U.S. think tank highlighted four possible conflicts in Asia Pacific in 2021

The Council on Foreign Relations published the “Preventive Priorities Survey 2021” on January 14, highlighting some areas that might potentially see conflicts break out during this year. The Korean Peninsula, the areas around Taiwan, the disputed border between China and India are some of the areas mentioned in the report.

In the survey for 2021, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action found that concern over North Korea’s renewed development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is the top contingency. It is evaluated as having a high likelihood of triggering a conflict and having a serious impact on the U.S.

According to Paul Stares, Director of the Center for Preventive Action, most foreign policy experts in the U.S. don’t think North Korea is gong to denuclearize and based on past experiences, they think the country is going to use further nuclear-related activities to put pressure on the U.S.

“Since the survey was conducted in November, 2020, there has been more evidence that North Korea could be pushing this issue to the top of the agenda of the incoming Biden administration,” said Stares.

I think the result of the survey has been validated by what’s happened in the last few days. With the talk of launching submarines or ballistic missiles and Kim Jong-un’s remarks at the Party Congress, these evidence all point to the fact that this issue is starting to bubble up and the Biden administration may have to deal with this sooner rather than later.”

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corporation, said recent indications out of North Korea suggests that Kim Jong-un plans to bring Washington back to the negotiating table by re-testing long-range ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons.

The heightened tension across the Taiwan Strait

On the other hand, the survey also raises the likelihood of a conflict breaking out across the Taiwan Strait to its highest level. The survey says that as China increases political and economic pressure on Taiwan, it could lead to a severe crisis with the United States.

Paul Stares, who is in charge of the survey, said the heightened tension across the Taiwan Strait reflects former U.S. President Donald Trump’s forward-leaning support for Taiwan over the last four years. Some of the measures include relaxing restrictions on official visits to Taiwan, providing more arms sales and other assistance to Taiwan.

“On the other hand, China has grown more assertive and has conducted a variety of activities around Taiwan, which is also seen as intimidating and coercive,” Stares said. “I think the combination of the two has made many people worry that there could be a major incident which leads to a crisis or even a conflict.”

“Tensions across the Taiwan Strait is probably one of the most dangerous potential conflicts on the planet at the moment. In terms of the risk of escalation, it could be a defining moment.”

Prolonged conflict along the Sino-Indian border

Additionally, CFR’s survey also highlighted the ongoing conflict along the disputed border between India and China as one of the potential conflicts to keep an eye on. Stares points out that for the first time in many years, blood was shed and casualties were occurring throughout the conflict between Indian and Chinese soldiers in 2020.

He thinks that result from the survey shows that foreign policy experts in the United States are not only concerned about the risk of escalation, but there is also a general pessimism about the ways that both India and China are trying to manage the conflict.

“Most people think it’s unlikely for the border conflict to develop into a full-blown conflict,” Stares said. “A very bad incident could lead to the re-alignment of India’s position against China, as it tries to be more aligned with the west.”

Derek Grossman from Rand Corporation also said the tension between China and India is likely going to sustain and there are still fundamental disagreements between the two countries.

“India wants to return to troop positions status quo ante, and China wants to reinforce its advantageous territorial gains for the possibility of future wars,” Grossman said. “China and India continue to discuss planning for the 9th military-to-military dialogue to resolve the dispute, but an agreement looks very unlikely.”

Tension in the South China Sea drops

Lastly, the Council on Foreign Relations brings down the likelihood of a conflict breaking out between Beijing and Washington in South China Sea. According to Paul Stares, this shows that China and the U.S. understand the risks of starting a conflict in the region.

“Experts don’t expect China to be more assertive in the South China Sea while they think the U.S. will be extremely cautious about conducting freedom of navigation and other maritime activities,” he said. “They think the situation has stabilized.”

However, Derek Grossman thinks the survey from CFR might have underestimate the threat of the conflict in South China Sea. He points out that the U.S. is increasingly conducting freedom of navigation operation in the region and China has tailed the American vessels during these operations. “This presents the chance for miscalculation and escalation to conflict,” he said.

As Joe Biden becomes the new U.S. President, Paul Stares thinks the Biden administration has made it clear that they plan to increase the relationship between the U.S. and its partners in the Indo-Pacific while strengthening relationships between partners.

“The fact that Biden has appointed Kurt Campbell, who has a lot of experience in Asia, to oversee U.S. policy towards China reflects their desire to put much more emphasis in strengthening U.S. relationships in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.