Tyler Mongan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program reviews the preferable futures of the Arctic region through the eyes of potential stakeholders in his seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Russia will utilize “strategic rule breaking” to realize a vision of arctic dominance by expanding their EEZ and increasingly enclose the Arctic region. Not only does Russia claim the largest area of Arctic coastline, but ice in their region is melting faster than in other areas. Russia will exploit this early access to natural resources, while also taking the opportunity to control trade sea routes for economic gain. Russia will attempt to build a strong military presence in the region to fortify their resources and sea routes, while also controlling the airspace. Economy and security take precedence over sustainability and cooperation. Overall the Arctic Council remains a weak force of governance and Russia is free to do as it pleases with its portion of the arctic.
China will utilize the “opportunistic” strategy to slowly claim more rights to the Arctic region as it expands the BRI and builds the Polar Silk Road. This will include access to oil, gas, mineral resources,research, fishing and tourism in the region through unilateral partnerships. Further, China sees the Arctic as its ‘golden route’ in shipping and will develop the military, technology, and agreements required to secure its ability to ship goods through the region. China will develop a growing co-dependance with Russia, while also advocating for an open and cooperative arctic.
The US vision of the arctic relies on the hope that “rule-of-law” and climate challenges will disrupt Russia and China ambitions. The US vision is that the Arctic Nations continue to have a strong agreement that the region remain open and cooperative, while the Arctic Council remains weak. This allows the US to retain the right to unilateral actions in response to strategic competition with Russia and China. However, the US wants to keep proactive investment in the Arctic low. The hope is that the climate will continue to challenge the militarization and development of the region, slowing Russia and China access to strategic global positions.
Canada’s vision will be realized through a strategy of “environmental and economic balance” and further alignment with European nations. Canada will continue to seek an open and cooperative Arctic that is stabilized by a more proactive Arctic Council. Canada will pursue resource extracting within the context of building more economically sustainable indigenous communities, protecting the natural environment, and collaborating on climate change mitigation. Multilateral military agreements and alliances, especially with the US, will support a Canada First defense strategy and Canadian Arctic Sovereignty.
A general European vision is realized through a strategy of “preservation and sustainability.” European nations support the development of a more proactive Arctic Council that can develop into a legal governing body. A more powerful third-party actor in the region would allow the rule-of-law to be enforced. This will ensure that cooperation on climate change mitigation, sustainable resource extraction, safe and open transportation, and arctic peace, can be preserved.
Although the visions of the Arctic Nations have some overlap and consensus, there is also the potential for future divergence that leads to conflict. Russia and China are the key actors in the region because they have strong visions along with access and resources to explore and exploit. Without proactive collaboration and a stronger governing body in the region, the US, Canada, and European nations will be forced to take reactive measures. In general, as nations reach their milestones, the other nations will be forced to adapt or push back.
Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program detects the probable conflicts that may arise due to the shortage of resources. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
When resources dwindle, conflict soon follows. This is as true today as it was thousands of years ago, when the Roman Empire invaded Egypt in 30 AD largely to secure more grain. The colonial subjugation of peoples in the Americas, India and Africa was partly rationalized as a means to augment declining resource stocks, in everything from timber to enslaved human labor. In this century, the drought in Syria and the famine that followed laid the groundwork for one of the most violent civil wars in living memory.
If current climate change trajectories are not proactively addressed, environmental instability will spark greater resource strain and conflict will spread. These strains will likely take two forms - what researchers call supply-induced scarcity and structural scarcity. The former typically stems from environmental degradation, when the overall amount of a limited resource drops.In the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Sea of Japan, for example, the combined impacts of rising temperatures and overfishing between 1930 and 2010 have diminished fish populations by as much as 35 percent.Structural scarcity, on the other hand, occurs when governmental dysfunction or systemic discrimination leads to the unequal distribution of necessary goods. Think of the ways corruption and mismanagement have compounded the effects of drought in Zimbabwe in recent years, creating an economic crisis that is quickly threatening to morph into famine. It’s the rare government that becomes more just and effective when instability spikes.
Already powerful disruptors, food and water access are poised to become increasingly significant sources of tension. Researchers have found that roughly two thirds of the world’s existing population live without sufficient access to fresh, safe water for at least one month per year. The extreme weather events and ecosystem collapse that come with our changing climate will exacerbate those numbers. The rise of new diseases, another significant consequence of climate change, could spark greater disruptions in supply chains, leading to rising agricultural vulnerability and economic volatility. Without meaningful intervention, food security is slated to rapidly deteriorate in poorer regions. Already, supply chain disruption from the current coronavirus pandemic is creating a hunger emergency from Sudan to Mozambique that threatens the lives of millions.
