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While the Asia-Pacific region will be grappling with the deadly coronavirus pandemic well into 2021, long-running tensions unrelated to the virus — around hot spots such as North Korea, the South China Sea and Taiwan — are also expected to return to the headlines this year.

Here’s a glance at the current state of play in the region, and where the coming year could take it.

North Korea

After showing off a “monster” long-range missile during an October military parade in Pyongyang that also featured several other new weapon designs, North Korea remained relatively quiet before and after the U.S. presidential election.

That was likely due to two key factors: The regime’s goal of controlling any coronavirus outbreak and a desire to gauge incoming U.S. President Joe Biden’s policy toward Pyongyang.

North Korea continues to deny COVID-19 has made its way into the country. It shuttered its borders early last year and has not shown any signs of easing strict anti-virus measures.

As for the new American leader, he will be a departure from current President Donald Trump — who held three historic meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and had been seen as the regime’s preferred candidate.

Biden has said he is willing to engage in “principled diplomacy” with Pyongyang. His camp has suggested this could include meetings with Kim if they are part of a strategy that helps make progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

Though the Trump-Kim meetings yielded little in terms of tangible results toward that goal, the mercurial American leader’s unorthodox approach has opened the door to outside-the-box thinking when it comes to reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Biden’s team could seize on parts of this, perhaps by signalling a willingness to engage in arms-control talks or a phased approach to denuclearization.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said that he expects the Biden administration to stick to the objective of denuclearization, but added that it “may be more willing than Trump to accept an interim agreement exchanging sanctions relief for a freeze in fissile material production.

“This recognizes how, absent major internal changes, Pyongyang is extremely unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons,” he said. “In the meantime, a cap on North Korea’s nuclear program would help limit a rising threat.”

Whatever the case, Kurt Campbell, a top adviser to Biden, said the next administration will need to send Pyongyang a message right out of the gates if it hopes to have a better chance at heading off provocations — as were seen during the administration of former President Barack Obama — and keeping a path to engagement open.

“Thinking carefully about what might be appropriate, working in consultation and partnership with South Korea, early signals to North Korea will be something that will be near the top of the list of the Biden team,” Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia under Obama and a contender for a senior slot under Biden, said during an online event last month.

Absent those signals, Kim could seek to demonstrate his commitment to the continued improvement of his country’s nuclear capabilities, possibly by lobbing missiles over or near Japan.

But any such decision is unlikely to come until after the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea convenes for a rare congress, possibly as early as this week, in which the regime is expected to unveil major domestic and foreign policies.

South China Sea

When it comes to China, one of the most visible hot spots has been the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing has reclaimed and militarized a number of islands.

The strategic waterway — some 90% of which is claimed by China — will remain a focus for the U.S. and Japanese navies as Beijing continues to cement its position there despite overlapping claims by others in the region, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei.

The U.S. and Japan fear the Chinese-held outposts, some of which boast military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry, could be used to restrict free movement in an area that includes vital sea lanes and through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year.

The U.S. military has angered Beijing by regularly holding drills and conducting “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) close to and over some of the islands there.

Last year, Trump doubled the Obama administration’s number of FONOPs to 10. Biden is likely to further increase them.

China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying vessels conducts a drill in the disputed South China Sea in December 2016. | REUTERS
China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying vessels conducts a drill in the disputed South China Sea in December 2016. | REUTERS

Jake Sullivan, the president-elect’s pick for national security adviser, has advocated as much, saying last year that the U.S. “should be devoting more assets and resources to ensuring and reinforcing, and holding up alongside our partners, the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

“That puts the shoe on the other foot,” he told ChinaTalk, a podcast hosted by Jordan Schneider, adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. “China then has to stop us, which they will not do.”

Critics, however, say the operations alone have done little to dissuade China from its growing assertiveness in the waters, with some saying they even raise the risk of an inadvertent clash or accident that could trigger a wider conflict between the two powers.

