What To Look For in 2019: The Year Ahead in Asia | Wilson Center

What To Look For in 2019: The Year Ahead in Asia

America In Search of an Asia Strategy

While the Trump administration has identified the overarching theme of its strategy toward the Indo-Pacific–geopolitical competition with China–it will seek to turn those ideas into concrete policies that actually enhance the ability of the United States to compete with China for strategic advantage. While the United States joining a multilateral trade agreement like TPP seems impossible at this point, Washington may seek to conclude several bilateral economic agreements with Japan, Taiwan, and countries in Southeast Asia. Yet lingering disputes over industrial policies, with the potential imposition by the United States of new tariffs, threaten to undermine efforts to work with allies and partners to compete against China. Moreover, ambitions to enhance the military capabilities of critical partners in the region or build more infrastructure across Asia will run into tightening budget constraints.

Nuclear negotiations with North Korea

North Korea remains a focus as we head into 2019. We’ll be analyzing Kim Jong Un’s annual New Year’s Day message, deciphering the objectives he lays out for his country—and the messages sends the outside world as denuclearization talks with the United States remain at a standstill. Despite the apparent cold shoulder from Kim in the last few months of 2018, President Trump insists a second summit with Kim will take place as early as January or February, promising yet more pomp and theater if not transformational change in the fractious U.S.-North Korean relationship. Whether the United States and North Korea are able to map out a timeline for denuclearization—and, subsequently, an easing of sanctions on impoverished North Korea—is the big question for the first quarter of 2019. An easing of sanctions is what South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in needs to move forward with his ambitious plans for deepening inter-Korean economic engagement. Until then, his vision, and his legacy, hang in the balance, with the slowdown in diplomacy with North Korea translating into waning support for his policies on engaging North Korea.

Japan as a Regional Leader

In 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the longest-serving politician among the G7 leaders.  As the United States redefines its role in the Asia-Pacific and China continues to expand its regional influence, Japan will have a bigger role in determining how stability in the region is maintained. Japan is now the rare industrialized nation that is stable both politically and economically. In 2018, it emerged as a global leader in pushing for multilateral trade deals and promoting global cooperation. It has also begun bucking the global trend of anti-immigration by taking steps to open its doors slightly to more foreign workers and Prime Minister Abe is eyeing possibilities to expand Japan's role as a regional stabilizer on the military front as well. But does Japan have the political will to fulfill those ambitions, and how would that impact Tokyo's relations within Asia and with the United States?  

Elections in South Asia

In South Asia, 2019—just like 2018—will be a year of political transition. In 2018, Pakistan and Bangladesh held national elections. In 2019, another set of key countries—India and Afghanistan—go to the polls. Each election has significant implications for Washington. The United States enjoys a growing partnership with New Delhi that brought a series of major gains, particularly on the defense side, under the current Narendra Modi-led government. U.S. officials will be watching closely to see if it retains power. In Afghanistan, Washington has worked closely with Kabul in efforts, so far unsuccessful, to launch a peace process with the Taliban. Afghanistan’s election—if a rocky security situation allows it to take place—may bring to power a government that doesn’t share its predecessor’s strong desire to pursue peace. Or, it may produce an administration that the Taliban will see as a more desirable peace partner. Either way, the Afghan election will have major implications for Washington’s efforts to wrap up a war that has now raged on for more than 17 years.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.  Copyright 2018, Asia Program.  All rights reserved.

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