The future of conflict in Asia perpetually sits at the margins; long-standing border and territorial disputes fester even in the best of times; ethnic and religious divides feed internal conflicts; and perched at the border between the digital and the physical world, there is the omnipresent threat of hackers, both state-backed and non-state, targeting sensitive networks which could spark a war in the physical world.
In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, leaders across Asia will focus on restoring the health and economic well-being of their citizens. Most nations are navigating a K-shaped recovery in which the wealthiest do better both during the crisis and in its aftermath. Addressing this margin – the growing gap between rich and poor – is also an existential challenge for governments.
GROWING WEB OF TENSIONS
Asian leaders, who are fire fighting from crisis to crisis, need to have a more long term perspective to deal with the drivers of conflict and defuse tensions before things escalate. Unfortunately, this period of COVID-19 recovery is likely to exacerbate tensions and risk for Asia in several areas.
First, Beijing obviously intends to press hard on territorial disputes, finding it an opportune moment when other leaders are otherwise engaged. President Xi Jinping would deny this, but the velvet glove promising cooperation on COVID vaccinations and infrastructure investment comes with expectations of respect for Chinese interests as defined by China. In 2021, China’s relative economic stability during the pandemic will undergird more high-pressure tactics against neighbours who all face major contractions.
It’s not surprising that from the Taiwan Strait to the Line of Actual Control, Asia's territorial disputes have worsened during the COVID crisis. Skirmishing between Chinese and Indian forces claimed 20 Indian lives and an unknown number of Chinese forces, leaving India with two hotly contested borders. The resulting build-up of forces on both sides and India's banning of Chinese technology and investment set the stage for lasting Sino-Indian tension. China's militarisation of the South China Sea is largely complete, and the more aggressive PLA posture towards Taiwan, Japan, and now India will be sustained for years with or without the kabuki theatre of talks.
In most cases, Beijing will succeed in eroding their adversaries’ positions without sparking a war, but more aggressive moves by China (like the killing of Indian soldiers last year or the sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessels) could lead to escalation and conflict. All countries have their own self imposed redlines and China’s neighbours will at times push back, but selectively and with prudence to avoid sparking an escalatory crisis.
Second, resource tensions will spike through the decade over land and water, forests and fisheries in the Indo-Pacific. Like territorial disputes, the spectre of resource conflict also stretches from the High Himalaya to the Lower Mekong to the shoals of the South China Sea, and it will be accelerated by climate impacts in the decade ahead. From damming rivers to monopolizing fishing grounds, Asia is close to conflict on many ecological fronts and needs to invest in preventive diplomacy to modernize and where needed invent resource sharing mechanisms.
Third, internal conflicts persist and risk escalation in the coming years, especially when compounded by economic and climate crises. From Mindanao in the Philippines to ethnic conflicts in Myanmar to Afghanistan, which is ultimately a fight for power among Afghans, internal divides will draw in neighbours and retard human progress. These conflicts will not easily be resolved without help from genuinely concerned neighbours and the international community.
Finally, cyber war is ongoing in the region, ever-present but often below the radar. The Chinese and North Koreans are the most proficient aggressors, but Russia and various generally friendly nations are also all engaged in an online mix of espionage, sabotage, and criminality. Deterrence is weak to non-existent in cyberspace, and most Asian nations (other than China, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea) are woefully underprepared. A combination of regional support for a new set of rules and norms and building of capabilities among friendly nations is vital to stop a cyber war from turning into a real one.
Asia is not trapped on a conveyor belt to conflict, but without active bilateral and multilateral diplomacy in all of these areas, fraying margins could tear the fabric of earth’s most prosperous (and populous) continent.