“Given the current overall relations between China and the U.S., if any maritime or aerial accident takes place, the friction could likely not be effectively managed and result in an escalation,” Hu Bo, director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative think tank told China’s state-run Global Times newspaper in August. “Therefore, the uncertain factors in Chinese and US militaries’ interactions in the South China Sea are large, and the risks are becoming higher.”

Adding to this powder keg, the Pentagon has singled out China on the seas, warning in a paper last month, which set out objectives for the U.S. Navy, Marines and Coast Guard in the coming years, that American vessels would “accept calculated tactical risks and adopt a more assertive posture” in day-to-day operations, including in the South China Sea.

Taiwan

Adjacent to the South China Sea is Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing has vowed repeatedly over the last 70 years to bring back into its fold, by force if necessary.

China ramped up last year its diplomatic and military activities targeting Taiwan, sending advanced warships, fighters and bombers for an unprecedented flurry of drills near the island. The leadership in Taipei also forged close ties with Trump, who significantly boosted military aid and high-level engagement with the country.

Taiwan also won global praise for its handling of the pandemic, quickly assessing the danger and working to effectively stamp out the threat.

Still, fears have lingered that an invasion by an increasingly nationalist China may be imminent — a scenario that would have dire repercussions for U.S. and Japanese security — and that the new administration could rethink Taiwan policy in favor of a reset with Beijing.

Although it was an open secret that Trump was the clear favorite in November’s American presidential election for many in Taiwan, those wary of China’s growing assertiveness and a U.S. detente with Beijing may have little to fear with Biden’s presidency.

Sullivan, the top Biden adviser, as well as Asia hands close to the president-elect have been clear on their views of the Chinese military and in their support for Taiwan, including an acknowledgment of the ramifications should the U.S. tone down backing for the Asian partner.

“The People’s Liberation Army has made no secret of the fact that it is building the military power-projection capabilities necessary to subjugate Taiwan, a development that would upend the regional balance of power overnight and call the rest of America’s commitments in the Western Pacific into question,” Sullivan co-wrote in Foreign Policy in May.

India-China border

Perhaps the most dangerous of the regional powder kegs, however, is the border row that has pitted India and China — two nuclear-armed neighbors — against each other.

Last year, relations between New Delhi and Beijing plummeted, with the two Asian powers facing off at numerous places along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — a disputed border demarcation that stretches some 3,440 kilometers. Flare-ups included the worst border clash in decades, in which 20 Indian soldiers were reportedly killed in a brutal melee with Chinese troops.

“At the moment, Sino-India relations are in serious trouble — the most serious trouble that the two nations have seen since the 1980s and possibly beyond,” Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said during a recent online event.

While the border row has entered a kind of frozen detente for the moment, winter having set in high in the Himalayan region, the matter has pushed India to take a tougher stance on China.

Indian Border Security Force soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer, in Kashmir's Ganderbal district, in June 2019. | REUTERS
Indian Border Security Force soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer, in Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, in June 2019. | REUTERS

The standoff has seen India strengthen its commitment to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which groups India, Japan, Australia and the United States.

New Delhi had long been skeptical of multilateral groupings such as the Quad out of fear of pushing China too hard and damaging other aspects of the bilateral relationship.

But while Beijing has lambasted the grouping as an “Asian NATO” aimed at containing China, momentum has grown for bolstering the Quad and bilateral defense ties among the nations amid the border row and Beijing’s growing maritime assertiveness.

Much will also depend on Biden’s approach to the two Asian powers. Analysts say some officials in New Delhi are concerned the new administration may bring up Indian human rights concerns ignored under the Trump administration while also taking a softer stance on China.

As for any hopes this year for tensions to thaw in the border conflict, much will depend on whether both sides can muster the political will to mutually agree on a way forward that includes deescalation and the disengagement of thousands of troops on both sides.

Most importantly, both countries will still need to sit down and thrash out a way forward once those steps are taken.

“Because if you don’t have that discussion, an exchange of maps, clarity about what each sides’ claims are and a new set of protocols to define behaviors … we are only setting the stage for a recurrence of the crisis down the line,” Tellis said.

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