Likely Geopolitical Trends in 2022
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

We should expect a sharpening of great power rivalries and an increase in geopolitical tensions in 2022. If 2021 provides any indications, the world is likely to remain turbulent in the absence of credible mechanisms and effective cooperation to resolve global challenges. As geopolitical tensions grow, the arms race may deepen, particularly in outer space. The test of a hypersonic glide vehicle and anti-satellite (ASAT) test by Russia which created over a thousand pieces of debris is an indication. Hybrid wars, cyber attacks are likely to intensify in the near fixture.

Ideological struggles are likely to sharpen. President Biden convened a summit of democracies whose theme was “strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism”. This, according to him, is the central challenge of our times. This is not how Russia, China, Iran, and several other countries read the situation. They regard US hegemony as the most destabilising factor in the world today.

The great power rivalries will be played out in the backdrop of stressed multilateralism, uncertain economic recovery, the raging pandemic, deepening of climate change threats, volatility in the energy markets.

Chinese leader Xi is making a bid for a third term as the Chinese Communist Party’s General Secretary at the upcoming 20th party congress. In the run-up to the Congress, Xi has tightened the party’s control over the military and economy, curtailed freedom and liberty, carried out purges in the party and positioned China as the key challenger to the US-led world order.

The Chinese economy is facing head winds. China’s new economic policies encapsulated in the slogans of ‘co-prosperity’ and ‘dual circulation’ economy have created doubts in the mind of foreign investors. The real estate sector is burdened with bad debts. Iconic private sector companies have been brought under party control. The trends in the Chinese economy will have global repercussions.

In 2022, one should expect Chinese assertiveness, fuelled by aggressive nationalism, to increase. Pressure on Taiwan will mount further. One nation two systems which permitted democracy in Hongkong is all but over. Repression in Xinjiang is increasing. Unprecedented surveillance, enforced by modern technologies, has been unleashed in China. China will become even more authoritarian.

Repression at home and aggressive behaviour towards neighbours is likely to invite some backlash. Despite the failings of the Belt and Road Initiative, China is likely to continue with it to bolster its influence abroad. Military modernisation will be accelerated as China pursues its goal of emerging as numero uno in the next two to three decades.

US-China relations are emerging as a key driver of global geopolitics. Although the two are mutually antagonistic, they are closely linked with each other economically and have a long history of mutual accommodation, at least since the seventies. Decoupling is not straightforward or entirely possible. The key issue is how far can the two countries work and cooperate to avoid tensions. Taiwan is likely to emerge as a flashpoint which could spell global instability. Accidents and misunderstandings can lead to escalation of tensions and even conflict.

The Indo-Pacific is emerging as a key area of contestation. The emergence of the Quad of India, US, Japan and Australia, and now the AUKUS (Australia, US and the UK) has changed the security scenario in the region significantly. China is deeply suspicious of these two institutions. China will have to adjust to a new reality. It will most likely harden its stance and seek to co-opt the regional countries into its sphere of influence.

Several flashpoints exist in the Indo pacific – South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan, first and second island chains. Maritime spaces are being militarised. High-level naval exercises are becoming common. The Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN is likely to miss the 2022 deadline. ASEAN is concerned about its centrality as China-US competition heats up. Linked economically with China and with the US for security, many of the ASEAN countries are feeling the pressure of managing the competition between the two giants.

Japan’s security challenges have grown due to the rise of China. Confronted with a hostile China, a belligerent North Korea and an unrelenting Russia, Japan remains deeply dependent on the US for its security. There is growing sentiment in Japan for strengthening its military capabilities. It has increased its defence budget. Russia and China are doing joint exercises in the seas surrounding Japan. That puts additional pressure on Japan. Japan will have to find a way of dealing with the worsening security environment.

The west is facing a set of problems that has put a question mark on the efficacy of their system. Western democracies are struggling with many problems; the institutions of global governance, which the west helped to create, are failing to resolve global issues. Income inequalities have risen. The western countries behaved selfishly during the covid crisis. They cannot speak with any sense of superiority when they criticise other states.

Biden has sought to repair relations with Europe but problems persist. On China, the two sides do not have identical views. China raises suspicion in Europe yet it has a strong economic and technological partnership going. Chinese value system runs counter to the European values of democracy and human rights. The European formula of cooperation and competition with China is still untried. Some European counties are trying to increase their presence in the Indo-Pacific region, which causes concern in China. In 2022, European Union will be faced with the task of getting more clarity in its China policy. But, it is being distracted by Russia and the Ukraine crisis.

Western hostility towards Russia is rising. This is pushing Russia closer to China. The fears of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine have spread. Ukraine may become a flashpoint in Europe if the situation is not handled diligently. Minsk accords are dysfunctional. Russia and NATO may open some channels of communication to manage their tensions. They must. The year-end telephonic conversation between Biden and Putin on the Ukraine situation served to highlight the wide gulf that separates the two sides. Electricity prices in Europe have skyrocketed. This has hit the European consumer hard. Energy will become a major factor in EU-Russia relations. Europe may try to reduce its dependence on Russian gas but this will not be easy.

