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Could the BRI lead to conflict?

Posted By Carl Michael, Monday, June 1, 2020

Carl Michael checks the possibilities for conflict that may be caused by Belt and Road Initiative in his sixth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


Conflict creates conditions that cause people to act in unaccustomed ways, as noted by Thucydides. It is essential, therefore, to accustom oneself to divergent thinking about approaches to conflict resolution. Chinese strategists base their fundamental thinking on Sun Tzu’s classic, ‘The Art of War’ as well as on the ancient game of Weiqi, known as ‘Go’ in the West. These core cultural artefacts have a remarkable association with each other, not only in the context of conflict but also in a cultural, political and philosophical sense. Weiqi can be contrasted with Chess, which has a somewhat comparable status in Western culture. The two games have different approaches, with one presenting a decisive clash of forces between players using prepositioned elements and the other presenting a relative accumulation of advantage with elements introduced after the start. Bearing this in mind, it may well be that the most effective grand strategy for dealing with ‘black-swan’ conflict events, is contingent adaptability rather than a friend-enemy approach.


The relationship between the US and China will be the key factor in managing international conflict. China has become an increasingly potent military rival to the US, though overall the US will remain regnant with is significant power advantages. The BRI’s evolution has already caused powers such as Australia, India and Japan to create counter-initiatives for the Indo-Pacific region to emphasize the need for power balance. At the same time, fear of containment will underpin Chinese-Russian relationships, with Russia continuing to address its own concerns about China’s agenda. Elevated levels of military spending show the potential for conflicts in flashpoints within the vast potential conflict geographical space which covers oil and rare-earth regions, the Indian Ocean, the South-China Sea, and East, Southeast and Central Asia.


Rapid technological innovation has blurred the boundaries separating war and peace resulting in the growth of ‘hybrid’ conflict. This coupled with the potential for ‘sub-threshold’ conflict and increasing involvement by non-state actors means that hybrid conflict could be a pervasive part in future, occurring without the limits of geography. This is especially notable in cyberspace which has become a volatile zone with military, business and non-state capabilities becoming increasingly based on critical real-time systems. Power in cyberspace can provide decisive advantage but cyberpower needs mature conceptual, technological and operational foundations. Cyberpower in combination with grand strategy provides the ability to orchestrate military resources to advance the national interest in a business or military sense. Rapid technological improvements suggest that more fighting may take place between human-controlled or autonomous machines, and this coupled with growing artificial intelligence could alter not just the approach to war but the very nature of war itself. Increased use of artificial intelligence in all spheres could inadvertently trigger conflicts if there is not enough joint governance available.


The risk of both state and non-state conflict could be worsened by forceful use of soft power, social fragmentation, inequality, and the negative impact of social media as people’s identities and norms become more nuanced. Conflict accelerators such as violent extremist organisations and weapons of mass-destruction will continue to exist although their future impact will not be easily quantifiable. Other macro-accelerators include the force of Easternization, the driving logic of Eurasian integration, obsession with sea-power, the cloak of uncertainty, the new embodiment of Mao’s Red Guards and the din of Indian neo-nationalism.


The evolving BRI could lead to hegemonic conflict, but possibilities for conflict could be reduced by increasing economic interdependency and working towards all parties becoming further accustomed with each other. Additionally, global institutions will have to adapt to dampen volatility caused by changes in the evolving balance of power, where relative differences are greatest and where power is most contested.


© Carl Michael 2020

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