Despite the adverse consequences and crises that the COVID-19 pandemic caused across the globe, it might have been expected to bring about greater international solidarity as well. However, the trends show an escalation of tension among global actors: tensions between the United States and China are expected to continue in the foreseeable future, as well as between Russia and the West. The following are the most significant trends projected to affect Asia in the second quarter of 2021.
1- Strained China-US relations: Tensions between the US and China will likely continue in the second quarter of 2021, given the mounting pressure on the White House to maintain a tough stance toward China and continue the Trump-era tariffs. This is delaying communication between the US and China on issues of trade and electoral reforms in Hong Kong. Developments in Myanmar will also be a point of tension between the two nations.
2- American efforts to build a united front against Beijing: Amid US domestic rejection of any compromise with China concerning trade or other unresolved issues between the two countries, the Biden administration may be forced to increase pressure on Beijing via sanctions. In this respect, Taiwan appears to be the most likely flash point between the US and China, with China intensifying its efforts to target the island through economic and military pressure.
The United States may resort to pursuing incentive policies for China’s neighbors, with the aim of gaining the cooperation of the largest possible number of countries in the Indo-Pacific region to confront China more strongly during the second quarter of 2021. However, potential domestic developments for the US’s regional allies, especially Japan, South Korea, and Australia, may limit Washington’s efforts to build a united front against Beijing.
3- Marginalization of Beijing’s opposition in Hong Kong: China’s electoral amendments in Hong Kong are expected to sideline Beijing’s opposition from political representation in the autonomous city. This may have an impact in the third and fourth quarters of 2021, in the form of disputes over the Election Committee for the Chief Executive and the legislative council elections.
On the other hand, these electoral amendments and the disputes over them may provide an opportunity for the opposition, pro-democracy youth, and student movements in Hong Kong to join forces in the second quarter of 2021. This could lead to mass protests in the city that may force Beijing’s supporters in Hong Kong to suppress them by force with help from Beijing, thus casting a negative shadow on already strained US-China relations.
4- Pyongyang’s reluctance to offer concessions regarding its military capabilities: Despite the economic difficulties facing it due to US sanctions, whose effects are compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy, North Korea is expected to continue developing its missile capabilities during the second quarter of 2021.
Furthermore, North Korea is not likely to offer any significant concessions regarding its nuclear and missile programs. This means that communication between Pyongyang and the US will not result in any concrete progress on this issue. In the near term, North Korea is also expected to launch more ballistic missiles from submarines as a show of its developing military capabilities.
5- Relative improvement in Russia’s economy: Russia’s economy is projected to see a relative improvement in the second quarter of 2021, driven by the increase in global energy prices. Rising energy prices will provide billions of dollars that may ease the economic crisis in Russia, which resulted from escalating tensions with the West, and reduce the Russian government’s need to borrow.
In this regard, Russian president Vladimir Putin is likely to implement an economic stimulus policy ahead of the parliamentary elections to address the declining income levels and deteriorating standard of living, amid rising food prices. However, those incentives are expected to be limited compared to those of Russia’s Western counterparts.
6- Rising tension in Western-Russian relations: Tension in the relationships between Russia and Western nations is likely to persist, especially with the US, which may affect the political situation in the Middle East. In this regard, mutual sanctions between the two parties are expected to increase in the second quarter of 2021. Although Western sanctions on Russia were largely symbolic, they will elicit a reaction from the Kremlin. Russia may respond by imposing fines on Western companies operating in Russia or by escalating its subversive activities against Western interests abroad.
In this respect, the dispute between Russia and the US is expected to center on certain issues, chiefly the imprisonment of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, anti-government protests in Belarus, violence in eastern Ukraine, and the American response to the Solar Winds cyberattack.
While Washington is likely to pressure the European Union to take stronger action against Moscow, divisions among EU members remain an obstacle to escalating sanctions. Hence, Washington will likely be inclined to take unilateral steps against Russia.
7- Continuing peace in Nagorno-Karabakh: Political unrest in Armenia will likely persist in the second quarter of 2021, as long as current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan remains in power. In addition, peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh region is expected to hold even if the domestic situation in Armenia changes. Although anger in Armenia is widespread amid the so-called "surrender to Azerbaijan," the leadership of Armenia is not expected to plunge back into war.