While the Asia-Pacific region will be grappling with the 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 already making headlines this year. Jesse Johnson offers an overview of the current state of play, and where the coming year could take it.

On Saturday, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier strike group into the disputed South China Sea shortly after China dispatched a fleet of 13 warplanes — including nuclear-capable bombers — into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The U.S. dispatch was seen as a message to China just days after the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

The maneuvers came a day after China passed a bill that allows its coast guard to use weapons when foreign ships involved in illegal activities in waters claimed by the country fail to obey orders, in a move that would complicate relations with Japan.

China-Taiwan tensions rise in Biden's first days | REUTERS
China-Taiwan tensions rise in Biden’s first days | REUTERS

On Sunday, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi confirmed in his first talks with new U.S. defense chief Lloyd Austin that the Senkaku Islands fall under the scope of the two allies’ security treaty. The East China Sea islands are also claimed by Beijing. The pair also pledged to strengthen a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” according to the Defense Ministry in Tokyo.

Days before Biden took office, the U.S. declassified a national security document that reveals details of the Trump administration’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific, including Japan’s key role in formulating it, as well as a plan to “deny,” “defend” against and “dominate” China in the region, Johnson reports.

Commentator Yuichi Hosoya notes that Biden has been using the phrase “a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” perhaps in a bid to put some distance between his administration and Trump’s ultrahard line on China. Japan must set the record straight and convince Biden that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy is actually meant to draw in, not exclude, Beijing, Hosoya argues.