In August last year, as the Covid-19 pandemic raged through much of Asia, I wrote a cover story for the Post ’s This Week in Asia magazine about esoteric developments surrounding the South China Sea dispute that were mainly being parsed by legal wonks. At the time, the likes of Vietnamese ocean law scholar Trang Pham told me to closely monitor which countries were issuing notes verbale – or diplomatic notes – to the United Nations with regards to China’s “nine-dash line” claim. By December, the list of those who had put out the notes was Malaysia , the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, the United States and Australia – along with a joint submission from France, Britain and Germany. There had not been such a flurry of notes over the dispute since 2009-11. Hong Kong’s gig workers should be treated with dignity, not racism These memos either directly challenged China’s sweeping claims by pointing out the findings of a 2016 arbitral ruling that dismissed Beijing’s assertions, or mentioned the judgment’s key points. Looking back, it was apt that Southeast Asian scholars such as Pham had insisted that claimants and interested parties involved in the South China Sea row had by no means put it on the back burner just because of the global health crisis. On the contrary, even though the so-called Battle of Notes Verbale did not evoke the kind of anxiety among diplomats that erupts each time there is a near-miss naval encounter in the disputed waters, the cascade of memos was highly significant because of the almost unified message from the countries issuing them. Central to the notes was the assertion that the findings of the 2016 arbitral ruling – arising from a case brought by the Philippines against China – were part of international law. Perhaps encapsulating the various governments’ views was Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte , who last September said “the award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon”. I recall these developments as in recent weeks I have been thinking about the likely trajectory of the dispute this year. Going by the past eight weeks, my bet is that activities in the waters by outside powers besides China and the US could be a key focus in 2021. The likes of France, Germany and Britain have sought to signal that the sea dispute – and Chinese assertion in the area – is a matter of international, not regional, concern. China in turn has characterised their intimations as the result of American puppeteering. Can Asian nations overtake China on kicking CO2 to the curb? But the European powers seem unperturbed: in early February, France said a nuclear submarine had completed a patrol in the South China Sea, and reports have said the frigate Surcouf and amphibious assault ship Tonnerre will cross the waters twice in an ongoing three-month mission. Also in the works is the possibility of a German frigate passing through the waters in a mission that would include port calls in Australia and South Korea, Nikkei Asia reported in January. The highlight of these is likely to be the deployment of the British royal navy’s fleet flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the waters this year. My understanding from Southeast Asian sources is that the region largely welcomes these peacetime missions as they give credence to the position that the South China Sea is not any single country’s sovereign pond. China’s reaction could determine the tone and tenor of the dispute this year.