The types of conflicts that arise from these resource-constrained conditions will differ depending on location and circumstance. In wealthier nations, trade wars may well be the first step. While technically non-violent, trade wars often lead to increased tension, which can easily grow into larger conflict or outright war. Among other tragedies, warfare creates more refugees. If environmental instability continues as many climate models predict, the amount of places torn apart by aggression will grow, exponentially multiplying the number of humans in need of safe haven.
Which brings us back to the core of the issue -- when population levels are high and resource levels are low, conflict isn’t far away. Rather than isolated incidents, these resource-related conflicts often spark associated tensions. As refugees fleeing aggression migrate to other countries, factors like border disputes and institutional instability can instigate new hostilities, augmenting what becomes an increasingly vicious cycle. In today’s interconnected world, the chain effects of resource-induced conflict cannot be discounted.
Carl Michael makes assumptions about the alternative futures of Belt and Road Initiative in his seventh 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.
The future of the BRI will be shaped by factors both inside and outside China. China’s future geopolitical, economic and social conditions will have a significant impact on the rest of the world. Before one considers whether the BRI will be complete by 2050 or not, one must consider what alternative futures are plausible and probable, and the factors which influence those alternative futures. Some factors which impact the future will not change very much. Among these are the rate of technology change, China’s geographic position, the inherent logic of Eurasian integration and China’s demographic destiny. Its aging society and decreased birth-rates will have a major impact on the potential of workforces in China and the world, with consequent impacts on economic competitiveness.
Environmental stress and changing climate will impact not just China and Asia but the Arctic and the wider world. Currently unviable areas could open to further economic exploitation and some current areas may no longer be economically viable. Environmental stress in turn will trigger population movements within and between nations which could be accelerated by growing economic inequality. In both China and in other nations a significant percentage of the current rural population would have migrated to cities, transforming both China and other nations into predominantly urban states with megalopolises poised to change internal political dynamics. The interaction of contributing factors such as these will impact the future of the BRI directly as well as indirectly. The Eurasian littoral has become increasingly crowded as the visible face of the hegemonic ambitions surfaced by the advent of the BRI narrative. Consequently, the concept of the Indo-Pacific has been adopted as a balancing mechanism and narrative in both economic and geopolitical space. The fault lines between the two narratives is where conflict has the greatest ability to impact the future of the BRI.
In addition to horizon scanning, the following sections will consider alternative futures for the multifaceted BRI at the macro level using a two-axes scenario technique. The axes are based on two key factors selected as having the most impact on the future, which is considered in terms of interaction between the two factors. The first of the factors used will be ‘Globalisation vs. Nationalism’. Globalization refers to the trajectory of the international economy and global geopolitics. ‘Nationalism’ refers to the ways that countries other than China promote their own long-term future interests. The second factor will be ‘BRI facilitates vs. BRI impedes’. The combination of factors is presented as two axes encompassing four plausible positive future scenarios. These are used as lenses with which to view possible futures unfolding over the period to 2050. The four future scenarios that will be covered in the next sections are: ‘The BRI facilitates globalisation – A Converging World Order’, ‘The BRI impedes globalisation – A Continuing World Order’, ‘The BRI facilitates nationalism – A Conflicting World Order’, and ‘The BRI impedes nationalism – A Constraining World Order’. It should be noted that these scenarios are objective and plausible caricatures and it is quite probable that components of one may be fused together with another.
The hope is for a BRI which ennobles mankind in the broadest possible sense and the fear is that the drive to ‘complete’ the BRI could end up sowing loss and division. The evolution of the BRI and any effective response to it will require radical geopolitical changes. The goal of presenting the scenarios which follow will have been achieved if they are seen to be plausible, address the fundamental fears of all concerned yet leave room for hope in the image of the future.
Kimberly Daniels, a member of our Emerging Fellows program envisions Eurasia’s Heartland in 2050 through her sixth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The expected future of Eurasia’s Heartland in the year 2050 could play out as a scenario that reflects a continuation of current trends in geopolitics among the U.S., Russia, and China. As it was in 2020 and earlier decades, it is driven by geopolitical positioning through foreign policy. Characterized by a territorial approach to Heartland power and a unipolar international order, it is the future least likely to unfold.
