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Sunrise at the Dragon Bridge in Da Nag City, Vietnam
Sunrise at the Dragon Bridge in Da Nag City, Vietnam

Alliances in Crisis

In the face of the increasing risk of North Korean aggression and Chinese assertiveness in 2020, President Trump has reiterated his demand for allies to greatly expand their financial contributions to the United States and threatened the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. As regional threats intensify and Seoul and Tokyo negotiate with Washington about the future of their alliances, questions across the region about the reliability of the United States to come to the aid of its allies have deepened. How America’s allies and partners across the region react to these countervailing geopolitical trends will have deep consequences for the future of the region and for American power and influence across the Indo-Pacific.

Deepening Uncertainties in Asia’s Economy

As China’s economy slows and the U.S.-China trade war continues to fester, nations across the Indo-Pacific will need to adjust to the new normal of continued economic uncertainty in 2020. The region will be less likely to be united by a shared commitment to economic stability and faith in export-led growth. Instead, political calculations may well overshadow economic interests in the year ahead. Rivalry between Japan and South Korea is expected to continue to hurt trade relations between two of the region's most advanced economies, while growing political divides among Southeast Asian nations may well undermine the economic ambitions of a more integrated ASEAN. Asia has spent the past year adjusting to the shift in U.S. strategic interests in the region, but 2020 will be defined by how competing visions for growth can take root. 

A Pivotal Year in Afghanistan

Afghanistan faces an inflection point in 2020. President Trump is likely to redouble efforts to reach an agreement with the Taliban that puts Afghanistan on a path to peace and allows for the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. While the major challenge for Washington will be convincing the insurgents to agree to a ceasefire in the early stages of negotiations, a more significant long-term hurdle will be finding a way to convince the Taliban to peacefully engage the Afghan government in talks. If negotiations fail to make major progress, President Trump—who abruptly called off talks with the Taliban in 2019 with the two sides on the verge of a deal—will face a difficult decision: stage a unilateral withdrawal even while the war continues to rage, or stay the course and keep fighting an interminable conflict—the longest, by far, in American history.

The Threat of War in South Asia

India and Pakistan will arguably enter 2020 at greater risk of going to war than at any time in over a decade. The year 2019 saw the launch of the first Indian air strike inside Pakistan since 1971, as well as India’s decision to revoke the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir. A single trigger in the coming year – such as a mass-casualty attack in Kashmir that New Delhi blames on Islamabad, or an Indian provocation in the part of Kashmir administered by Pakistan - could well spark a conflict. In 2020, Washington, which has a strong interest in reduced tensions on the Subcontinent, will need to decide how to manage and mediate tensions between the nuclear-armed nemeses. 

Deepening Peace or a Return to ‘Fire and Fury’?

Will the U.S. and North Korea finally make progress on denuclearization negotiations, or will Pyongyang revert to testing nuclear bombs and long-range ballistic missiles? The year 2020 holds significant weight for Korea. In April, South Korea holds general elections that could bring political change to Seoul. In June, Koreans on both sides of the DMZ mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. And in October, North Korea celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party. With threats and rhetoric rising from both sides, fears of a return to the “fire and fury” of 2017 are palpable. In 2020, we’ll be watching whether the standoff will culminate in provocations and responses that send the Korean Peninsula back to destabilizing tensions – or whether Kim and President Trump will draw on their personal relationship and return to nuclear negotiations.

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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.

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