In the year gone by, there were plenty of geopolitical developments that impacted the world gravely. What does 2023 have in store for us? To know more, we speak with John West, executive director of the Asian Century Institute, about possible global developments in 2023 he is pessimistic and optimistic about. He also touches upon some challenges that Asian countries could face.
Unravel: 2022 was a particularly volatile year geopolitically. Do you expect things to settle down somewhat in 2023?
John West: As the year 2022 closed, the world was in the midst of many crises and unresolved issues. These include: the war in Ukraine; China’s sudden abandoning of its zero-COVID policy and reopening to the world; the deep rupture in China’s relations with the West; the global economic slowdown which is hitting developing countries hard; profound divisions in American politics; and the fragile political cohesion in Europe.
It is unclear whether things will settle down. Indeed, many pessimistic—though realistic—scenarios could be envisaged. The Ukraine War could drag out and be won by Russia. Alternatively, Russia could descend into political crisis and even begin to fracture if it loses the war.
The results from the recent US midterm elections could lead the country into political paralysis, as we may already be seeing with the US House of Representatives. The US is unlikely to want to repair relations with China in the lead up to an election year. Relations in the Western alliance could fracture if China successfully courts European business and political leaders. Political instability and economic weakness could spread in China, particularly if it struggles to manage COVID. New COVID variants could spread and prolong the pandemic.
Unravel: What are a couple of the key challenges Asian countries will have to deal with in the new year?
Mr West: Asian countries have been struggling for some time with ageing populations in much of East Asia, the spillover impact of great power rivalry, political instability and poor governance in much of Southeast and South Asia, and natural disasters which are being exacerbated by climate change. These challenges will only be made worse by the global economic slowdown and its impact on poverty and debt.
Unravel: What are you least optimistic about as you look into the new year?
Mr West: I am very worried about the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war. It is imperative that Ukraine, with all its support from the West, win this war to ensure that Europe does not live under a Russian shadow; to act as a deterrent against military adventurism by other rogue states, and to protect the rules-based world order. But it is far from clear that Ukraine will prevail.
I am also pessimistic about China’s future in light of its ageing population, its turn away from free market capitalism, and its difficulties in managing COVID. Moreover, if China’s economic slowdown continues and leads to political instability, there is a risk of increased Chinese assertiveness, particularly in relation to Taiwan.
Unravel: What are you most optimistic about?
Mr West: While many Americans still make fun of President Biden, his excellent leadership of the US through the Ukraine war and also tense relations with China has restored my faith (for the moment!) in the global leadership of the US.
The Ukraine war is similar to the Cold War and World War 2 in that it is an affront to both US values and interests. Thus, through Biden’s leadership, the US has offered Ukraine intelligence, military hardware and financial assistance with the broad support of the American establishment and people. Biden has also led a broad coalition of advanced democracies to support Ukraine. It must be embarrassing for Europe to see that it is virtually totally dependent on the US for a war on its own soil.
While not being optimistic, I am at least hopeful that Europe will draw the obvious lesson from the Ukraine war, which is that for its own survival it must become a united political and military power. A stronger Europe is also necessary as an insurance policy against the possibility of future political instability and isolationism in the US.
John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).