By 2050 in this scenario, there is a grand chessboard of geopolitical positioning and a territorial power play between the U.S., Russia, and China. After all, the player that triumphs in achieving universal domination, according to Mackinder, will wield control over the earth’s largest continental landmass by way of Heartland-centered power. From the Heartland, throughout the Afro-Eurasian continent, and across the globe by land, sea, air, and digital communications, it is a region unrivaled potential for economic growth and global impact.
In the Afro-Eurasian region, Eastern Europe is an emerging contributor to science and technological advancements in the production of vaccines and engineered therapeutics. Central Asia, now the green energy capital of the world, leads the way in providing access to affordable, reliable, and renewable energy for all its populations and selling the surplus to meet demand. The Middle East and African regions south of North Africa are exclusive suppliers of precious gemstones, mineral resources, popular metals, and stone.
Across the African continent are state-of-the art manufacturing facilities, distribution warehouses, and production studios. They support talented producers of high-quality textiles and fashions, contemporary art, Afrobeat, Afro-jazz, and other rhythmic music, as well as award-winning documentaries and films. West, East, and South Africa stimulate growth through sustainable agriculture and tech-driven agribusinesses, and dominate the market of plant-based pharmaceuticals. And the Congo has become the major supplier of fresh water for Africa and Europe. Despite escalating social and religious tensions in the region, the Afro-Eurasian continent, beginning with the Heartland, is the jackpot at stake in a winner-takes-all power struggle.
Russia and China’s foreign policies involve a territorial approach to Heartland power. Russian foreign policy allows for land grabs in the Caucasus and in Eastern Europe. She considers it her right to protect former Soviet States from further encroachment by China and Western influence. China’s foreign policy is still multifaceted. She has partnered with Russia and Iran for green-energy developments in Central Asia. Likewise, through trade, foreign direct investment, and increased militarization to protect BRI infrastructure and all of her borders, she now has full influential reach into Central Asia and the Middle East. Separately, Russia and China are advancing their interests in Africa. They understand Africa’s strategic importance to their geopolitical positioning.
The U.S. remains the sole superpower, always ready to defend a unipolar international order. Her geopolitical positioning is reflected in foreign policy aimed at containing Russia and China. She resorts to sanctions against Russia and Iran, a trade war with China, and threats of a stronger military presence in Central and Western Europe. Her containment strategies merely shadow her approach in 2020 to their expanding Heartland power and influence.
The expected future of Eurasia’s Heartland in 2050 could resemble a continuation of geopolitical positioning between the U.S., Russia, and Chin. However, this makes it the least likely future to unfold. Disruptions are likely to change how things play out, and shape one of three alternative futures.
Travis Kupp, a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the possibility of shaping an Asian Union in his sixth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Asian regionalism has a complex past and an uncertain future. Events of the 20th century including a tumultuous process of decolonization, industrialization, and ideological reconciliation have set the stage for stronger relationships between Asian nations. The growth of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) provides a potential starting point in the eastern part of the continent that could lead to broader unification, continuing its legacy of increased economic cooperation. Central Asia could serve as another point of origin for unification with its compelling location as the geographic heart of Eurasia. Regardless of where an Asian Union emerges, its approach to international rules and norms—especially from a security standpoint—will ultimately determine how firmly it takes root and how successfully it grows.
The expansion of ASEAN over the years provides a thread toward increased economic cooperation across the continent at a minimum. Originally exclusive to southeast Asia, the Association has added a “Plus Three” component to include economic heavyweights China, Japan, and South Korea, as well as an East Asian Summit that includes India, Australia, and New Zealand. This trajectory could continue into the creation of an East Asian Community that looks similar in nature to that seen in Europe as a precursor to a deeper Asian Union. However, it may be unpalatable to nations in Central and Western Asia who may not be keen on joining an organization that developed over many years without any of their influence in the process.
Alternatively, the dormant seeds of the short-lived Central Asian Union (CAU) could sprout in the fertile soil of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The establishment of this bloc would initially serve as a counterbalance to the Chinese - and Russian - led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes many nations that continue to be wary of each other’s intentions. The CAU could then be instrumental in leading to a more equitable framework for continental integration. As the geographic nexus between cultures in every direction, Central Asia could be a more acceptable birthplace for an all-inclusive union.
