A year that erupted with seismic events — one geological, the other geopolitical — rumbled to its close with war still raging in Europe but also with the forging of partnerships for peace in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Just weeks after an underwater volcano in the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire spewed an immense cloud of ash and steam into the atmosphere above Tonga, triggering a tsunami and a sonic boom that twice circled the planet, Russian forces invaded neighboring Ukraine in February 2022, sending more shockwaves around the world.
In each emergency, the response by like-minded nations was immediate and unified as they rallied to the side of Tonga and Ukraine, whether with humanitarian assistance, military equipment, financial support or crippling sanctions against Moscow.
Other crises reverberated throughout the year, from the pernicious conflict in Myanmar sparked by the February 2021 military coup to North Korea’s spate of missile tests in violation of United Nations resolutions, and the historic protests across the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the communist regime’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which included calls for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping to resign.
In 2023, as the region continues to wrestle with such flashpoints, it also will pause to mark milestones, including the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice and the 75th anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the new year will undoubtedly bring unforeseen challenges and opportunities, these five issues will be keenly watched:
1. Tragedy in Myanmar
Nearly two years after the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government, the junta’s refusal to honor a peace plan and end its bloody crackdown is worsening a humanitarian disaster that has left tens of thousands of people dead and an estimated 1.4 million displaced.
Neighboring countries warned the junta in late 2022 that it faces further isolation from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, and the military has been blocked from taking the nation’s seat at the U.N.
Meanwhile, nations including the United States continue to levy sanctions on the junta and entities under its control. In contrast to those punitive steps, a U.N. human rights expert reported that the PRC and Russia have supplied fighter jets, rockets and artillery to the junta even though it’s “committing war crimes and crimes against humanity daily.”
2. Pyongyang’s nuclear plans
North Korea’s barrage of missile tests in 2022, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) reportedly capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, prompted widespread concern that the reclusive nation is readying for its first nuclear weapons test since 2017. North Korea’s nuclear program aims to build an “absolute force, unprecedented in the century,” leader Kim Jong Un said after the ICBM launch in November.
Nations including Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have highlighted the destabilizing effects of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs. But as in the case of Myanmar, the PRC and Russia have stymied U.N. Security Council efforts to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command condemned the missile launches and emphasized the United States’ “ironclad” commitment to defending its allies Japan and South Korea. In late November, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol warned of an unprecedented joint response from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington should Pyongyang persist in its weapons development. “It would be extremely unwise for North Korea to conduct a seventh nuclear test,” he said.
3. Flourishing partnerships
The coordinated response to Pyongyang’s belligerence is an example of collaborations that promise continued growth in 2023. In November, ASEAN upgraded its relationship with India and the U.S. to comprehensive strategic partnerships to boost trade and investment, which U.S. President Joe Biden said will help build “an Indo-Pacific that’s free and open, stable and prosperous, and resilient and secure.”
Earlier in the year, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which comprises Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., unveiled initiatives in areas ranging from cybersecurity and space to climate change and maritime domain awareness. “The Quad is committed to cooperation with partners in the region who share the vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” the nations’ leaders said in a statement during their May summit in Tokyo.
Australia and the U.S. also are partnering with the United Kingdom to develop advanced capabilities and support Canberra’s acquisition of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines. Known as AUKUS, the security pact is “focused on enhancing regional stability and safeguarding a Free and Open Indo-Pacific where conflicts are resolved peacefully and without coercion,” the nations’ top defense officials said in a December statement.
4. Border dispute
Almost exactly 60 years after the Sino-Indian War, tensions flared again in late 2022 as the nations’ forces clashed along the disputed 3,400-kilometer border known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh reported that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers tried to infringe on India’s territory in Arunachal Pradesh to “unilaterally change the status quo” but were repelled by the Indian Army. Troops used spiked clubs and sticks in the skirmish, causing injuries but no deaths, unlike a clash in mid-2020 that was the first fatal encounter between the nuclear-armed nations for 45 years.
New Delhi contends Beijing is refusing to honor border agreements, instead massing troops and upgrading weaponry and military infrastructure in the mountainous region. “The current situation along the LAC … as well as China’s refusal to discuss issues on India’s agenda for resolving the crisis have added to the structural instability in their relationship,” Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at India’s Centre for Policy Research, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in December.
5. Taiwan tensions
Beijing’s willingness to upend the status quo wasn’t restricted to Himalayan border incursions. In August, the PLA staged its largest-ever drills around self-governed Taiwan, including launching ballistic missiles that fell into waters inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. PLA aircraft, meanwhile, have repeatedly crossed the midpoint of the 180-kilometer-wide Taiwan Strait separating the island and the PRC, in what analysts say is an attempt to establish a “new normal” and wear down Taipei’s defenses.
The CCP claims Taiwan as its territory and increasingly threatens to seize control of the island, which has never been part of the PRC. With Xi securing a third five-year term as CCP leader in October, the party’s constitution was amended to make the unification with Taiwan the most important objective, Nikkei Asia news magazine reported.
As Taiwan fortifies its defenses against potential invasion, its Indo-Pacific partners are reinforcing their commitment to the rules-based international order in 2023 and beyond. “We seek to uphold peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” President Biden told the U.N. General Assembly in September.
IMAGE CREDIT: PETTY OFFICER 3RD CLASS CODY BEAM / U.S. NAVY