The reshaping of the international order in recent times is a phenomenon that has taken on myriad forms and characteristics, which has rendered it a difficult task to condense into a single theme the multitudinous contexts involved in the ongoing great power competition. Whereas some define the world today in the context of a “New Cold War,” others regard the present condition of global affairs as chaos itself in a state of anarchy. Meanwhile, neologisms such as “decoupling” and “de-risking” have been coined to describe the trends that have arisen surrounding the matter of security in global supply chains.
In this regard, the international order has taken on a diverse array of dimensions since the 2000s, adding to the exceptional intricacy of predicting future events in practice. Regardless of one’s perspective on contemporary international relations, however, it seems evident that some of the common denominators include the rise of nationalism and unilateralism among dominant powers and the undermining of substance within international organizations. As such, the systematic analysis and description of these trends are critical in assessing the global landscape of today and predicting the future.
To understand current trends in the international order despite the complexity of discerning their direction and characteristics, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies has endeavored since 2015 to select an annual overarching theme for each volume of its publication, “Asan International Strategic Outlook.” Past themes include “Strategic Distrust” (2015), “New Normal?” (2016), “Reset” (2017), “Illiberal International Order” (2018), “Korea’s Choice” (2019), “Neo Geopolitics” (2020), “Era of Chaos” (2021), “Rebuilding” (2022), and “Complex Competition” (2023). Although these themes reflect a number of topical keywords, they nonetheless reflect our painstaking efforts in adopting a multidimensional and comprehensive perspective to examine the nature of the changing international order, its subsequent implications, and the response of each country and region to address such changes.
In line with such considerations, the theme for 2024 has been finalized as “Coalition Building.” All dominant powers, whether it be the United States, China, or Russia, strive to maintain or establish an international order under their sole leadership, and in doing so, seek to gain an advantage over competitors by forming “coalitions” with allies and partners. These coalitions take on many forms.
The United States, for instance, is making simultaneous efforts to bring together allies and partners across regions such as cooperation between NATO and Indo-Pacific allies, establish “minilateral” partnerships such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the ROK-U.S.-Japan security cooperation, and also lead platform-specific economic partnerships that emphasize economic norms and criteria such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). By contrast, China is capitalizing on its economic power to pursue its own coalitions based on a distinctly Chinese style of rules and standards, hoping to fill the vacuum left in the international order by the “America First” policy of the United States. Russia is also striving to establish a multipolar world order in which it has a stake based on the concept of “Eurasianism” and pursuing its own version of coalition-building, while maintaining its control over the former member states of the Soviet Union. Outwardly at least, the competition between great power-centered coalitions appeared to reach a brief lull in 2023, although it actually became even more pronounced inwardly.
This trend is expected to persist in 2024 as well, as major countries including the United States, China, and Russia compete to deepen and expand their respective coalitions with themselves at the helm, while endeavoring to avoid the escalation of the war of values between democracy and authoritarianism that has been sparked by the war in Ukraine. In the process, the confrontation between the South Korea-U.S.-Japan coalition and the North Korea-China-Russia coalition in Northeast Asia may become more prominent, with dominant powers scrambling to court the “Global South.” However, these great powers will grapple with the dilemma of their weakening leadership within their coalitions, and perhaps even face crises of democracy, in the case of U.S.-centered coalitions.
The outlook is yet bleaker for cooperation in emerging security areas such as cyberspace and climate change, which had once served to unite the global consensus despite the intensity of the existing hegemonic struggle. In particular, it must also be noted that the possibility of further escalation of geopolitical tensions by North Korea based on its close ties with Russia cannot be ruled out as a threat to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, as well as the international order.
The strategic landscape in 2024 raises various questions and concerns. South Korea’s immediate vicinity of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia is a web of strategic calculations that are either intertwined or in conflict with each other, which may play out in a plethora of different outcomes. Our security landscape could be further complicated by North Korea, which seeks to leverage the bloc confrontation between the ROK-U.S.-Japan and North Korea-China-Russia coalitions to heighten its nuclear threat; China, which intends to take advantage of South Korea-China economic ties to counter South Korea’s participation in U.S.-led coalitions; and the United States, which hopes that South Korea will expand its regional and global roles.
This report is the culmination of the efforts of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies to forecast the strategic situation in 2024, identify those insights South Korea should consider, and offer recommendations for how to best respond. We hope that this report will serve as a valuable resource for further analysis of the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia, and the international order in 2024. Finally, I would like to once again express my gratitude to the Asan Institute’s researchers and external authors for their unsparing efforts in contributing to the publication of this report.
Dr. YOON Young-kwan
Chairman, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies