IScann in Perspective: With Dzirhan Mahadzir 
Key Flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific

While countries continue to grapple with handling the COVID-19 pandemic, global conflicts have continued regardless. Indeed, in the Indo-Pacific, issues such as disputed maritime and sovereignty claims in the South China Sea continued through 2020 in much the same pattern as they did in pre-COVID 2019. It is expected that the same will occur through 2021.

It should be stated though, that the potential flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific should not just be viewed through the prism of China’s assertiveness or the US-China rivalry. While China is party to a number of regional tensions due to its actions, other simmering tensions are also present in the region. Tensions which do not involve China or the United States – although either could be drawn in by virtue of their relationship with the disputing countries. Even though China is a catalyst for many of the points of unrest outlined below, the fact that there are other potential crisis points between other countries cannot be ignored.

 The South China Sea has always been considered a place of tension. Many of the countries whose waters Chinese ships are conducting activities in and lay claim to, are wary and reluctant to respond actively to such incidents both for fear of provoking China and due to the relative disparities in their military capabilities. Thus, the potential for an incident to escalate is low.

China in turn recognises this and therefore conducts its activities in a manner which steadily undermines the sovereignty of the country and its waters, and enhances China’s claims over the region. And thus, the other country, short of an outright act of aggression, can do little but monitor the situation, as clearly seen in Malaysia and the Philippines, and to a lesser extent for Vietnam and Indonesia. However, for both Taiwan and Japan, who have military capabilities that can match China in an encounter, the chances of inadvertent escalation is greater.

Here are five of the major flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific:


Undeniably, the main point of tension in the Indo-Pacific involves Taiwan. China continues to ramp up its pressure against the country, which it sees as a renegade province, via a variety of means. Some of the more notable pressures come in the form of military exercises held nearby, repeated flight incursions, and the dredging of sand from Taiwan’s waters. At the same time, the US has made it clear that its support of Taiwan has remained unchanged, despite the change of administration. The US continues to send ships to transit the Taiwan Straits as part of its commitment to freedom of navigation. The danger lies in an encounter between any two parties inadvertently escalating.


Senkaku Islands

China claims the Japanese islands and has been sending its coast guard and other government vessels into Japanese waters. China’s passing of a new law which allows its Coast Guard to take all necessary measures, including using weapons, against foreign organisations or individuals that violate China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction has sparked major concern. Particularly so, given that China’s concept of sovereignty includes areas which are under international law and recognised as belonging to other countries.

Japan has been sending its own coast guard and naval vessels to respond to such incursions, but the new law brings the danger of potential escalation by Chinese ships in such incidents. At the same time, there is the potential danger of escalation by private citizens or groups seeking to confront the other country’s security or military forces in those waters. Japanese nationalists have long rankled against China’s claims on the Senkakus, and the same can be said on the Chinese side in regard to Japan’s ownership of the island. Though in the case of China, it is often difficult to conceive of any action undertaken by its citizens or private groups as not having tacit approval by the state. All of these factors means that the Senkakus has the potential to be in a more turbulent state than the South China Sea.


India-China border

The dispute between the two countries along their borders in the Himalayas continues unabated despite military level talks. Regardless of the fact that both countries have strong trading links, the nationalistic focus of both countries makes it difficult for a resolution to occur. Escalation between the two parties is a serious danger. Both India and China cannot afford domestically to show weakness on sovereignty. Additionally, escalation could also occur elsewhere given India and China’s strategic competition in the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea.


North Korea

North Korea continues to pursue its nuclear weapons capabilities, while at the same time COVID-19 appears to have badly affected its economy. At the moment, the regime appears to be in control of the country, but a breakdown of order may result in it lashing out at perceived external enemies to justify domestic crackdowns. Alternatively, a breakdown of the North Korean government due to COVID-19 or a collapse of the government will also trigger a regional crisis and present a serious issue of control on the country’s nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, there is little to indicate what the situation currently is in North Korea, but it is expected that whatever the situation is, North Korea will be a source of unrest in one way or another.


Fishery disputes

Issues of illegal fishing are present in almost every country in the Indo-Pacific, but the main flashpoint will be in regard to the enforcement response of a country to foreign vessels and nationals illegally fishing in its waters. Countries may be forced to react despite the fact that its citizens are conducting illegal fishing in another country’s waters, particularly if the response towards such activities results in harm or loss of life to its citizens. On the other side, many countries and their fisheries’ enforcement agencies are already frustrated with constant violations of their fishing grounds and thus may opt for more direct action. It has been seen that solely compelling violators to leave their waters only results in the ships coming back again another time. Increasingly as fish stocks globally are depleted, the competition for such scarce resources will become more intense and translate to a matter of national security. Governments will be pressed to curb the loss of fisheries’ resources to foreign ships by the use of more forceful responses.

Overall, it is clear that there are many struggles in the Indo-Pacific region that will continue to be on the precipice of escalation during 2021. China and its self-assumed sovereignty and influence over the region will be the main trigger in each case, particularly due to its large military capacity. And for many of the above situations, it is only a matter of time before the carefully balanced scale of peace is tipped.


For more information on the topic, contact Andrew Vasko, Managing Director at