2022: 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 2022."
The Gap Between U.S. Military and Economic Strategies
Through diplomatic overtures and messaging campaigns, the Biden White House has demonstrated a strong commitment to remain a Pacific power. The first U.S. national security strategy under President Biden is anticipated to put the Indo-Pacific at the forefront of the nation’s foreign policy priorities, as Washington looks to deepen support from allies and like-minded countries to counterbalance China’s dominance in the region and beyond. Efforts to build upon existing partnerships, most notably the Quad, to deal with immediate regional challenges – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – will gain further momentum. Additionally, through new partnerships like AUKUS with established allies Australia and the United Kingdom, the White House has already succeeded in broadening security ties in the Indo-Pacific.
However, when it comes to economic security, new U.S. initiatives that address Asia’s rapidly changing realities have been sorely lacking. The Indo-Pacific is now home to two of the world’s most ambitious trade deals to date, and the United States is not party to either of them. The Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement has become the de facto economic roadmap that can unite the politically, economically, and socially diverse Indo-Pacific region. The need to address rules to govern technological developments and strengthen cyber resilience is as pressing as the need to harmonize standards for digital trade, and yet Washington’s voice has been too weak.
U.S. success as a Pacific power will depend as much on taking on economic leadership, and multilateral support for that leadership, as it will on leading from the front as a net security provider. Until it attains the former, it will be hard-pressed to achieve its full potential as a Pacific power.
Rivalries and Cooperation: Beyond U.S.-China Tensions
The regional order of the Indo-Pacific will no longer be defined solely by tensions between Washington and Beijing. While the United States will continue to lead the way in defining the region’s security architecture, its lack of a clear vision for the regional economy will prevent it from fulfilling its full potential as a Pacific power. While U.S. allies and like-minded countries will continue to press for a greater commitment from Washington to engage in the region, they will also opt to shape the economic landscape of the Indo-Pacific without the United States. On the security front, the European commitment to the region could increase, while new configurations of partnerships and alliances are likely to emerge in response to the longer-term challenge of confronting China’s ambitions of dominating the region through coercion and enticement.
Regional Implications of Taliban-led Afghanistan
The Taliban will face major challenges consolidating power in 2022. They will struggle to ease a catastrophic humanitarian crisis likely to kill hundreds of thousands, and they will confront an intensifying terrorism threat from Islamic State-Khorasan. If the Taliban can’t gain domestic legitimacy, a new armed resistance and civil war could ensue. Afghanistan’s neighbors, which include top U.S. competitors Iran, Russia, and China, strategic partner India, and key players like Pakistan, will be impacted by heightened refugee flows, the drug trade, cross-border terrorism, and other spillover effects of Afghan instability. Difficult decisions will be needed around how to engage with the Taliban government—to the extent that it survives. As regional players pursue their interests in Afghanistan, the outcomes could be cooperation but also competition, and, in the case of India and Pakistan, potential proxy conflict.
Tensions over Taiwan
Given Taiwan’s unique circumstances in the international community, Washington’s relations with Taipei have deliberately been defined by strategic ambiguity. Escalation of China’s claims to Taiwan, coupled with the critical importance of Taiwan for the global economy, however, will require greater clarity in how Taiwan can continue to prosper as a democracy. The Biden administration will be pressed to commit further to ensure stability in cross-Strait relations, and expectations for Washington to lead coordinated efforts among Indo-Pacific powers in Taiwan’s defense politically and economically—as well as militarily— will continue to increase.
No Path to North Korean Denuclearization in the Near-term
The Biden administration would like to denuclearize North Korea but doesn’t know how. From sanctions to direct negotiations with Kim Jong Un, the United States has tried every option. Nothing has worked. At the Hanoi summit in 2019, Kim demanded the lifting of most sanctions in return for only a partial shutdown of his nuclear program. That deal was unacceptable to President Trump and will not be accepted by President Biden either—especially because North Korea still refuses to deliver an inventory of its nuclear program or agree to international inspections. Biden has little choice but to continue with sanctions, deterrence, and containment policies even though they will not prevent the further expansion of the North Korean WMD program. There simply is not a more attractive alternative.
Accelerated North Korean Nuclear and Missile Threat
North Korea has embarked on an ambitious new five-year military modernization plan, and we are likely to continue to see Kim’s efforts create a nuclear triad that can survive a first strike. Some of the weapons the North has tested this year include a new long-range cruise missile, a submarine launched ballistic missile (SRBM), a new rail-mobile based mode for SRBMs, and a new hypersonic boosted-guided missile. Particularly in the latter half of 2022, after the Beijing Winter Olympics in February and South Korea’s presidential election in March, the North could seek to escalate tensions, even carrying out an ICBM test (such as the yet untested Hwasong-16), or a nuclear test. These tests fit the North’s broad strategic objectives of bolstering its nuclear deterrent while seeking added leverage in future diplomacy with the United States. Kim’s short-term goal is to achieve significant sanctions relief; his long-term objective is to be recognized as a nuclear power.
Increased Tensions on the Korean Peninsula
In South Korea’s March 2022 presidential election, the conservative candidate of the opposition People Power Party, Yoon Seok-Yeol, is running neck and neck with the Democratic Party candidate, Lee Jae-Myung. South Korean politics is volatile, and the outcome is far from certain, but if Yoon wins, he is likely to adopt a more confrontational posture against North Korea, particularly if the North escalates tensions. The conservatives would shift away from Moon’s sunshine policy of trying to reach out to North Korea, especially if North Korea conducts nuclear or missile tests.
Shift in Korea-Japan Relations
The relationship between South Korea and Japan soured considerably in recent years after the 2015 comfort women deal fell apart and the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies had to pay South Korean citizens for wartime labor. The Korea-Japan relationship— difficult in the best of times—is deeply vulnerable to South Korea’s domestic politics. The current stalemate between South Korea and Japan is likely to continue or even worsen, particularly if the ruling party candidate, Lee Jae-Myung, wins the presidency in March. Lee has called for South Korea to do more to punish pro-Japanese Koreans who had cooperated with the Japanese military during the 1910-1945 colonial rule. But Yoon Seok-Youl, the opposition candidate of the conservative People Power Party, has said he would like to restore the frayed relationship with Japan and have a “future-oriented” approach. Relations with Japan could improve if Yoon wins, despite anti-Japanese sentiments among the South Korean public. A Yoon administration could have the chance to hit the reset button.
The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2022, Asia Program. All rights reserved.
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