A New Year of Global Conflict

DAVOS – In today’s world, identifying and managing hotspots is not simply a matter of pulling out a map, spotting the wildfires, and empowering diplomats to douse the flames. To understand today’s major conflicts and confrontations, we must recognize important ways in which global political conditions enable them. Conflicts are much more likely to arise or persist when those with the means to prevent or end them cannot or will not do so. Unfortunately, this will be borne out in 2013.

In the United States, barring a foreign-policy crisis that directly threatens national security, President Barack Obama’s administration will focus most of its time, energy, and political capital on debt reduction and other domestic priorities. In Europe, officials will continue their struggle to restore confidence in the eurozone. And, in China, though the demands of economic growth and job creation will force the country’s new leaders to develop new ties to other regions, they are far too preoccupied with the complexities of economic reform to assume unnecessary costs and risks outside Asia. That is why the world’s fires will burn longer and hotter this year.

This does not mean that the world’s powers will not inflict damage of their own. Today, these governments are more likely to use drones and special forces to strike at their perceived enemies. The world has grown used to US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, but recent news reports suggest that China and Japan are also investing in unmanned aircraft – in part to enhance their leverage in disputes over islands in the East China Sea. By lowering the costs and risks of attack, these technological innovations make military action more likely.

Perhaps the lowest-cost way to undermine rivals and attack enemies is to launch attacks in cyberspace. That is why so many deep-pocketed governments – and some that are not so rich – are investing heavily in the technology and skills needed to enhance this capability.

This form of warfare is especially worrisome for two reasons. First, unlike the structure of Cold War-era “mutually assured destruction,” cyber weapons offer those who use them an opportunity to strike anonymously. Second, constant changes in technology ensure that no government can know how much damage its cyber-weapons can do or how well its deterrence will work until they use them.

As a result, governments now probe one another’s defenses every day, increasing the risk of accidental hostilities. If John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are confirmed as US secretaries of state and defense, respectively, the Obama administration will feature two prominent skeptics of military intervention. But high levels of US investment in drones, cyber-tools, and other unconventional weaponry will most likely be maintained.

These technological advances create the backdrop for the competition and rivalries roiling the two most important geopolitical hotspots. In the Middle East, US and European officials will continue to resist deeper involvement in regional turmoil this year, leaving local powers – Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – to vie for influence. Confrontations between moderates and militants, and between Sunni and Shia factions, are playing out in several North African and Middle Eastern countries.

US officials have reason to believe that, over time, they will be able to worry less about the region and its problems. According to current projections, technological innovations in unconventional energy will allow the US to meet more than 80% of its oil demand from sources in North and South America by 2020. China, on the other hand, is set to become more dependent on Middle Eastern output.

Meanwhile, East Asia will remain a potential trouble spot in 2013. Many of China’s neighbors fear that its ongoing economic and military expansion poses a growing threat to their interests and independence, and are reaching out to the US to diversify their security partnerships and hedge their bets on China’s benign intentions. The US, eager to boost its economy’s longer-term prospects by engaging new trade partners in the world’s fastest-growing region, is shifting resources to Asia – though US (and European) policymakers would be wise to move forward with a transatlantic free-trade agreement as well.

There is a growing risk that the new Chinese leadership will interpret a heavier US presence in the region as an attempt to contain China’s rise and stunt its growth. We have already seen a series of worrisome confrontations in the region, pitting China against Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, and against Japan in the East China Sea. While these disputes are unlikely to provoke military hostilities this year, the use of drones and cyber weapons remains a real threat.

The greatest risk for 2013 is large-scale economic conflict in Asia, which would not only harm the countries directly involved, but would also undermine global recovery. The first shots in this battle have already been fired.

Last summer, disputes over a string of contested islands in the East China Sea led to a furious exchange of charges between China and Japan, the world’s second- and third-largest economies, respectively. The two sides were never in danger of going to war, but Chinese officials allowed nationalist protests to develop into boycotts of Japanese products and acts of vandalism against Japanese companies. Japan’s automobile exports to China fell 44.5%, and China’s imports from Japan fell nearly 10% – all in just one month.

That was a tough hit for a struggling Japanese economy. It is also a clear warning to the rest of us that a fight need not involve troops, tanks, and rockets to exact a heavy price.

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