A Critical Time in Asia
Both China and the United States, protagonists in the most important bilateral relationship in the world, have just passed through tense leadership changes -- but there the similarity ends. Some key players in President Barack Obama's team will change, but the central thrust of his policies is largely set and he can move promptly to address the many issues that were put on hold during the prolonged U.S. political season.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, faces an array of immediate challenges. He must build consensus among the new generation of leaders around a new set of policies appropriate for China's growing global stature. Beijing's outgoing leadership could afford to allow growth to slow and politico-economic problems to accumulate after years of stellar economic growth -- Xi cannot. He will have to accelerate the rebalancing of the Chinese economy and at the same time address the growing restiveness of a new, 300-million strong middle class. These needed policy shifts will often be in tension.
Nor can the new Chinese government afford to look weak abroad. An increasingly informed populace, angry over widespread corruption and personal enrichment by an elite few, is easily susceptible to nationalist appeals. The public, and many in ruling circles, believes a number of conspiracy theories about U.S. intentions -- for instance, that it is trying to encircle China, that it pushed Japan to act in the East China Sea, that it is trying to make trouble over Taiwan. The majority of Chinese are expecting a more assertive, higher-profile foreign policy.
The coming year, then, will call for great care on both sides. Washington and Beijing will have to separate rhetoric and mutual suspicions from actual changes in policy. A simmering conflict in the East China Sea will have to be managed through and beyond Japan's elections. The United States will have to undo the damage wrought by its "pivot" to Asia, which has only enhanced Chinese suspicions that Washington's goal is to contain Beijing. It will take a long time to convince China that the actual U.S. goal is to rebalance its attention from the Middle East toward East Asia, given that the United States has diverse economic, political, and security interests there.
Above all, both China and the United States have to take the first difficult steps toward defining a new kind of great power relationship in which China is less subordinate and more of a responsible, burden-carrying international leader.
The Long Arab Awakening
Poorly chosen words can do lasting damage. The pivot to Asia was one. The "Arab Spring," which led many to expect that the upheavals in the Middle East would lead to swift democratic change and resolution, is another. Unlike the end of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe, these are genuine internal revolutions that will take decades to play out. The challenge for outsiders, especially the United States, is to develop the necessary strategic patience to distinguish between inevitable ups and downs and long-term trends, while also helping new governments deliver the economic progress they will need to survive.
Egypt's complex political evolution will continue to play out in 2013. On balance, events there have been encouraging -- the discipline of governing has exerted a moderating influence on the Muslim Brotherhood, the military has relinquished a desire to rule, the country has stuck by its peace treaty with Israel, and political violence is the exception not the rule. In Libya, the government will continue to struggle to take back its rightful monopoly on the use of force from well-armed militias. It will find itself aided by swelling oil revenues but terribly hampered by the country's complete lack of functioning institutions after 40 years of Muammar al-Qaddafi's misrule.
Governments in countries where unrest still festers below the surface -- Jordan, Kuwait, the Gulf emirates, and Morocco -- will continue to stall, hoping that the greater legitimacy they enjoy as monarchies will enable them to avoid major protests and hold on to power. Syria, Iraq, and Iran are the focal points of major change in the year ahead.
The Syrian Stalemate
After more than a year of fighting, the conflict in Syria has become a military stalemate. Neither side can make decisive gains. The Gulf countries' injections of arms to the opposition cannot offset the regime's tanks and fighter jets. Bashar al-Assad remains president but no longer rules the country. Notwithstanding the severe impact of international sanctions, he can survive indefinitely on little money by suspending the government's normal services and encouraging his military and militia to supplement their salaries by looting.
The somewhat encouraging news is that an international consensus is emerging around the need for a political compromise between elements of the regime -- excluding Assad -- and a coalesced opposition encompassing those outside the country and those still inside fighting, from all sectarian communities. In November, the opposition took an important step toward unifying by forging a new umbrella coalition -- but whether it can stay together, and whether it will accept less than a complete end to the present regime, is uncertain at best.
If it can, and if outside powers (minus Russia and China) can also stay unified, 2013 could well see an end to the killing -- and the beginning of what will be a long, difficult political transition in Syria.