Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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Dhaka Tribune

Will 2024 surprise us?

Two big wars and 60 elections make this a real outlier of a year. Are we going in through the outdoor?

Update : 24 Dec 2023, 10:51 AM

In the Financial Times, Kishore Mahbubani argues that “something profound is happening in the world -- a kind of metaphysical detachment of the West from the Rest. Where many people in the Rest of the World once saw the West as the answer to their problems, they now realize they will have to find their own way.”

I believe this captures the mood deliciously. Many do not though. For them, the script remains.

A few days ago, the very well-connected Atlantic Council interviewed Christopher Grady, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was asked if the US military could fight not one (Ukraine), not two (Gaza), but three (Taiwan) wars simultaneously. 

His deadpan, matter-of-fact response was: “Yes, it’s all part of our campaigning process. It’s a Venn diagram problem ... Is it challenging? Yes [but] ... we can walk and chew gum at the same time.” 

He was numbingly reassuring. The implicit message was: Keep spending 800-900 billion dollars a year on warcraft and we will remain the indispensable nation. Nothing changes. Did you wonder why the US has to hustle for 1,000 billion annually just to pay interest on its debt? Win the war, lose the economy?

Taiwan

I have always discounted a Chinese onslaught on Taiwan. Why would they? Mao himself said he would wait a century, ie 2049. As the mainland grows ever larger, economics, not war, should solve that puzzle.

While the Bengali delta will have all eyes on January 7, Taiwan will also go to the polls next month. There will be no controversy regarding the validity of the vote. Instead, the question is whether there will be a move to the opposition (for calmer relations) or the status quo, keener for the Pelosis and co to visit more often (with weapons deliveries and troop deployment).

Ever since the volte face in 1972, Kissinger’s grand success of bringing in China from the cold meant the dumping of Taiwan. Since Obama’s "pivot to Asia" and with Biden and Trump both eager to turn the screws on the Chinese mainland, Washington has rediscovered the wonders of Taiwan. In the US-China tech conflict TSMC and the rest of the island’s incredible high technology capabilities are the highest prized assets. 

It is not impossible for Taiwan to be thrust up front, just like Gaza shunted aside Ukraine. As Ukraine air-brushed away Afghanistan. It is plausible we witness bloodshed-free standoffs and verbal exchanges if the status quo remains. 

Related to this, in nearby Philippines, Mini-Marcos has returned his country to the status of a basecamp. An iron curtain was laid this year, encompassing Japan-South Korea-Philippines. Already, cracks might be appearing.  

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who has aligned Japan militarily as close to the US as possible, is in trouble. The misfiring economy is in recession. Four corrupt ministers have been culled. His approval rating is below 20%, and according to William Pesak of the Asia Times, anything below 30% usually spells doom. Will he be out next year? What would that mean vis a vis China? The latter, by the way, will grow over 5% in 2024.      

Current two big wars

Following the failure of the Ukraine counter-offensive, Kyiv has officially shifted to strategic defense. Translation: Hold on to what you have. Most see Russia continuing their advance, given their tails are up. An ex-leader of Ukraine, promoting his book in The Guardian, has upped the ante. He maintains the US would suffer a meltdown in credibility if it were to lose the Ukraine war, after the humiliation in Afghanistan. 

The strategic initiative lies with Moscow. I suspect by summer or autumn Moscow may be in a position where they declare (a narrow) victory. Unfortunately, most analysts think this is carrying on. For example, Germany’s Bild newspaper plots a westward drive where Russia will continue till 2026. Ominously Vladimir Putin, in his marathon telethon, mentioned that: “Odessa has always been a Russian city.”   

In political terms, will the Europeans become the South Vietnamese in 1973 (another nod to Kissinger)? In other words, Ukraine will be classified as a European problem for Berlin and Paris, not Washington; ie more euros, less dollars. Despite the latest pledges, the public in Western Europe will lose even more appetite for this. Something is going to give in 2024.

REUTERS   

Gaza

The race is on to complete ethnic cleansing, forced emigration into General Sisi’s Egypt before spring. Others are intent on an incursion into southern Lebanon and a "neutralization" of Yemen. Already, US forces are in the line of fire in Kurdish Syria and Iraq. All too World War One.

The changed demographics in Israel is driving the uncompromising stance. It goes way beyond the political future of Netanyahu. With relatively new influxes, the population mix has changed, reflected in rising support for hardline parties. The supine position of most Muslim regimes is the enabler. Note lots of jaw-jaw but no war-war (even economic). Note also that IMEC -- the Israel to India corridor -- is already dead in the water. Beyond the casus belli of October 7 and the endgame, whatever that is, is this really another 1967, rather than 1982?  

This time last year did anyone foresee a war on the eastern Mediterranean?

Where’s the next war?

That’s a tough one to predict.

Is Myanmar a potential gamechanger? This is a domestic civil war. One that has been permanent since Aung San was assassinated in 1948. In contemporary geo-political terms, this can be seen as a war that weakens China. Complicated by a crime zone seeping into China (multi-billion telecom fraud). 

This is not a winter 1948 situation when the capital (then Rangoon) was nearly overrun. However, the well-supplied alliance forces this time have clearly shaken the regime. Supplied by whom, one might ask?  All parties have promised not to damage Chinese infrastructure to the Bay of Bengal. Praveen Swami, national security editor for The Print, worries about destabilization in its northeast. Delhi is on the same page as Beijing in not wanting an unpredictable escalation of hostilities. Moscow too. Will neo-cons game a no-fly-zone opportunity south of the Tek? 

Elections and selections

Modi may return. Even if the INDIA combine were to win, the pro-Western (anti-China) orientation will continue. Does Biden do a Lyndon Johnson and retire, in wartime? I just cannot see him in the November election, can you? Could it really be Trump 2.0? Or is this leap year one for Robert Kennedy Jr? Ugly or Uglier. 

Will the US civil deterioration ramp up a notch next winter? The 64,000-dollar question for 2024 and rest of the decade: How does one square US leadership in Artificial Intelligence with deep social stratification in a perceived plutocracy? Meanwhile, Putin will already have been re-elected in March.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority state, may be intriguing. So far, the US has two horses out of three in the race. Pakistan always surprises -- we will know around or after Valentine’s Day.

For the West, Bangladesh is a Myanmar-China story. For Delhi it’s a family brawl in its backyard in the east. I am assuming, domestically, the dust will settle in Dhaka before May. Intuition suggests Beijing will play a critical role not only in Myanmar but also in Bangladesh later in 2024.

In geo-politics, economics and technology, Europe will continue its descent down the table of global relevance. With Aspen Institute-mentored Meloni pulling Italy out of China’s BRI, has the EU caught the Brexit bug? Can the embattled coalition in Germany hold out till next Christmas? Has anyone noticed how the US has grown so much bigger in terms of GDP than the EU?

The Southern Hemisphere? With a secular commodity boom in play, both Africa and South America should benefit immensely from exports. If only they would be left alone in peace. Fat chance, but we shall see. This leads to BRICS+ with the entry of five or six countries. Argentina is now in terra incognita. 

In January, BRICS+ may become the world’s commodity core and powerhouse. The year will see a wave of applications clamouring to join. This is all so reminiscent of the New International Economic Order that poor (Third World) countries wanted to organize in the 1970s. 

The difference today is that China is the biggest economy (PPP terms) and India up there too. A creeping de-dollarization on trade is gathering momentum. Let us see if there are hints or even tangible moves on the petrodollar.

Kishore Mahbubani demands the West ditch the condescension and treat the Rest of the World as Equals. 2024 might be too early for that, but we can dream.    

  

Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst.

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