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World at a crossroads of major geopolitical conflicts and shifts

Tareq Ahmed Robin | November 26, 2023 00:00:00

Women react over the body of a child killed in Israeli bombardment, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza strip on November 19, 2023, amid battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. — AFP Photo

In the past decade, global stability has been greatly tested due to a significant rise in geopolitical tensions. Intense conflicts and incidents among world powers have fueled polarisation, raising concerns about the future. One might wonder: What events in the last decade have led to this precarious situation?

To answer this question, several international conflicts have unfolded worldwide and continue to do so. To some extent, we haven't seen such a polarised world post-Cold War era. The difference is, that we are now witnessing a multi-polar world against the bi-polar world we saw in the previous century.

Unending crises in the Middle East

In recent years, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen have struggled with devastating conflicts, each with its unique challenges.

Since the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq has faced never-ending instability. The emergence of ISIS in 2014, alongside existing threats from groups like Al-Qaeda, has heightened tensions. Despite territorial losses by ISIS, Iraq continues to struggle with political, ethnic, and sectarian divisions.

Originating in the 2011 Arab Spring, Syria's conflict has escalated into a brutal civil war. Multiple factions, including President Bashar al-Assad's government, rebel groups, and extremist organisations like ISIS, have vied for control. International involvement has further complicated the situation.

After Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi's ousting in 2011, Libya has descended into chaos. Rival governments and armed groups have competed for power, resulting in a fragmented nation. The Yemen conflict escalated in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened against Houthi rebels, who had seized control of the capital, Sana'a. The crisis has led to severe humanitarian issues, including famine, leaving millions in need of aid. Regional rivalries and political complexities have further complicated the situation. Additionally, the involvement of the Wagner group, a Russian private military company, in conflicts in Syria and Libya has added complexity to the international impact of these crises.

The most recent Middle East conflict is the Israel-Hamas war, which began on October 7 this year and continues to mount casualties since. More than ten thousand people died on both sides of the war, and more than 300,000 Palestinians were displaced in the dangerously crowded Gaza Strip. This conflict has already seen multi-dimensional engagement from Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Huthis in Yemen.

War and dispute in Europe

The Russia-Ukraine war has been going on since February 24, 2022, and this war has been the most devastating war in Europe after the Second World War. This war doesn't only involve Russia and Ukraine, as Russian allies such as China and Belarus siding with Russia and NATO member nations are siding with Ukraine -- turning the conflict into a proxy war just like during the Cold War era. The conflict's potential spillover into other European territories raises concerns. The toll has been devastating, with almost 200,000 soldiers from both sides losing their lives. Ukrainian cities bear the scars of warfare, with infrastructure severely damaged. Additionally, the economic fallout has been profound, leading to a sharp decline in economic conditions in Russia, Ukraine, and the world, as the natural resource supply chain dwindles and the whole of Europe is currently going through a severe energy crisis. The conflict's impact resonates far beyond the immediate battleground, marking a critical moment in European history.

The ongoing natural resource dispute between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean Sea revolves around conflicting claims to oil and gas reserves. Both nations claim maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) which overlap, leading to heightened tensions. Historical grievances, regional dynamics, and energy interests complicate the situation. International efforts for resolution face challenges due to steadfast claims.

Infinite coups in Africa

Coups and conflicts are nothing new in Africa. In the African region, a series of consecutive military coups have rocked Mali, Gabon, and Niger, toppling democratically elected governments. These coups highlight the challenges faced by democracies, with Gabon's recent unrest fitting into this pattern. Gabon's coup, similar to others, aimed to maintain existing power structures, benefiting elites, rather than fostering true democratic progress. The tensions between these coup-stricken nations and regional bodies like ECOWAS are palpable. Foreign forces, including those from France, the USA, and UN peacekeepers, are strained, navigating the complex landscape of political transitions and societal divisions. Addressing polarisation within these countries becomes vital, ensuring resilience against military rule and enabling effective negotiation for the citizens' needs. Insufficient investment in institutions and reforms, exacerbated by reliance on foreign aid, poses challenges to sustaining democracy.

Besides numerous military coups, military conflicts within and between countries have increased in the East Africa region. From 2020 to 2022, Ethiopia and Sudan fought each other for the disputed border region of Al-Fashaga. Amidst this conflict, political tensions brewed in both countries, which led to the Tigray war in Ethiopia and the current civil war between rival military factions in Sudan. These wars, combined with drought, have led to humanitarian crises in both countries, where thousands of Sudanese people sought refuge in Ethiopia while the country is yet to recover from a disastrous famine.

