How does climate change lead to border tensions? - Association of Professional Futurists
Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program detects the probable border clashes that may be caused by climate change in her eighth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
As the climate emergency grows in scope and scale, the world’s refugee crisis is slated to explode. While finding precise statistics is difficult, the UNHCR estimates that conflicts associated with climate change have created at least 9 million refugees in the last decade alone. By 2050, that number is likely to grow much higher. Among the many issues that stem from such scales of forced migration – from spikes in human rights violations to mounting economic hardships – border tensions are among the most aggressive and complex.
Climate change is a key driver in this dynamic. As we’ve explored previously, drought and famine resulting from climatic shifts have been directly linked to violent civil wars in Syria, Somalia and beyond, wars that have created millions refugees. If not ameliorated, such numbers will only increase. Researchers project that within the African continent, 250 million people live in regions that will be vulnerable to food and water insecurity in the coming decades. Three-quarters of the Sahel’s arable land will likely be lost by the end of the century, forcing many millions more to move. In low-lying areas – coastal zones support roughly 12 percent of the continent’s population - rising sea levels will increase pressures on African states, compounding existing governmental instabilities and sparking mass migrations at scales not seen before in human history.
When so many are on the move, conflicts follows. In recent years, Europe has become a flashpoint for such tensions. Over the past decade, millions of people fleeing war, climate-induced crises and chronic poverty from Africa, the Middle East and south Asia have sought refuge in European countries. Those who survive their often-dangerous journeys have found increasingly dark welcomes, as political groups and media sources progressively portray migration as a kind of invasion of people from different cultures. Themes of threat - to welfare systems, cultural norms and more - have been particularly prevalent in Italy, Spain and Britain. This trend of relating to refugees as ‘other’ harkens back to the racist overtones used to justify colonialism and its systems of subjugation, abuse and enslavement.
Many countries have responded by electing leaders who oppose immigration and shut down borders. Bulgaria and Hungary – primary routes into the rest of the European continent for refugees fleeing war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan - have erected barbed wire fencing in recent years. Norway, Latvia and Estonia have likewise constructed new barriers within the past decade. In 2017 then-interior minister of Italy, Marco Minniti, made an agreement with Libya to supply technical support to the Libyan coastguard to fend African refugees away from Italian coastlines. Farther north, the UK has pressured France to build walls around the port of Calais on the tunnel connecting the two countries. Immigration and tensions around refugee resettlement have become such massive issues across the continent that previously unthinkable geopolitical shifts like Brexit are now reality.
As these border issues show, no place in our modern world is exempt from the impacts of climate change. When refugees escape aggression – increasingly instigated by climate related instabilities - they move, shifting the makeup, history, norms and trajectories of the places to which they flee. Border tensions are a significant part of our current responses to those changes.
Mass migration is both our present and, increasingly, our future. But it is also our past. Migration is a natural response to environmental change, one that humans have taken throughout our history. Migration is what allowed our ancestors to spread across the globe, creating the diverse cultures and societies that we know today. To summarize the writer Sonia Shah, migration has not been the response to crisis in our collective past, but rather the solution. If our go-to answers are to keep newcomers out and current border conditions continue, tensions between countries will only increase. However, if we can envision a future more akin to our past, in which migration serves as a source of hope rather than fear, we can write a different story.
Carl Michael checks the facilitating role of Belt and Road Initiative on globalization in his eighth 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 theme of this scenario is: ‘The BRI Facilitates Globalisation – A Converging World Order’. The key drivers are increasing support for globalisation, coupled with the BRI working to support the evolving new global order in a manner which is perceived as positive and useful. This is a scenario where the dominant themes are convergence, multilateralism and transformation, and where the universal aspect of specific political or civilisational doctrines becomes weakened.
In this scenario, states retain their independent perspectives and at the same time, cooperate in order to address global issues. The US and China have escaped the Thucydides trap. Clarification of interests and sustained growth provides no incentive to allow conflict to disturb the status quo. When conflict does occur, it does so at a regional level and even then the international treaty system adapts to ensure an ongoing balance of power and provision of a quick resolution of grievances and mitigation of root causes.
By 2050 the Chinese economy is considerably larger than that of the US. Economic growth is maximised through globalisation, considered cooperation, free-markets, prudent regulations and relatively stable financial markets. The economies of Africa, ASEAN, India and China continue to grow but with an internal prosperity divide. This divide is not only economic, but also urban/rural and digital/manual and is the cause for potential unrest.