Whether emerging from East or Central Asia, negotiating existing international relationships and norms will make or break an Asian Union. For instance, many ASEAN nations enjoy a relationship with both China and the USA and would rather keep it that way. However, China has an interest in unchecked access to disputed seas along its entire coast. This could lead to an attempt at forcing the hand of these countries to “side with Asia” for handling its own regional security, thus creating the conditions for potentially decades of intra- and international conflict. Central Asia would similarly need to play a careful balancing act between Chinese and Russian interests without picking sides. Even if successful in this endeavor, the region has historically not integrated well with the existing world order and may not have much incentive to push for the non-hostile establishment of a Union.
An Asian Union that spans the entire continent is an unlikely future for 2050 but should not be disregarded as impossible. Tremendous shifts that have taken place over the last century both within and between Asian states, in particular through the development of economic infrastructure under Western security guarantees, make such a regional institution worth considering. This could emerge from China’s relationships with Central Asia and Russia in the west, or with from China’s involvement with ASEAN in the east. Either way, a successful Asian Union will need to carefully navigate its security framework in order to avoid provoking the distrust and potential opposition of the rest of the world. An Asian Century without a broad Union is a more probable outcome in the next few decades.
Sarah Skidmore, a member of our Emerging Fellows program publishes a blog post full of entrepreneurial questions on Africa. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The past fifteen years have been marked by notable advancements in infrastructure systems throughout the continent. Yet critical infrastructure problems with energy, transportation, and water still exist for millions of Africans. Looking at the contemporary history of infrastructure investment, African governmental leaders have dedicated finances to buildout. They have also growingly accepted foreign investment (particularly from Chinese investors) to fund projects. Though foreign investment is not new and certainly not a 2020 discovery, the repercussions the African people might experience due to foreign indebtedness over the next three decades must not be overlooked.
As foreign investors continue to support infrastructure projects in Africa, at what point might the magnitude of foreign indebtedness reach a tipping point for the African people? With infrastructure projects totaling over two trillion in dollars slated for the coming years, how might funding decisions by African leaders today impact the lives of the African people in the next three decades? Do current funding decisions allow for long-term sustainability or rather burden the African people with a catastrophic debt?
Debt financed infrastructure investment is often the default standard practice. Over recent decades international investors and private equity funds have canvased infrastructure projects throughout the continent. From an international investor perspective, Africa is a haven for risky yet lucrative financial returns. Public Private Partnerships (PPP), like Africa50, is another means of infrastructure investment in which the African government works alongside the private sector. What do the African people gain from these multi-billion dollar financed endeavors? Or rather, what are the African people potentially losing in decades to come as they are saddled with enormous debt? How does billions of dollars in debt allow for unlocking the potential of Africa by 2050?
At what point might the African people opt for a different approach to infrastructure development? At what point may a bottom-up movement from the African people overcome the top-down approach currently used by African leaders? How might a more localized, micro-development approach to infrastructure development better fuel African entrepreneurialism opposed to large-scale macro-development infrastructure projects?
Consider what a bottom-up approach to development may look like. Energy is an essential starting point. Imagine the power that accompanies capturing and creating energy locally – everything from running sanitation systems, to supporting humanitarian efforts, and even to promoting educational initiatives. As oil and gas discoveries in East Africa attract international industry, micro-grid electricity offers localized opportunities for the African people. Micro-grids for instance offer a sustainable and clean approach to fueling rural infrastructure needs throughout the continent. How might localized micro-grids impact a farm owner, a restaurant owner, or even an entrepreneur?
There is no denying that Africa is in need of infrastructure development. After decades of unsuccessful top-down to development, what benefits may arise from shifting toward a bottom-up approach? What benefits may local communities, their economies, and their entrepreneurial initiatives experience with a bottom-up approach? How might the next three decades be different than the past five decades if a bottom-up approach to infrastructure development replaces the top-down approach so prevalent throughout the continent?
As the African people are projected to hold 25% of the global talent in 2050, activating local and sustainable solutions when establishing critical infrastructure sets Africa on a new trajectory. A trajectory that empowers local entrepreneurship and leverages local talent all the while establishing critical infrastructure. How might altering the current approach to infrastructure development shift from a future of unsustainable debt toward a future of sustainability? A future where the African people are thriving and unlocking potential?
