Unnerving year for Northeast Asia

While 2011 was “the great unraveling,” 2012 holds out the prospect of equally consequential changes for Asia, but the inflection points are visible well ahead of time. The most notable feature of the calendar will be elections that are scheduled to be held throughout the region this year, each of which could bring about substantial change in its own right, but which in combination could trigger lurches in regional politics and relations.

The first ballots will take place in Taiwan, where both presidential and parliamentary elections will be held together for the first time on Jan. 14. President Ma Ying-jeou, who took office four years ago, is battling Democratic Progressive Party nominee Tsai Ing-wen, and at this point the race is too close to call.

The most notable feature of the Ma presidency has been the calming of cross-strait relations and there is a fear that a Tsai victory will roil the relationship as did the last DPP president, Mr. Chen Shui-bian, who was forthright in his support for Taiwan independence. Ms. Tsai has tried to dampen concern but the Beijing government worries that lightning will strike twice.

Nonetheless, a Tsai win could prove destabilizing. Not only because Beijing fears a DPP victory, but because China is undergoing a leadership transition of its own as President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao turn over their offices to the fifth generation. Authoritarian societies are inflexible at the best of times, and changes at the top, even if planned, exacerbate hardline tendencies as followers jockey for position.

There is little inclination on the mainland to tolerate Taiwan’s democratic foibles, but China has learned to be low key with its complaints, recognizing that overt intervention is only likely to antagonize Taiwanese voters. No one wants cross-strait relations to deteriorate — and they do not have to, regardless of the election outcome — but the congruence of two leadership changes is likely to generate friction regardless of intent.

In March, Russia holds its presidential election and the favorite in that ballot is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. While there is little reason to bet against Mr. Putin, the mass unrest that followed last month’s parliamentary elections suggests that the results of the March campaign may be more fluid than anticipated: There is a better chance that Mr. Putin will not muster the votes needed to avoid a runoff. The question then is how he will respond.

Will he attempt to quieten the growing call for more democracy by instituting political and economic reform? Or will he double down on his autocratic tendencies? The latter is likely to spark confrontations with other nations.

South Korea will also be holding parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012, the first in April and the second in December. Much can change between now and those dates, but in both ballots, the progressives look like the likely winners. Since a conservative occupies the Blue House and like-minded politicians control the National Assembly, a progressive victory could herald a basic shift in ROK politics.

While Japan-ROK relations are not friction free, the Lee Myung Bak presidency has been notable for its refusal to play the Japan card in domestic politics. That is likely to end with this administration. More troubling is the prospect of misalignment between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington on policy toward North Korea if a left-leaning government takes residence in Seoul.

In November, the United States holds its elections. U.S. politics have rarely been as volatile as they have been in the last two years. The state of the U.S. economy would normally be a tremendous liability for an incumbent president, but Mr. Barack Obama is not as battered as many expected.

Thus far, the GOP campaign has been a bloody affair and it is not clear if the party and the eventual nominee will regain footing to successfully challenge Mr. Obama. The mood in the U.S. is difficult to decipher, adding yet another layer of unpredictability to an already dynamic Asian political mix.

Another transition is playing out in Pyongyang as Mr. Kim Jong Un takes power as the third leader in North Korea. Despite the many unknowns surrounding him, most observers bet on more of the same. There is little expectation of a shift in North Korea’s trajectory. The big question is what he will have to do to consolidate authority and power.

Again, history suggests a more hardline approach is the default position in times of uncertainty. No North Korean leader has ever moved ahead by promoting tolerance and liberalization.

Japan has no elections scheduled for 2012, but the past three years suggests that national politics may be as volatile as those of our neighbors even without a ballot.

Each of these elections has the potential to move national policies and the resulting shifts could create new sources of tension among nations. Combine them and you have a fluidity that is unparalleled in recent years.

Add yet again the many uncertainties that defy national political calendars — another economic downturn, an outbreak of disease, a major terrorist incident, etc. — and 2012 promises to be a year of extraordinary volatility.