From a social perspective, citizens in most advanced regions are politically and socially empowered and regulated migration to these regions is normalised, though illegal migration remains a challenge, being driven by inequality and environmental stress. There are tensions between ethnic and national identities. Values, beliefs and lifestyles remain stable in some areas and change rapidly in others leading to a degree of turmoil in states which are less ‘disciplined’ than others. Developed countries experience a collective decline in population and corruption increases in many countries where centralised control is too strong or too weak.
Technology is a key driver of economic growth, and digital technologies are at the heart of the innovation which drives growth. Most people have access to the information they need. The information environment is fairly well-regulated, but the rate of change makes this hard to control. At the same time technological changes make the many national government systems redundant.
Governance is characterised by the increase of enhanced global initiatives to address global structural and environmental challenges as well as international disputes. Multilateral treaties are positioned within strong institutions that have the capability to address any of a spectrum of challenges, including the transformation to a digital economy and dealing with international crime.
In the larger context of protecting and managing natural environments with long-term sustainability in mind, there are broad collaborative international initiatives to provide mitigation for environmental stress due to the changing climate and to increase social resilience. Access to water, energy, mineral and food resources is regulated in order to manage both short-term shocks as well as long-term good.
In this scenario, in 2050, the BRI has helped to cement the smooth transition to a converging world order in areas such as trade, finance, industry, resource-management, infrastructure, cultural interchange, and environment management. The BRI has addressed inequality by helping to raise living standards, and productivity outside of China, which has helped to address the impact of declining Chinese demographics. Since the BRI is multilateral and geo-economic by its very nature, though a China led initiative, it has provided most of the benefits and little of the geopolitical hegemonistic challenges feared by other nations. China’s soft power has increased through interaction and culturalization along the sections of the BRI and the logic of Eurasian integration has been made manifest.
Kimberly Daniels, a member of our Emerging Fellows program envisions a collapse scenario within Eurasia’s Heartland alternative futures through her seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
A collapse scenario with respect to Eurasia’s Heartland in the year 2050 could play out as a future in which opposing forces break down the geopolitical positioning by which the U.S. and Russia have historically situated themselves. Reflective of disruptive changes that derail expectations of the future, it is a scenario largely driven by geo-economic commerce. Characterized by China’s commercialized approach to Heartland power and a unipolar world order, it is one alternative future that could unfold.
By 2050 in this scenario, China has successfully rolled out the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and dominates the commercial space in Eurasia’s Heartland and much of Afro-Eurasia. The owner of most BRI infrastructure and the regional leader along the BRI corridors, China fulfilled her dream of becoming the world’s economic superpower. Her path to victory stems from a geopolitical strategy of geo-economic commerce. As China rose in power, a domino effect of disruptive changes brought about the decline of the U.S. and Russia. They are no longer positioned to influence the Heartland, now under China’s control.
A weakened U.S., confronted by dysfunction and strong oppositional forces, has lost her superpower status and influence relative to the world order and the Heartland. Whether it involved failed policies against multiple pandemics, domestic social change, and an economic Cold War with China, or unvaried foreign policy towards the Middle East and terrorism, she remained resolute in her course. However, crippling retaliatory policies and sanctions imposed on the U.S. by Britain, the European Union, Japan, and India in response to an “America First” stance that adversely impacted them has left the U.S. floundering and lacking their support.
Drawn into costly military conflicts in the Persian Gulf over Iran’s nuclear activities, and in the Mediterranean over Russia and China’s endless pursuit of Israel’s energy resources, the U.S. and her strength are divided. Widespread American public opinion is that she prioritize recovery from a brutal economic depression. Accordingly, the U.S. has abandoned efforts to contain China’s commercialized dominance in the Heartland and throughout Afro-Eurasia.
Russia struggles against devastating instability and an oppositional force in the form of Chinese Eurasianism that has undermined her power and influence in the Heartland. Whether due to a longstanding closed economic system or the over-extension of aid to former Soviet States, Russia sought a Chinese bailout. She accepted lender/borrower terms more like those China imposed on Central Asian countries for BRI infrastructure development than Euro zone bailouts.
Russia’s inability to repay the debt resulted in China’s ownership of state-owned Russian enterprises in the telecommunications, media, energy, aerospace and defense, and engineering sectors. These industries employ significant numbers of Chinese workers. Substantial revenue outflows support China’s unbounded growth and have contributed to Russia’s economic destabilization. Russia remains a Chinese ally. Yet, she begrudges China for usurping her geopolitical influence in former Soviet states. Russia has surrendered regional control of the Heartland and Afro-Eurasia to China.
BRI success for China, leader of a new unipolar world order, has evolved as commercial colonialism in the Heartland. While Central Asia initially welcomed the growth spurred by connected trade, later the region protested against this New Silk Road. Having defaulted on BRI loans, Central Asian countries lost all hope of self-governance. China’s ownership of BRI infrastructure in Central Asia ensured her economic dominance and rule over the region. A larger percentage of trade revenues flow out to China.