Tyler Mongan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the alternative futures of the Arctic region through the lens of potential stakeholders in his sixth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
On the surface, Arctic Nations envision an open and cooperative high north. However, some national strategies paint a different picture.
Russia’s arctic strategy is one of “strategic-rule breaking,” envisioning the expansion of their economic activities and military presence in the region, along with increased control over Arctic shipping routes. Continued financial partnerships with China will allow the development of infrastructure for LNG and Oil, and other natural resource extraction projects. Russia will also establish more infrastructure and control over transportation along the NSR to capitalize on the economic gains from transportation fees. Investments in rebuilding Soviet-era military facilities and building new bases along the northern coastal settlements and islands will grow. This will slowly fortify an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, which extends around Russia to include the Baltic and Black seas, fulfilling the craving for access to warm water ports since the time of the Czars.
China’s arctic strategy is “opportunistic,” envisioning continued expansion of the Polar Silk Road as part of the BRI within an open and cooperative Arctic. This means the continued development of unilateral partnerships on scientific research with Arctic Nations, sea port infrastructure development with Russia along the NSR, and resource extraction with Russia and Greenland. China will also pursue the development of Arctic worthy vessels, like ice-breakers, and overtime a growing military presence to protect their interests in the region.
The US arctic strategy is “sustain rule-of-law”, envisioning an open and cooperative Arctic, within a growing context of strategic competition. Although there is growing US military concern over Russian and Chinese developments, US investment will continue to lag behind. The US is hoping that rule of law and climate challenges will limit the militarization of the Arctic region. However, as melting ice thins the barriers between US and Russian territories, strategic military operations and cooperation with allies will increase. The US will continue to take a reactive role to Russia and China developments, while slowly increasing investment in military, economic, and transportation infrastructure projects in the region.
Canada’s arctic strategy is “environmental and economic balance,” envisioning an open and cooperative Arctic that is guided by a shared vision. This vision includes, monitoring climate change, safeguarding the environment, sustainable development, open sea routes, and economic cooperation. Canada is shifting away from Arctic oil development and focusing on developing infrastructure and economic opportunities that support their northern indigenous population. Canada will also work to strengthen the mutual-defense initiatives with the US.
The European strategy is “preservation and sustainability,” with a vision that is along the same lines as Canada. European nations will expand their unilateral cooperation with Russia and China, especially in the areas of scientific research, resource extraction, and sea route development. However, some of these unilateral agreements and economic activities will lead to growing tensions. To mitigate conflict, the European nations might envision a stronger Arctic Council or the development of a legal governing body in the Arctic.
As Arctic nations seek to realize their visions and pursue national military, economic, and political interests, the trade-offs they are willing to make will determine if the region remains open and cooperative or transitions into to closed and conflicting.
Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the facilitating role of international organizations in migration through his sixth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
International migration is facilitated by pre-existing institutional structures, which guide migratory desires to end destinations. Even illegal migrations are defined as such because they are transgressions against the formal institutional structure. Institutional structures run the gamut from national policy to large political unions like the European Union that enable movement of people and labour.
International organizations serve various roles in this structure. There are organizations like the European Union that serve as a legal and governing framework to manage the flow of migration. There are organizations like the International Organization for Migrants (IOM) that provide services and counselling for governments and migrants, helping potential migrants navigate through dense bureaucratic structures. Other organizations from all different political persuasions try to change the system: an example is the Migrant Rights Network, which advocates for migrant rights and protections. All these international organizations form a relatively stable equilibrium of competing interests that result in small changes and reforms to the structures in place.
However, there are Events in history that overwhelm the status quo. These require a rewriting of the global playbook and a reconstruction of established institutional structures. One such Event that occurred was World War II, which led to a displaced population of over 60 million people. Most of the affected were on the European continent. It is important to note that—according to the UNHCR—our contemporary displacements have only recently overshadowed this number in 2015. (This is only the displaced population of refugees, and does not include the general population of migrants worldwide.)
Confronted with the daunting prospect of accommodating these displaced peoples, international organizations managed migrations through laws like the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which granted the right to asylum and the right to other protections for displaced peoples fleeing from a “well-founded fear of being persecuted.” Moreover, new international institutions were founded, like the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in 1943. This institution is the origin of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that manages international refugees today. These international structures still inform the processes for the current international response to our current migrations.
