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Potential flashpoints in the 2020s: Overlapping contestation, governance and environmental crises

As we hit the start of the 2020s with a burning thud, strategists, economists and national security pundits have been crystal-balling what the decade ahead might hold. Looking forward, Professor John Blaxland of the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre explains the potential flashpoints facing Australia.

As we hit the start of the 2020s with a burning thud, strategists, economists and national security pundits have been crystal-balling what the decade ahead might hold. Looking forward, Professor John Blaxland of the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre explains the potential flashpoints facing Australia.

Plenty of potential flashpoints around the world are evident, arising from prospects of inter-state contestation. It has ever been thus, arguably, but there is a gnawing sense that this decade may see us get closer to the brink than in generations.

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In terms of great power contestation and conflict, there’s China’s rise coupled with a shrinking population, a decelerating economy and an inclination to project blame on others using the ‘century of humiliation’ as a deflection from its woes.

In a surly way, still resentful at its post-Cold War loss of power and prestige and NATO’s expansion into its former fiefdom, Russia continues outworking its insecurities in the ‘Stans’, the Baltic and the Middle East. Across the Eurasian landmass, Russia pushes at the edges of the US and its allies in Europe, the Middle East and the Far East: there it warily aligns with China to marginalise the US while helping to heighten insecurities in Japan and South Korea.

Then there is America’s transactional retreat from ideational leadership that is eroding confidence in international institutions – ones that, frankly, don’t work properly without constructive US engagement.

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In terms of the remaining countries that former president George W. Bush dubbed the ‘Axis of Evil’, great power pressures and rub points are matched with resentful Iranian striving for an expanded Shia realm as it seeks to match North Korea with its nuclear weapons program.

Across the Persian Gulf, illiberal Saudi Arabia remains a significant player as a counterpoint to Iran’s assertiveness. Meanwhile, having been dismissed as a possible member by the European Union, Turkey looks to claw back parts of its Ottoman caliphate and marginalise minorities like the Kurds, by violence if deemed necessary.

With an apparent loosening of the so-called rules-based global order and the US demonstrably losing some of its interest in remaining the world’s policeman, the so-called New World Order that was supposed to emerge following the end of the Cold War is starting to unravel.

Understandably jaded by its catastrophic failure in Iraq in the years since 2003, the US under President Donald Trump (who may well be elected for a second term), now appears to prefer instead to engage in a form of offshore balancing.

Under this rubric, lesser powers carry more of the load in maintaining security and stability and the US keeps its options open to engage or not.

As a result of this heady brew, a range of flashpoints are particularly close to the point of combustion. Crisis centres around the world remain on watch with red-lining colour-coded ‘indicators and warning’ charts.

Australia’s Headquarters Joint Operations Command, for instance, likely has sets of eyes monitoring closely these ones in particular (with a score out of 10 for likelihood this decade – with 10 being highest):

  1. The Korean peninsula, where a 70-year-old war remains in a deep freeze, but on a short fuse as we wait for a nuclear tipped ballistic missile to emerge (7);
  2. The East China Sea, where the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remain disputed by China and Japan (7);
  3. Taiwan, which President Xi Jinping has declared he intends to incorporate into the PRC by force if needs be (7);
  4. The South China Sea, where China flouts the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling to continue encroaching on the maritime claims of its south-east Asian neighbours, utilising hundreds of armed but non-naval vessels (6);
  5. The Malacca Strait, which is a potential choke point in any conflagration relating to a crisis that could arise with regard to the options 1-4 above (4);
  6. The delicate political process concerning Bougainville’s quest for independence from PNG (8);
  7. The prospect of a breakdown in law and order in another neighbouring state, as happened in Timor-Leste and Tonga in 2006, and repeatedly in Solomon Islands in the last two decades (8);
  8. Potential for a large-scale and catastrophic disaster in Indonesia, the Philippines or nearby, which could lead to demands for a significant Australian response (9);
  9. The Iran sanctions operations in and around the Strait of Hormuz, where Australian Navy and Air Force platforms are committed to help enforce the US-led sanctions (7); and
  10. Potential nuclear war flashpoints between Pakistan, India and China across their land borders (3).

Each of these on their own is cause for worry; but with more than one happening concurrently and possibly overlapping, Australia’s national security apparatus likely would become overloaded. Yet these issues touch principally on one of three domains of intersecting security challenges to be faced in the decade ahead. The others relate to a spectrum of domestic and international governance challenges and looming environmental catastrophe.

In terms of the environment, the fires across much of Australia have been a wake-up call to the Australian nation and, some say, for the world. Rising temperatures point to not only more fires, drought and severe weather, but, for our Pacific neighbours, the prospect of existential vulnerability (9).

Meanwhile, as waterways like the Mekong River are subject to a proliferation of dam construction on an industrial scale, fish stocks and water supplies affecting billions are reaching the point of no return (9).

At sea, fish stocks are being plundered across the world’s open oceans and encroaching into EEZs of many small states powerless to stop it; but the supplies are not endless and they are dwindling rapidly (9).

At the same time, the world’s population continues to accelerate towards the 9 billion mark – a point expected to be reached by mid-century.

Shortages, in turn, are generating large-scale societal problems that could erupt into open violence, massive relocation of people across open waters (on a greater scale than before the government was able to ‘stop the boats’) and a breakdown in law and order on an unimagined scale (8).

Many of these environmental factors are having a spill-over effect in terms of domestic and international governance. International criminal gangs involved in drug and people smuggling are subverting the system domestically and internationally, by coercing influential political figures in several smaller Pacific and several south-east Asian states (8).

These governance challenges are complicated further by the overlap with issues related to great power contestation.

Resentful at its inability to control agendas in UN bodies, the key benefactor, the US, looks set to continue walking away from the key UN-related institutions we have come to assume will always be there (8).

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is a totalitarian one-party state not invested in human rights declarations or other such mechanisms.

In the end, it appears the future will not look much like the past. It looks set to be more contested (9), fragile (9), drier (9), hotter (9), and potentially wetter (particularly for littoral and low-lying states - 9).

To mitigate the risks and to prepare for an uncertain future, Australia and its international partners cannot afford to take a cavalier approach to the scope, scale and immediacy of the overlapping environmental, governance and great power contestational challenges.

Australia, for starters, needs to have a long hard think about planning holistically and generously to mitigate the risk of these potential crises, not just for the next election, but for the next generation; and not just for Australia, but for the sake of its neighbours.

A national institute for net assessment, to help map out a plan to bolster institutional, societal and environmental resilience would help. Relying on volunteers to manage this seems unfair.

For starters, mechanisms to share the load and fortify societal resilience could include a universal scheme for national and community service, wherein young Australians could elect to participate in the defence force, one of the police forces, or state emergency or rural fire services, or with Australian Aid in a move akin to the US ‘Peace Corps’.

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. 

Potential flashpoints in the 2020s: Overlapping contestation, governance and environmental crises
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