The overwhelming point of contention for Central Asia has involved sharing their lands with countless numbers of Chinese workers. Not only do these workers hold the best-paying jobs in the region, but they also brought with them a diversity of religious practices. Their values threaten the religio-cultural identity of Central Asian Muslims, many of whom are part of a resistance movement against China’s BRI.
This 2050 future in terms of Eurasia’s Heartland could play out as a collapse scenario in which the U.S. and Russia, suppressed by disruptive oppositional forces, concede their geopolitical power in the region to China. Although geo-economic commerce is the driving force by which China has become the world’s superpower, her commercialized approach to Heartland power, while successful, is not without some regional opposition to the BRI. Distinct from this scenario alternative is a future that reflects a new equilibrium in U.S., Russian, and Chinese geopolitics.
Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the role of migration in causing conflicts through his seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Migration and conflict seem to be intrinsically connected. Intra- and inter-state conflicts around the world have devastated livelihoods and led to displaced peoples both inside and outside of home country borders. One can think of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and recently, Syria, as examples.
The converse appears to be the case as well. The recent movement of migrants into the borders of the West have shifted domestic politics. In the United States, President Trump has vowed to build a wall to keep Mexican migrants out. In the European Union, there has been a similar political realignment. In the absence of an appropriate European response, nationalist responses have threatened to unravel the fragile political tapestry that is the European Union. Europe ended up paying Turkey to host migrants—the solution was figuratively displaced.
The vicious cycle of conflict, forced migration, and further conflict threatens to spiral out of control, particularly due to the unresolved threat of climate change, which may worsen food stability and literally render some areas of the world uninhabitable. According to a commonly cited figure, there will be over 200 million forced displacements related to climate change by 2050. The current figure is at 80 million forced displacements (both internal and external) today.
A brief sketch of 2050 may frighten the reader into believing in an apocalyptic image of the future, in which over-migration will lead to resource scarcity, societal disorder, and violent conflict. However, one can temper this image of 2050, where migrants storm the gilded gates of the West.
Despite popular conceptions, the share of migrants as a percentage of the global population has hardly changed since 1960. It has remained at 3% of the global population, from 93 million out of a population of 3 billion in 1960 to 244 million out of a population of 7.3 billion in 2015. However, the flow of migration has changed. The European continent has changed from being a source of migration (due to colonization and push factors) to become a destination for migrants. It attracts 1.5 to 2.5 million migrants per year today, which equates to 0.3% to 0.5% of the entire European Union population.
Forced displacements have occupied a powerful image in the public imagination. However, Europe and the West is not the final destination of all of the nearly 80 million displaced people in the world. According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2019, 45.7 million were displaced internally, and 26 million were considered refugees (being displaced externally). Of the 26 million people, 73% were hosted in neighbouring countries, and 85% were hosted in developing countries. While climate change threatens to create forced displacements, the majority of those displaced will be displaced internally and most of them will be displaced into neighbouring countries.
Finally, additional context about the present discourse around migration and conflict needs to be discussed. While migrants may create some legitimate cultural and structural tensions, it is also important to explore the economic context underlying the recent shift in public discourse about migrants. Research suggests that the inhabitants of regions hit by economic insecurity, due to the 2008 financial crisis and the outsourcing of supply chains, are more likely to be anti-migration. Insecure livelihoods and scarcity revive the well-worn trope of the lazy, but job-stealing migrant, who simultaneously takes jobs from locals but also undermines the welfare state. The migrant has perhaps returned to the position of the scapegoat. These economic conditions contribute to the perception of the conflict-bringing migrant in political discourse.
Migratory movements in the future may lead to conflict; however, we can also imagine and create a future in which migration and conflict are not inevitable. One must escape the confines of the present economic and political context to think more rationally about migration and potential conflict in the future.
Travis Kupp, a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the impact of climate change across borders in Asia through his seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Climate change is inevitable, hard borders are not. The most significant threat to the continued rise of Asia is the impact of shifts in the natural environment, especially with regard to international relations. A rosy scenario would be increased regional and global cooperation that allows for a less restricted flow of ideas, migrants, and resources across borders for the benefit of all. However, such a future is dependent on the fearless acceptance of scarcity and deep uncertainty. History has shown that the typical response to such circumstances is more often than not restricted borders and protectionism. If this latter outcome is realized, the likelihood of an imminent Asian Century is greatly diminished.