Escalation of Taiwan-China conflict

The tension between Taiwan and China has been constant since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. After several Taiwan Strait crises and disputes, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping continues to flex the strength of the People's Liberation Army in Taiwanese maritime territories. In recent months, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has significantly escalated its military activities near Taiwan, violating international laws by intruding into Taiwanese aerial and maritime territories with the excuse of large-scale naval exercises.

Taiwan, with a population of 23 million and a military of 169,000 active personnel, faces a formidable challenge against China's PLA, the largest standing army in the world. Taiwan's defence strategy focuses on asymmetric warfare, intending to make any invasion costly and challenging for the PLA. President Tsai Ing-wen has implemented reforms, increased the military budget, and purchased advanced weapons from the US.

However, challenges remain, including limited US arms supply due to COVID-19 disruptions. Taiwan relies on natural defences like its mountainous terrain but faces uncertainties about their effectiveness given the PLA's growing strength. The determination of Taiwan's population is considered a crucial factor, similar to Ukraine's resilience in the face of Russian aggression. To improve its defence, Taiwan needs better civilian-military coordination, enhanced reserve programs, and preparedness for urban warfare and fluid front lines. The US role remains crucial, with its commitment to Taiwan's defence evolving amid geopolitical complexities and domestic considerations.

Renewal of conflicts in South Asia

Myanmar, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka have been hotbeds for conflicts for many decades. Conflict in Myanmar began with the 2021 coup d'état, leading to a power struggle between the ruling military junta and the pro-democracy movement. This conflict has accelerated environmental degradation and harmed Myanmar's economy. The lack of attention to urban infrastructure and the targeting of rural villages by the junta have worsened demographic stress, resulting in a higher number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The return to military rule has caused a deteriorating trend in various conflict indicators, making the prospect of a peaceful settlement unlikely in the near future. The military coup destabilised the country, leading to a return to military rule and exacerbating the conflict trend. Moreover, the Burmese government's continuous persecution against the Rohingyas has led to a humanitarian crisis. More than one million Rohingya people have taken refuge in Bangladesh, straining the resources of the country which is already struggling with a huge local population.

Pakistan is struggling with internal and external conflicts, worsened by extremism, intolerance, and a narrow national identity. State institutions' inability to address grievances peacefully has led to violence. Despite political transitions after the 2013 and 2018 elections, the country faces economic fragility and deepening domestic polarisation in anticipation of the 2024 elections after the ousting of Imran Khan's government. Additionally, severe flooding in 2022 caused significant damage, highlighting Pakistan's vulnerability to climate disasters and governance weaknesses. Regionally, extremist groups near the Afghan border have heightened tensions with the Taliban-led Afghanistan. Relations with India remain stagnant, posing a threat to regional and international security. China's influence, while potentially mitigating conflicts, also can exacerbate tensions in the region.

Ongoing Taliban occupation in Afghanistan for two years and continuous natural disasters have led to a humanitarian crisis in this country. In 2023, a staggering 28.3 million individuals, equivalent to two-thirds of the country's population, urgently need humanitarian aid for survival. A dire situation persists for over 17 million people experiencing severe hunger, with 6 million individuals at emergency levels of food insecurity, just one step away from famine. On October 7, 2023, two separate earthquakes with magnitudes of 6.3 struck near Herat Province in the northwest of Afghanistan, causing extensive destruction, claiming the lives of more than 1200 Afghans, and affecting more than ten thousand people. Additionally, another earthquake rattled Herat Province on October 11, causing additional damage in the region.

The ongoing crises and conflicts in various regions around the world have significantly hindered the post-COVID economic recovery on a global scale. According to the World Bank Economic Report 2023, the global economy is expected to grow by 1.7 per cent in 2023 and 2.7 per cent in 2024, indicating a sharp downturn in widespread growth. This downward trend in economic forecasts for 2023 has affected 95 per cent of advanced economies and almost 70 per cent of emerging market and developing economies.

This economic slowdown indicates a grim outlook for the future, particularly for developing countries. These nations were already struggling with predicted sluggish growth for several consecutive years due to mounting debt burdens and a sluggish pace of investment. One significant factor contributing to this challenge is the consumption of a significant portion of global capital by developed countries, which are primarily focused on their internal economic recovery efforts.

In light of these challenges, it becomes important for leaders from developing countries to unite and exert pressure on global leadership through various forums. Their collective efforts are crucial to safeguarding the world from impending disaster, as developing nations are set to endure even greater hardships compared to their developed counterparts. Cooperation and strategic action are vital to navigate these difficult times and foster a more stable global economic landscape.

Tareq Ahmed Robin is an entrepreneur and industrial management expert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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