While the current international structures might seem rigid and slow to change, large-scale crises have created international organizations to radically transform global and national institutional structures to meet migratory exigencies. Our current historical moment provides a cogent example of rapid structural change. In a matter of a few months, the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed the previous international logics of globalization. Nation-states are repatriating both citizens and supply chains from abroad, and closing down borders, restricting entry to foreign nationals. While there are hopes for a rapid return to the “normal,” such dreams are yet uncertain: will international flows of people return to levels seen in the past?
Similar crises in the future may prompt a response that is similar in kind. One large question mark looms in the horizon. While we previously critiqued climate change for obscuring the multi-factored nature of international migrations, climate change will create a crisis in one possible future. The mediascape reminds us of this possibility almost daily. For example, a recent The Guardian article title reads “One billion people will live in insufferable heat within 50 years.” Where will these people go if their homes become uninhabitable?
How will the world respond to a scenario like this? A quick read into the past suggests that a response is not confined to limitations of current international structures. If such a crisis does arise, then completely new international organizations and a new institutional structure could emerge to replace the structures of the past. Of course, this does not promise to be a frictionless and conflict-free process.
Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program detects the effect of climate change on nation state concept. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Climate change will create new pressures for the nation state paradigm not seen for generations. Just look to history. Our past is littered with examples of climatic shifts acting as harbingers of governmental destabilization. Researchers have found links between changes in climate and the collapse of societies across time and geography, from the Akkadian empire of ancient Mesopotamia, to the Maya of Central America, to the Norse societies of Greenland in the 1500s.
Many argue that the last major change in climate led directly to the end of the feudal system across much of Europe. Commonly known as the Little Ice Age, the period stretched from the start of the 14th century until roughly the mid 19th, and coincided with drops as great as 2 degrees Celsius in global temperatures. These changes led to a swath of adverse impacts, from sudden frosts, to dry summers and bitter winters. As a result, harvests turned increasingly erratic and food stocks declined. Desperate from hunger, populations rioted and eventually rebelled. Through it all, the importance of market economies for buying and selling ever more precious food continued to mount. Together, the argument goes, these shifts sowed the fall of feudalism and laid the foundations of the modern world we know today.
The lesson of the Little Ice Age is clear -- climate change changes everything. Given the speed and scope of current changes, we are likely heading into a period far more intense and long lasting, with impacts liable to harm not just harvests, but decrease fresh water access and spark more conflict. As sea levels rise and climate patterns grow more inconsistent, the numbers of environmental refugees will spike. Already many island-based and low lying areas of the world, such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, are strategizing how to move their citizens to other countries, effectively accepting that their nation states will no longer exist in the near future.
So what systems might arise if the sway of nation states starts to shift? While it’s impossible to say with certainty, migration patterns may provide some helpful clues. These growing numbers of refugees will likely head to where people have long flocked when displaced -- to cities. They will swell already burgeoning numbers. Urban populations are bigger than they have ever been in human history, with 55% of the world’s population living in developed areas. By 2050 those numbers are slated to be as high as 68%, nearly 2/3rds of all human life.
The trajectory is a necessary one. As populations grow, space to live compresses and resources grow scarcer, with access to essentials like potable water becoming increasingly hard to manage. Only in dense urban environments can we hope to house our burgeoning populations, particularly as climatic impacts and associated strife intensify refugee movement across the globe. Megacities, currently defined as cities with over 10 million residents, will become home to more of the global population than ever before.
Many believe that as megacities grow in size, the dominance of the nation state – with its emphasis on collective identity and shared sense of cultural self - may decline. Think of Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Lagos or New York City. These urban environments hold increasingly large economic and cultural sway in their respective countries. Political and governmental influence often follows those factors. As megacities grow, they are likely to become bigger engines of growth, innovation and culture.
The potential shift of power from nation states to megacities and their associated regions could happen because of factors beyond climate change. Conflicting values between urban areas and the national systems and populations in which they operate all have impact here. Yet the tension underwritten by climatic issues serves to augment such tensions. When uncertainty increases and resource scarcity and change is on the rise, our willingness to adhere to systems that don’t directly apply to our concerns and direct circumstances can start to wane.
Nation states were founded as entities whose citizens were relatively homogenous in language, culture or descent. When the make-up of a state grows more diverse, at what point do its denizens stop accepting norms and regulations that don’t reflect their values? The rising impacts of climate change will bring such questions increasingly to the fore.
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.