The British Ministry of Defense’s think tank, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), released the sixth edition of its Global Strategic Trends (GST) on 15 October 15. Titled “Global Strategic Trends: The Future Starts Today,” the report examines the future out to 2050. The GST is a foresight publication that “does not attempt to predict the future” but rather traces phenomena that will have an impact on the future. As with previous editions of the GST and its U.S. counterpart Global Trends, the latest edition covers different geographical regions, including Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. The GST covers five main subjects in each region, namely the environment, human development, the economy, governance, and geopolitics and security.
So what does Britain think will shape Asia’s future?
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In the case of the environment, the GST asserts that Northeast Asian countries will be adversely affected by climate change affecting fish and agricultural stocks or causing unpredictable water shortages in food-producing areas while in Southeast Asia, the report predicts rising temperatures. Climate change is certainly a serious challenge for China, with the country ranking as the top emitter of heat-trapping gases, yet it is also a leading country in meeting global and regional climate change targets. Despite its autocratic government, China also actively educates its population on tackling climate change.
China, Japan, and South Korea will undoubtedly focus on addressing climate change in the future, but the question still remains how they will work to address negative externalities caused by other countries.
Northeast Asia has relatively strong levels of human development, yet this trend may change in the future. The GST argues that an aging population is a core challenge for Northeast Asian countries. This region’s aging population is the fastest growing globally, with a predicted “434 million people over the age of 65 by 2050.”
In China, this is a result of the previous “one child policy” and will cause high dependency ratios—the proportion of children and elderly to working adults. Human development in China and Hong Kong will therefore be affected by the growing elderly population along with slowed economic growth. China has responded by increasing its social safety nets; however, it remains to be seen how it will sustain its welfare programs under an autocratic one-party state.
Human development in Southeast Asia varies across countries, with high human development levels in Singapore and Brunei but low levels in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. As with Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia’s human development levels will be affected by an aging population and a declining birth rate, particularly in Thailand by 2025 and Singapore by 2045. Singapore’s government has initiated schemes to assist the elderly and schemes to improve the birth rate. These schemes have had only a limited effect and Singapore’s dependency ratio will still be a challenge in the future, possibly resulting in local social unrest.
Another key concern in the region is education, specifically secondary school education. Southeast Asian countries have diverse secondary school rates ranging from high rates of completion in Brunei “to below 75 percent for Myanmar.” Southeast Asian countries have invested heavily in post-primary education yet the quality of education may not match employment requirements of the future.
The GST accurately asserts that Northeast Asia will account for 25 percent of the global economy, with China being a leading economic giant. The Northeast Asian region will also account for 29 percent of global trade. Much of the economic boom will be uneven, however, with urbanization expanding in technology-driven megacities in Japan and China. Economic growth is also expected to be spurred by the rise of e-commerce and biotechnology, which is prevalent through South Korea and Japan. Biotechnology patents in Japan and China will, however, fall in numbers compared to other OECD countries. More importantly, Northeast Asian countries, especially China, will find it challenging to train the population if the scope of e-commerce and e-business increases nationwide.
The Southeast Asian region will similarly grow but each country will naturally grow at different rates. Looking out to 2050, the majority of Southeast Asian countries will be challenged in providing sufficient infrastructure to sustain the pace of urbanization. As noted above, they would also face the difficulty of tuning the education systems toward the demands of future employers.
The GST argues that internal dissent may be on the rise in China, despite the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aiming to strengthen governance internally and exert itself internationally. With an increasing number of Chinese young adults exposed to outside ideology through studying abroad, the CCP could face increasing dissent. Another source of outside influence is Christianity, with the GST predicting many Chinese will turn Christian by 2050. The CCP would therefore face a balance between meeting new socioeconomic and political demands and maintaining the role of a one-party state.
The other main Northeast Asian countries are democracies and developed economies. Yet they may also face calls for governance reforms such as greater female representation in the workplace and leadership positions.
Southeast Asian governments have been pseudo-democratic (to varying degrees) for decades. Civil society in this region, as in China, has been increasingly exposed to external ideologies and thus will increasingly campaign for greater transparency and wider democratic reform. The GST nevertheless posits that Southeast Asian governments may not easily shift to democracies.
The recent election of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and the toppling of the long-standing Barisan Nasional in Malaysia may provide a counterexample. The PH coalition may be initiating democratic ideals; however, power in Malaysia is still allocated toward a dominant race. The PH coalition will have to entirely change Malaysian institutional norms in order to shift the country toward a liberal democracy.
Geopolitics and Security
The GST also addresses the very crucial theme of geopolitics and security. East Asia will certainly face differing threats in the future. The GST notes that boarder and territorial disputes between Northeast Asian nations — including Russia’s Pacific border — will be core flashpoints in the next few decades. It also asserts that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will attempt to stay power for considerable time and that any possible regime change will result in Chinese intervention. The GST does accurately note that the North Korean regime will not easily collapse, yet recent political initiatives by South Korea and the Trump administration indicate Pyongyang is aiming for some degree of conciliation with its adversaries.
More broadly, as noted above, China is constantly striving to be a global power, with the aim of overtaking the United States in this role. The GST argues that the U.S. military will continue to be the strongest in terms of quality and quantity in the future. It accurately argues that China will utilize non-hard power means such as its Belt Road Initiative (BRI) to exert its influence globally.
The GST does accurately note that China’s BRI will be the CCP’s strategic tool to exert China’s dominance. The BRI has faced challenges and will continue to be challenged by open market economic agreements from Western countries. Even so, the distrust of neoliberal, free market policies may sway nations to accept China’s economic support and its dominance
Looking to the future, Northeast Asia will continue to see state-based disputes but also face threats from nonstate actors sponsored by other countries or acting independently.
Predicting the future is a very challenging topic and the GST series does not aim to achieve that. It instead draws on various themes and trends to postulate key areas of concern that will shape the future. The East Asian landscape, ranging from the environment to its security, will certainly shift in the next 30 years. The GST therefore presents a guideline for East Asian policymakers and civil society to follow.
Li Jie Sheng is a freelance research analyst with interests in Southeast Asian political economy, wider global political economy, multilateral organisations and international development.