In 2016 voters across the Asia – Pacific region will be heading to the polls and their ballots may induce important geopolitical consequences to the regional and international security.
Looking at the bigger picture of the Asia – Pacific region, which is caught between the US and Chinese influence, Asian voters have two choices: to opt for an economic order based on vague rules, created under the influence of China, whose economy is slowing, or step toward a true rules-based order rooted in US democracy.
Taiwan will begin the election procession on Jan. 16. The Nationalist Party Kuomintang of President Ma Ying-jeou has already been in power for eight years and the people seem to be fed up with its economic policy.
In light of her huge lead in the polls, Tsai Ing-wen, head of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is considered to become president.
At first glance, the DPP victory is unlikely to affect Taiwan’s economic relationship with China, its most important trade partner.
Taiwan needs the huge continental market, while China is eager to profit from the island’s technological proficiency. At the same time, Taiwan’s stalling economy gives China supremacy. Taipei may have little choice but to work with Beijing, as it searches ways to offshoot growth.
However, the DPP’s diplomatic standpoint generates some uncertainty. Tsai’s party refuses to accept the so-called 1992 Consensus, based on the one-China principle, confirmed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ma in Singapore on Nov. 7, 2015 (the first top-level summit since the two sides split in 1949) as the foundation of the bilateral relationship.
Tsai says she will maintain the „status quo”, but hasn’t clarified her vision of Taiwan as a political entity. She has been unwilling to discuss the historic November 2015 summit and prevents to make the Consensus become a focal point of the election.
Taiwan has successfully concluded a free trade deal with China, but the two sides are still negotiating the elimination of tariffs. But if Taiwan chooses to distance itself from China and prioritize economic ties with the U.S. and Japan, by joining the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it would reduce its dependence on Beijing.
Taiwan’s election and the next government’s stance towards China could impact maritime security as well. China test – fired missiles toward the island during the Taiwan Strait Crisis (1996) and, should things heat up again, Washington will be compelled to reinforce its military presence in the area.
The Philippines’ presidential election on May 9, 2016 is extremely important from a security perspective.
The Philippines are on the front line of the U.S.-China standoff in the South China Sea, lying near the Spratly Islands, where China is building artificial islands. The country has been able to stand with the U.S. because of its sharp economic growth, partly attributable to the Aquino government’s strong hand. On its own, the Philippines lack the power to protect its waters from invasion, so U.S. President Barack Obama promised Aquino a roughly $80 million financial assistance package, including a donation of patrol ships. Therefore, the country needs a powerful leader.
Grace Poe, a popular senator and presidential candidate, had pledged to continue President Benigno Aquino’s pro-US foreign policy, but faces possible ineligibility because she spent much of her life stateside, while Aquino endorses Manuel Roxas, a former secretary of the interior and local government, as his successor.
Meanwhile, corruption allegations target Vice President Jejomar Binay, though he remains popular in rural areas, to which he directs large sums of money for development. Binay is reportedly pro-China. He has adopted an anti-Aquino platform and, if Poe is barred from the race, leaving Roxas and Binay to battle it out, the odds currently favor him.
If the pro-China Binay is elected president, Beijing will use the opportunity to drive a wedge between Manila and Washington and step up its advance in the South China Sea.
On the other hand, if the Philippines and Taiwan were to join the US-led TPP, transparency and fair market competition will be established around the South China Sea, as aside from China, all the other economies in the area are already in the agreement (Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei).
On Jan. 24, the mayoral election in Ginowan, a city in Japan’s southernmost Okinawa Prefecture, will take place.
The U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma air base, occupying 25% of the land of this small city, plays a key role in the defense of the East China Sea, including Japan’s Senkaku Islands, a group of islets claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.
The campaign has largely focused on the question of whether the base should be relocated to a less densely populated part of Okinawa, as planned.
The legislative election in Australia’s Northern Territory on 27 August 2016 could also have profound influence on Asia-Pacific security, as the territory’s capital, Darwin, is a strategic point from where the U.S. Marines watches over the South China Sea.
In November 2015, things grew complicated, as Landbridge Group, a Chinese infrastructure management company with strong ties to the People’s Liberation Army, signed a 99-year lease to run the Port of Darwin.
Darwin welcome Chinese investments, but the Landbridge deal has the White House and U.S. Congress worried because China will manage a port used by the U.S. military. The legislative election could now determine the fate of the lease contract.
Democratic development in Hong Kong has been a major topic since the transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997 and the 2016 Hong Kong Legislative Council Election, which comes after the rejection of the 2014 Hong Kong electoral reform, will lead to the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive election.
The 20th legislative elections, held in South Korea on 13 April, 2016, will elect the members of the National Assembly. This will be the first legislative election in South Korea after a controversial Constitutional Court ruling that altered the population ratio of constituencies with the highest number of population to the lowest number of population.
In 2015, Asian nations made advances toward democracy and economic reform. In 2016, the Asia-Pacific region is primed for pivotal elections and, through their ballots, the voters will essentially make their big decision: US or China.