New year – New Events – but new policies? Not so much. Statecraft doesn’t start from scratch on Jan 1st, but it’s useful to look ahead to the trends likely to play out.
It’s important to always keep in mind that in geo-politics – everything is connected. If you look at Russia’s involvement in Syria in isolation, or in terms of only what it is doing there, you miss some of the forces driving it to act in the region. For example, Moscow became a major player in the Syrian tragedy, and is part of the solution, partially in order to try and get leverage in discussions to have Ukraine related sanctions against it lifted. It has not been successful in this, but that is not the point.
So, to 2019. Great power rivalry came into focus in 2018. It will intensify. Competition between China, Russia, and the US will play out along military, technology and economic lines.
The South China Sea will be a flashpoint. China will continue to fortify the artificial islands it has built, claiming them as sovereign territory. The US Navy will conduct ‘Freedom of Navigation’ missions, possibly even through the Taiwan Strait.
The tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the Sea of Azov will escalate. The Americans will support Ukraine, and other front-line states, such as Poland may offer to host extra U.S. forces.
If Washington withdraws from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that will raise tensions with both Moscow and Beijing. Arms control agreements are coming under increasing strain and in 2019 we may see more clearly that an arms race between China, Russia, and the USA is underway.
At the same time all three will be competing in developing cyber warfare, and will step up efforts to militarize space. The Americans will also seek to ensure none of its allies allow Chinese companies into their 5G data networks – these are set to revolutionize technology. That’s partially on security grounds, but also for economic reasons. The truce in the China/US trade war is unlikely to hold through the year.
On the domestic front President Trump, weakened by losing the House of Representatives, will be beset by the Mueller inquiry into accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. However, the US economy is likely to be buoyant for most of the year, and, the USA will become one of the world’s top 3 Liquified Natural Gas exporters.
In the Middle East – this could be the year in which the reconstruction of Syria can really begin – but that requires stability – and that could be undermined by outside powers. What was a civil war now involves Iran, Turkey, the USA, Israel, Russia and others. Idlib may be the flashpoint and there’s a danger of a military incident between some of these forces. That would complicate reconstruction efforts. Estimates of the cost run into hundreds of billions of dollars.
The war in Yemen is likely to drag on for at least several months, but the framework for negotiations is now in place and a road path to peace emerging. That is less true for the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. The vague outlines of a White House plan need to be filled in next year.
In Europe – it’s the Year of Brexit…or is it? Either way the other 27 EU nations will be making public pronouncements about unity, at least in remaining in the Union – whilst increasingly being split on various other matters. The elections in late May for the European Parliament should tell us if the rise of the extreme right on the continent has peaked – or risen.
Elections take place in India in May and Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP are likely to remain in power. A new term will allow the space for talks with Pakistan’s relatively new leader Imran Khan over a range of issues including Kashmir.
There’s so much more – including – the positive. Amid the various conflicts, rows, shootings, terrorist attacks etc, it will be important to remember that the likelihood is that the biggest trends of the last few decades will continue; Globally, education levels will again rise as will longevity. The rate of death in childbirth will again fall, as will infant mortality.
In 2017 data experts Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina pointed out that the following headline could have been written every day from 2008 to 2015 – ‘Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 217,000 since yesterday.’ The key word here is ‘extreme’, nevertheless that positive sentence could also be written, in broad terms, every day in 2019.