The world changed in 2022. The global trend of social distancing, which had continued over the past two years due to the pandemic, has gradually waned thanks to the development of vaccines, treatments, and global preventative efforts, and we are preparing for a return to normal life. However, normal life seems to be different from what we remember. When restrictions on our contacts and exchanges began to be lifted, Russia invaded Ukraine, the ongoing competition between the United States and China expanded to include restructuring the international supply chains and cutting-edge technologies, and global competition grew fiercer overall. Although these changes in international politics derived from previously observed phenomena, some aspects of these developments were new to 2022.

It is extremely hard to define today’s international politics with a single keyword because diverse characteristics have emerged and their directions have become very unpredictable since the 2000s. The characteristics that are common to modern international politics from any perspective include efforts by major powers to restructure the international order according to their own interests, decoupling and increased exclusivity against rivals, efforts to secure “game changers,” tacit pressures on other countries for participation, and the dilemma of choice for “in-between” countries. Explaining these characteristics through systematic analysis is very important for evaluating current conditions and predicting the future. Especially for middle powers like South Korea, understanding the context of the changing international order and developing responses are directly related to its survival and prosperity.

Since 2015 the Asan Institute for Policy Studies has focused on an annual theme that traverses a given year’s Asan International Strategic Outlook, identifying current trends in the international order whose directions and characteristics are not easily discernible. Previous themes included “Strategic Distrust” (2015), “New Normal?” (2016), “Reset” (2017), “Illiberal International Order” (2018), “Korea’s Choice” (2019), “Neo Geopolitics” (2020), “Era of Chaos” (2021), and “Rebuilding” (2022). Although these keywords denote different themes, they all sought to identify the changing international order and its implications, as well as the choices of each country and region to respond to such changes.

Asan Institute has selected “Complex Competition” as the theme for its 2023 outlook based on the same critical perspective. The strategic competition between the United States and China has intensified into one about values and systems- beyond the competition to win the trade, future growth engines, and the new international order. Their competition has evolved into a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Attempts to isolate and exclude rivals from the international order instead of co-existing with them have emerged, and economic issues that have united the world are now viewed from a security-centered perspective. As the competition has transformed into a fight, middle powers are now forced to choose instead of serving as brokers, and the arms race is becoming more intense both in terms of quality and quantity. These changes are shaping the current trend, and the world is now witnessing multi-dimensional and multi-faceted competition.

It is expected that this trend and direction will become clearer in 2023. The risk of military conflicts among major powers is a realistic threat, and it is not just Ukraine suffering from conflict, as such a prospect is rising both in the Taiwan Strait and Korean Peninsula. Most notably, North Korea, which has demonstrated advanced nuclear threats in 2022, will routinize its nuclear threats against South Korea. As a result, political and military tensions on the Korean Peninsula may be further aggravated. In 2022 Europe had been the fiercest battleground in the world but in 2023 it may be the Indo-Pacific region that could rattle the non-proliferation regime. China and Russia will accelerate their efforts to find small opportunities in the Middle and Near East where the United States has begun to adjust its security strategy, and confrontations among major powers will pose even greater threats to the global economy. In short, compared to 2022, we may witness fiercer competition and a more volatile world.

What are the solutions for each country in this new world? Where do we need to focus our energy for survival and prosperity? This report examines the international order in 2023 and highlights the efforts by Asan Institute to provide solutions. I hope this report will serve as a valuable starting point for domestic and international discussions on the new international order. Last but not least, I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to authors both from inside and outside the institute as well as the members of the staff who have spared no effort in publishing this report.

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies