1927-1950) ended with the Communists under Mao Zedong dominating the country, except for the island of Taiwan. Mao’s regime, which ended when he died in 1976, was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 80 million people.
The Communist Party has remained in power because it realized that China would succeed and prosper only if entrepreneurship, property rights and market rules were allowed. The strategy has worked – the country experienced rapid economic development. However, the state’s grip on Chinese enterprises remains very strong. State intervention in the economy and disrespect for foreign intellectual property rights have caused tensions with other countries and frequent trade disputes.
The one-child policy imposed under Mao has created some daunting challenges for China, including far-reaching economic and social consequences. The issue of how China will support its aging population is a problematic one, and represents a demographic time-bomb even worse than Europe’s.
China has become politically and militarily assertive as it tries to establish its hegemony throughout the Pacific Rim. This strategy manifests itself in excessive territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, a continent-wide infrastructure construction program, Beijing is attempting to secure China’s access to markets and resources in Europe and Africa. At the same time, it is trying to strengthen its influence in the countries taking part in the initiative.
Japan began adopting Western-style economic and military systems in the mid-19th century and became the strongest power in the Asia-Pacific region at the beginning of the 20th century. After its defeat in World War II, Japan concentrated on business and surprised the world with its success. The postwar peace treaty set limits on Japan’s military capabilities.
Internally, Japan is now struggling with the problems of an aging population and a high sovereign debt. Due to China’s assertiveness, Japan – a U.S. ally – also finds itself under pressure to strengthen its military capabilities.
The Korean Peninsula is divided into two states that are technically still at war. North Korea has developed nuclear capabilities and has threatened South Korea, Japan and even the U.S. Economically and socially, the North is impoverished because of its principalist socialist system with no property rights or room for market rules, while the South is an economic powerhouse.
Over the last decades, China experienced a transformational period of spectacular growth, becoming one of the top global players from both an economic and geopolitical standpoint. These recent accomplishments have convinced its citizens of the legitimacy of the current system. However, younger generations will expect the government to earn their continuing support with efficient and transparent governance.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister since the end of World War II, has made a huge imprint on his country’s politics, especially through “Abenomics” and his drive to beef up defense capabilities. His eventual successor will have a host of domestic challenges to overcome, including a growing demographic imbalance and structural economic reform. The question is whether the country’s power brokers will allow another strong leader to emerge.
Because of rising tensions in “water diplomacy” around the Mekong River, the region could become another geopolitical hotspot along the South China Sea. China’s clutch of hydropower dams control the water flow to downstream countries, leaving them vulnerable to drought and political blackmail. The lack of external major-power involvement from beyond the immediate region means China’s dominance is unlikely to abate.
The Trump administration had demonstrated a willingness to return to the negotiating table with North Korea. Pyongyang, however, continues to test the American commitment to a deal that would require complete denuclearization. In October, a technical negotiation between the two sides ended without progress. The North Korean strategy may be to wait to see if President Trump is reelected or to pressure the U.S. side into accepting a deal on less demanding terms.