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2021: The Year Ahead in Asia

The Asia Program and Korea Center look ahead in this preview from the upcoming Wilson Center publication "On the Horizon: What to Watch in 2021."

A Region Changed

The Biden administration will confront an Indo-Pacific that has changed radically since the end of the Obama administration. Over the past four years, China has grown more assertive in the pursuit of its interests and has demonstrated a greater willingness to openly intimidate its neighbors. Over the same period, the United States dramatically reduced the role that it has traditionally played as a leader for regional economic and geopolitical initiatives, denigrated and weakened its alliances, and more directly confronted China. The entire region – allies and adversaries alike – will be watching the Biden administration carefully to see if and how the United States seeks to revitalize its alliances, restore its position as regional leader, address shared regional and global challenges, and manages cooperative and competitive dynamics with China.

A Pivotal Year in Afghanistan

As U.S. involvement in Afghanistan reaches its 20th year, the Biden administration will face a series of major decisions. President-elect Biden will enter into office with 2,500 American troops left in the country, with a 2020 agreement concluded between the Trump administration and the Taliban stipulating that all U.S. military forces having left the country by the spring—but only if the Taliban has ended cooperation with al-Qaeda. Washington will need to decide if and how to follow this agreement, and how to approach a fragile, slow-moving peace process that has failed to contain intensifying violence. And above all, the administration will need to decide how, amid all this uncertainty, it will pursue its core interest in Afghanistan—maintaining a robust counterterrorism capacity—in the face of diminished public support for continued operations and justifiable questions about the security and human rights implications of the potential return to power by the Taliban.

Difficult Decoupling of Economic and Security Interests

 Much of the Indo-Pacific will continue to face a difficult balancing act, in their efforts to boost economic ties with China despite the deepening security challenges posed by Beijing, and its efforts to reinvigorate its ties with the United States after four years of geopolitical turbulence. As of late 2020, Asia is the locus of the world’s two largest trade agreements, with the United States party to neither the CPTPP nor RCEP. The trade deals have deepened regional economic integration, given Asian nations the confidence to work together and focus on common economic interests. Nevertheless, as nationalist fervor continues to rise across Asia, increased trade relations will not be enough to tamp down growing rivalries and tensions over territorial disputes in particular. The sustainability of decoupling trade interests from security concerns will come under increasing pressure in 2021.

Drawing North Korea Out of Isolation

Foremost on the minds of Korea watchers at the start of 2021: will Kim Jong Un welcome the new US administration with outreach - or with provocations? And will Pyongyang finally emerge from isolation, or remain sequestered behind tightly sealed borders and an ideology of self-reliance? The Biden-Harris administration will be challenged with reining in a North Korean nuclear and missile arsenal that has grown more threatening over each consecutive year. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, will aim to draw Pyongyang out of its shell as he seeks to fulfill his goal of engaging North Korea before he leaves office in 2022 – posing yet another challenge by a US-ROK Alliance that is already under significant strain. A Party Congress in Pyongyang in January will be closely watched for hints to Kim’s priorities on foreign policy as well as domestic directives, particularly on public health and the economy, while Washington and Seoul will struggle to find a way forward that allows for continued engagement with Pyongyang while strengthening the Alliance against the possibility that denuclearization efforts may again fail.

Read the rest of One the Horizon: What to Watch in 2021 now.

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy

The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond.  Read more