2021 presents challenges beyond coronavirus recovery

2021 presents challenges beyond coronavirus recovery


With the fight against a global pandemic continues into 2021, experts say the Indo-Pacific region can expect to face other security challenges, new and old, this year.

An incessantly aggressive People’s Republic of China (PRC) will continue to present strategic challenges — as will an unpredictable North Korea that has so far refused to denuclearize.

“The beginning of 2021 will be an unprecedented period. The United States, Japan and the rest of the world will continue to face a pandemic and economic crisis, not to mention threats such as the climate crisis and growing concerns over China,” Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and Haneul Lee, a research assistant for Asia policy with the center’s National Security and International Policy team, wrote in a center analysis.

The inauguration of Joe Biden as U.S. president on January 20 could bring a shift in U.S. policy that offers additional resources to U.S. allies and partners to address these and other challenges. Experts, however, say it’s unlikely that a Biden administration will hinder the PRC’s attempts to jockey for dominance.

“China could try to intimidate its neighbors below the threshold of U.S. intervention and misjudge where that threshold is, or underestimate U.S. willingness” to respond to perceived threats to its assets, David Gompert, former deputy director for the U.S. National Intelligence, told the online newspaper Asia Times.

Operating in such gray zones, where provocation happens without triggering armed conflict — and a situation that is neither at peace nor war — presents new challenges to Indo-Pacific militaries and governments.

“While full-scale warfare remains improbable, powerful nations are likely to continue to exploit the gray zone between war and peace to ensure the balance of forces continues to remain in their favor,” according to the Australian Institute of International Affairs. “For states unaccustomed to this mode of warfare, the challenge will be to prepare to counter subtle aggression, where aggressors will increasingly deploy non-military anti-access measures. The need of the hour is for law-abiding states to continue to work towards a rules-based order in the Asian commons.”

Another newer form of warfare spreading around the region and the globe is armed drones. Militaries are working toward safe, autonomous navigation of drones across all terrains. A lack of legal framework prohibiting the use of such units via ground and undersea robots could accelerate their deployment, according to the online news magazine The Diplomat.

“But the overall robotization of warfare is an uneven process. If armed aerial drones have become commonplace, the same cannot be said for armed ground or naval robots,” according to The Diplomat. “There are sound technical reasons for this — safe, autonomous navigation on land is much more difficult than in the air.”

The Diplomat analysis also warned of forthcoming hacks akin to the state-sponsored SolarWinds cyber attack that Russia is accused of carrying out against the U.S.

“Hacks are difficult to cover. The details are difficult to ascertain quickly and hard to describe in accessible language; and of course, neither the hacker nor the hacked are eager to offer comment,” according to The Diplomat. “While it is likely that 2021 will see the public disclosure of hacks that equal or exceed SolarWinds in scope and scale, it is unlikely that they will receive commensurate coverage.”