Commentary: The most dangerous security threats in 2019

Commentary: The most dangerous security threats in 2019

Reuters columnist Peter Apps points out some key conflicts around the world that pose security threats this year.

North Korea missile
North Korea is under crippling sanctions imposed for carrying out nuclear and ballistic missile tests, but UN resolutions specify that these should not affect humanitarian aid. (Photo: AFP/STR)

LONDON: With an ongoing trade war between the United States and China, Russian military posturing in Eastern Europe at its greatest since the Cold War and the most unpredictable US administration in living memory, 2019 may offer no shortage of strategic surprises.

Here are some of the key areas to watch in the coming 12 months.

A NEW 'BIG THREE' MEETING?

With all the attention in Washington on the government shutdown and disputes over border funding, Trump has said little more on his December tweet that seemed to advocate a three-way conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. 

Such a meeting, the president suggested, might offer the opportunity to stem a major global arms race. What worries America’s allies – and many in the national security community – is that any such meeting might yield a “grand bargain” in which Trump listens to his most isolationist instincts and agrees to a US military pullback.

The most powerful Russian and Chinese leaders in decades, Xi and Putin have built closer ties as US
The most powerful Russian and Chinese leaders in decades, Xi and Putin have built closer ties. (Photo: AFP/Greg BAKER)

The first real indicator as to whether a Trump-Putin-Xi summit might happen will likely come this month in January, when US and Chinese trade teams meet in an attempt to de-escalate a growing dispute on tariffs. 

When Trump met Xi at the G20 in December, Trump agreed to waive new tariffs for 90 days. But time is now running out, and if such problems cannot be resolved, a broader meeting would feel all but impossible in the near future.

READ: The year China’s rise enters awkward adolescent phase, a commentary

EUROPE PARTICULARLY UKRAINE

European states have been particularly dismayed by Mattis’ resignation, and are now worried Trump may double-down on his rhetoric that Europe has done too little for its own defence. That shouldn’t stop US forces from continuing to be heavily involved in NATO exercises, however – at least unless Trump directly orders them to.

READ: Last man standing Jim Mattis exits Trump's 'axis of adults', a commentary

Europe’s multiple political crises will continue to swirl. If Britain is to avoid a chaotic “no deal” Brexit in March, it will now have to be through a last-minute agreement. 

French President Emmanuel Macron may have blunted December’s “yellow vests” protests somewhat by giving in to many of the demonstrators’ demands, but he is likely to face further confrontations with an increasingly angry populace. 

yellow vest protesters
As Macron spoke, demonstrators clad in high-visibility yellow vests again gathered in Paris and other big cities to demand more measures in favour of the working poor. (Photo: AFP/Lucas BARIOULET)

READ: The yellow vest, a symbol of a rising political movement in France, a commentary

European parliamentary elections in May will likely see a strong showing by right-wing populist parties. German politics will remain volatile ahead of the departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, as will those in Italy – now widely regarded as the most vulnerable nation in the eurozone.

The most likely venue for escalating conflict, however, remains Ukraine. Having now enclosed the seized Crimean peninsula with a fence and taken control of the entrance to the shared Azov Sea with a bridge, some now suspect Moscow may attempt another limited land grab, perhaps towards the Ukrainian coastal port of Mariupol. 

Whether that comes or not, increased posturing by NATO and Russian forces alike in the nearby Black Sea also feels inevitable, particularly ahead of Ukrainian elections in end-March.

SOUTH CHINA SEA 

While much of the meat of China’s confrontations with the West comes from the trade dispute and associated issues such as the detention of a Huawei executive in Canada, Beijing’s ambitions may play out most visibly in the South China Sea.

Despite a UN court ruling dismissing its maritime claims, Beijing will continue to build military bases on artificial islands across the South China Sea, while US warships and regional allies will continue to challenge them with so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations. 

One particular flashpoint might be the Scarborough Shoal, claimed by both Beijing and the Philippines. Unlike elsewhere in the region, China has yet to build a permanent outpost on the rocky outcrops – although its forces maintain a persistent presence there, while Filipino fishermen have complained of harassment.

A fisherman repairs his boat overlooking fishing boats that fish in the disputed Scarborough Shoal
A fisherman repairs his boat in the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea on Apr 22, 2015. (Photo: REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

Shows of force are also likely around the Taiwan Strait, where Washington may yet choose to send one or more aircraft carriers, a step not taken since the 1990s. 

Unmanned surface and undersea vehicles will also likely play a mounting role in such confrontations – on Dec 27, Beijing announced an unmanned “underwater glider” had just completed a record 141-day voyage in the region.

YEMEN AND SYRIA

The coming year will be critical for both conflicts, particularly since Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria and the cessation of US fueling support to Saudi aircraft in Yemen. 

In Syria, the US withdrawal will likely be followed by a dramatic increase in Turkish and Syrian military action and a major land grab against Kurdish forces, formerly allied to Washington. 

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia must decide whether to largely abide with a Western-backed peace process aimed at stopping a war that now threatens millions with starvation, or push on regardless and face yet more international condemnation.

READ: The fight in Syria isn’t just about defeating the Islamic State, a commentary

The outcome of both conflicts, however, will tell us much about a Middle East now dominated by a struggle between several medium-power countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in particular.

A US soldier rides an armored personnel carrier as a convoy of US military vehicles patrol
A US soldier rides an armored personnel carrier as a convoy of US military vehicles patrol Syria's northern city of Manbij on December 30, 2018 AFP/Delil SOULEIMAN

NORTH KOREA

After the unexpected diplomatic breakthroughs of 2018, the coming year may be much more challenging when it comes to dealing with North Korea. There is still no solid date set for a further meeting between Trump and Kim, but Pyongyang seems unlikely to acquiesce to US demands for complete nuclear disarmament.

READ: North Korea in 2018, a year of turning over a new leaf or worldwide gullibility? A commentary

Much depends on how US-China dynamics play out. If Washington and Beijing can de-escalate their trade war, Chinese pressure may keep the Korean peninsula calm. But if US-Chinese tensions ratchet higher, a return to North Korean weapons tests could yet spark US military action and a wider regional war.

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. 

Source: Reuters/nr

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