Russia is seeking western grantees against NATO expansion into Ukraine and the stationing of weapons in Ukraine and the Russian neighbourhood. The west, deeply suspicious of Russia, is unlikely to provide these guarantees. Russia will never reconcile to Ukraine being pulled in NATO. Russia is seeking China’s diplomatic support for its demand for security guarantees from the west.

West Asia has been undergoing simultaneous political, economic transformations for some years now. Yet, the key issues are likely to persist in 2022. These are the JCPOA, the Syrian conflict and the war in Yemen. There is instability in Lebanon. Abraham accords are a game-changer as ties between Israel and the Gulf countries grow. Both UAE and Saudi Arabia are continuing to transform their policies.

The Iranian economy is reeling under the sanctions. Yet, the Iranians are unlikely to make significant compromises on the nuclear question. Iran is looking to strengthen its strategic ties with China and Russia to counter western pressure. This trend will continue. There is no sign of a thaw between the Gulf States and Iran on key issues; the hostility with Israel is likely to continue. Turkey’s economy is under severe stress but that has not deterred it from playing an active pan-islamic role in the region. Turkey’s regional ambitions upset many countries.

In South Asia, Sri Lanka is experiencing economic difficulties arising out of high debts. There is no easy way out for Sri Lanka. People are facing hardships. The government is faced with the task of balancing its relations between China and India. The government may look towards India for help in times of crisis.

Bangladesh is doing well economically but widespread attacks against Hindu minorities during the Durga Puja festivities have once again highlighted the plight of the minorities.

Nepal saw considerable political uncertainty during the year. Oli had unleashed anti-India nationalistic forces which have impacted relations with India adversely. The relationship has stabilised with the coming of the Deuba government.

In Myanmar, the army’s repression has grown. China continues to wield considerable influence in the country. Indian Foreign Secretary's visit to Myanmar in the wake of attacks in the northeast has highlighted the complex challenges India faces in managing its relations with the country.

Taliban are trying to consolidate their rule in Afghanistan. Although no country has recognised Afghanistan so far, several countries including China, Pakistan, Qatar, and Turkey are helping to normalise Taliban rule. The UN has also come up with 6 billion dollars worth of assistance to tackle the humanitarian crisis. The fundamental nature of the Taliban has not changed but they are playing their diplomatic cards diligently. The US is also thinking of assisting Afghanistan with humanitarian aid. One may expect greater mainstreaming of the Taliban in the coming year.

Pakistan is likely to become more unstable in the near future. Its debt-ridden economy is under severe pressure. Inflation is in the double-digit and the rupee is weak. Pakistan is in desperate need of external funds. It remains on the grey list of the FATF. Imran Khan’s relations with the military have soured. Religious fundamentalist forces are on the rise again. Therik-e-Taliban (TTP) is once rearing its head against the Pakistani regime. Whether his government will survive the year is a question mark. China Pakistan Economic Corridor projects will continue but there is already scaling down of many of them. China’s influence in Pakistan will grow even as it faces some backlash from the ground. The year 2022 is likely to be a difficult one for Pakistan.

India

These geopolitical trends have a deep impact on India’s security. India will have to find its way in negotiating the great power rivalries on which it has little control.

Since 2020, China has emerged as the greatest threat to India’s security. China’s hostility towards India will continue to manifest along the borders. The tensions on the borders are likely to persist despite the continuation of military and political level talks. New friction points may emerge. China has built numerous showcase villages along the entire length of the border. It has also encroached on territory in Bhutan and Nepal. These are worrisome trends.

China is sensitive to India’s participation in the Quad and its growing security ties with western countries. It would like to wean India away from the west but has little credibility with India. India-China tensions are likely to play out in the backdrop of regional and global political-military trends.

Pakistan remains deeply hostile to India. It continues with its efforts to destabilise India by supporting terrorism and radicalisation in Kashmir. Lately, it has also begun to reactivate the radical Khalistani elements based in Pakistan, Canada and other western countries.

The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is deeply problematic for India on account of the fillip to terrorism and radicalisation. Pakistan and Chinese influence in Afghanistan will be at the expense of Indian influence. India’s access to Afghanistan has ended. India has tried to deal with the situation by getting involved in various regional dialogues on Afghanistan particularly with Central Asia and Russia. India will have to be cautious about the threat of drugs and narcotics originating from Afghanistan.

China’s inroads in India’s neighbourhood are a matter of deep worry for India. India has taken several steps in the recent past to engage with the neighbouring countries with some success. Connectivity with neighbours has improved. Neighbours are however cautious of the China-India competition. India will need to find a way to improve regional engagement and cooperation by several orders of magnitude.

India has the arduous task of maintaining a balance in its relations with the west on one hand and Russia and China on the other. Its approach of multi engagement with different countries on the opposite end of the spectrum is likely to continue in 2022.

In the year 2022, India will have to navigate the pandemic, manage energy transition to green energy, assimilate new technologies, modernise its armed forces and regain its economic strength after the pandemic.

India has several opportunities which it can cash on. Its economy is on the path of recovery, its diplomatic engagement has deepened. While the world is likely to experience considerable turbulence in 2022, India has opportunities to position itself in an advantageous position. But this will require sustained economic recovery, active diplomatic engagement and social stability at home.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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