Adapting to climate change may be the uniting cause that leads to a more integrated Asia. If better natures prevail, nations could look upon borders less severely and prioritize food, water, and energy security in a more benevolent regional manner. Such an approach could also help transcend the problematic mismatch of national borders with ethnic groups that are especially prevalent in Western and Central Asia. The result may be more comfort with existing “dotted lines” on the map or potentially completely redrawn borders with local autonomy but a shared vision for cooperation.
To the North, Russia could become more amenable to accepting migrants in an effort to accelerate the development of infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route. Even displaced agricultural workers will be a boon as fresh water from melting ice becomes more abundant in the region. This could lead to a special relationship with China involving increased exports of labor and goods and increased energy imports from Russia. Whatever the mix, a dramatic rebalancing of cross-border flows in pursuit of a new equilibrium will require trust and liberalization.
At odds to this sort of future is the present reality of border entrenchment. Finger-pointing for worsening environmental health conditions, including the occurrence and spread of infectious diseases, is likely to continue in the near term. Regardless of who gets stuck with the blame, unpredictable climate patterns will make long-term trade and investment agreements across borders highly unattractive. Asian nations will focus instead on energy independence and stabilizing agricultural output while making very selective covenants that fit with their adjusted tolerance for risk. This could effectively reverse the progress made through organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Resource scarcity, displacement, and economic contraction would result in more pronounced inequality and reactions to injustice. These disparities could lead to violent social shocks in underprepared areas. An unstable security landscape would heighten tensions between Asian nations and make any movement across borders subject to more stringent requirements and surveillance. Territorial disputes on land and sea will become flashpoints as the desire to control critical resources becomes more desperate. Tight control of borders in a changed climate will be the standard protocol.
The possible futures for Asia are bound to the continent’s response to the changing climate. Resource scarcity and environmental volatility could well deteriorate relationships in the region, undoing decades of economic development and integration. Asian nations may instead choose to avert this outcome with policies designed to open rather than restrict international borders. Collaborating on a framework that protects national interests through the turbulent process of change will require a level of trust never before seen on the continent but is possible if the shared narrative of climate adaptation is strong enough. Achieving this unified vision would secure the potential for an Asian Century to manifest in the coming decades.
Sarah Skidmore, a member of our Emerging Fellows program makes assumptions about the role of tribalism in the future of Africa. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Tribalism manifests as people make decisions out of loyalty to their group or tribe. Think of modern Africa. Consider the vastness of the continent – the Arab culture of northern Africa, the poverty throughout the sub-Saharan region, and even racial tensions in South Africa. This does not even begin to examine the magnitude of diversity and wealth of identity that is present among the 3,000 plus tribes that call Africa home. The Angolan Civil War. The Ethiopian Famine. Apartheid. Rwandan Genocide. War in Darfur. Civil conflicts spurred by groups with varying ideologies have plagued Africa historically. The divisiveness of these conflicts and the havoc the African people experience due to power moves by African leaders drastically impact the ability of the continent to unlock its potential.
What future is in store for a continent that continues the cycle of civil unrest, the and violence evoked by tribalism? What future may exist if tribal imbalances continue in the decades to come? What harm may come from tribal grievances continuing to perpetrate?
The legacy and continued impact of colonialism is far reaching – even in postcolonial times. Colonial powers manipulated and destroyed classic power systems of African tribes for centuries. The beliefs and systems European colonialism imposed throughout Africa have a lasting influence on indigenous groups and impact politics. Following the reign of colonialism, the latter half of the twentieth century was shaped by Western imperialism and followed by the influence of international investment. However, all throughout this history, Africa was, and is, filled with countless tribes, ideologies, and customs.
Merely focusing on tribalism is similar to focusing on the concept of diversity. There is value in diversity. There is importance on honoring cultures and customs. There is significance in hearing differing perspectives. But there is more work to be done than simply recognizing diversity. Groups and tribes must shift toward fostering inclusion and cultivating a shared vision for the grips of destructive tribalism loosen. Without this shift toward inclusion and a shared vision, tribalism in Africa will continue the cycle of violence and destruction too common in the past decades.
Tribalism represents groups with varying cultural identities, societal identities, historical narratives, political views, and power dynamics. Along with the distinctive features of each people group, there are the histories and relationships among the various groups. These relationships are shaped by varying levels of trust, tension, and power, which influence decisions. How might cultivating greater trust between groups allow for a conflict-free Africa?
When ideating ways to achieve a conflict-free future in African by 2050, tribalism is undoubtedly a factor that will influence attempts toward that future. Tribalism represents the vast diversity that exists throughout the continent. Consider the value that tribalism may bring the people as they honor the unique culture and beliefs of other groups. Image a conflict-free future when tribalism evolves beyond a focus of violence and power toward one of inclusion, shared vision, and unity.
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.