Years that follow periods of geopolitical and geostrategic tumult are usually characterised by challenges of uncertainty. Events that take shape in such years have a lasting effect in the nurturing of the strategic destiny of the regions they occur in. The year after the Great War, 1919, was similarly characterised by a lack of understanding of how to deal with the vanquished Central Powers, an uncertainty that cost the world dearly. 1946, immediately following the Second World War, saw a similar dilemma with the Soviet-US fallout on the management of post-War Europe.
If we accept 1989 as the year which witnessed the end of the Cold War, then 1990–91 saw the flare-up in West Asia in the form of the First Gulf War, which set the course for the confrontation with Political Islam and the search for the elusive new world order. In later years, when looking back at the current period, it will be apparent that its main characteristics were linked to Global Terror, the rise of violent extremist ideologies, attempts to retain unipolarity by the US, the unfriendly rise of China, the great digital revolution, the decline of Europe and the rise of the middle powers. The period ended with the Coronavirus pandemic (2020–21) which shook the entire international order along with the economic ruin of many a nation and the downturn, among many others. 2022 followed the traditional path of uncertainty with the breakout of the Russia-Ukraine war; in reality, a NATO-Russia proxy war which was expected to end in a week to 10 days. It has been raging for 10 months, its outcome obscured by the uncertainty caused by using the most sophisticated information warfare and communication strategy ever employed.
2022 upset the applecart of international geopolitics in more ways than one. It sets course trends that may manifest significantly earlier than one can imagine. While tourism and manufacturing have picked up among the modern-day economic drivers, the international economic order has been massively impacted by the Ukraine war, thus dwarfing any potential large-scale economic recovery. The US also overplayed its cards by considering this a major opportunity to push back Russia from the burnishing strategic confidence it was tending to acquire following the successful hybrid war it pursued in Crimea and the Donbas region from 2014 onwards.
The Ukraine war has impacted the international strategic environment by pulling attention and resources to the East European theatre and thus preventing the US focus on the Indo-Pacific. Its second-order impact has been cementing the Russia-China equation; NATO’s actions have created an additional commonality of interests, although China, too, endorses an early end to hostilities.
The trend of geopolitical events in 2023 and beyond will depend upon the outcome of the Ukraine War, but a clear victory or defeat should not be expected in this war. This resultant uncertainty will expand the chances of a resurgence of hostilities, especially if NATO persists with its eastward push. If the war ends by Feb-March 2023 due to the resource crunch, sheer lack of stamina and some compromise on energy supply and sales to Europe, it would be good for the rest of the world in terms of resumption of the food and supply chain. A failure to achieve that could witness a long war with the squeezing of resources and the resultant effect on the international economy.
What 2022 seemed to present was a reticent China, hesitant in the year of its five-yearly flagship internal event, the Congress of the CCP (20th this time) and Xi Jinping’s expected virtual anointment as president for life. A series of events seem to have upset China’s self-image and what it wishes to project to the world. A downturn in the economy, failure to cope with the pandemic and evolve a strategy to counter it, and the Taiwan showdown during the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the island, all reflected the inability of China to stand up to challenging situations and respond with rationale and balance. India’s conduct of Exercise Yudh Abhyas with the US Army in Uttarakhand, where again a contentious border exists, irked China’s leadership. December 2022 has seen border incidents and border talks close to each other. There is very little likelihood of more clarity emerging in this contentious relationship. In all probability, its grey zone nature, with inherent uncertainty, will see more near-war-like situations and tension at the borders, without the potential of an all-out war anytime in the near future.
The Pakistan front has seen a quiet Indo-Pak border, and Pakistan’s capability towards pursuing the proxy war in J&K has been less robust. The resultant effective control by the Indian security forces has reduced Pakistan’s options, although space for return and rekindling turbulence remains live even now. 2023 is likely to see elections in Pakistan, and in that context, India-baiting remains a favourite pastime. Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto of the PPP has already set the ball rolling by attempting to score brownie points by making unsalutary remarks against India’s prime minister. India-bashing will continue, although the feasibility of conflict remains low.
For Pakistan, the real fight is in the fields of ideology, local terror, economic development and, currently, the biggest threat—climate change. Having one of the world’s most vulnerable populations, 2022 for Pakistan set the stage for considerable negatives to follow. The one positive which emerged from amidst all this was its return to favour in the eyes of the US. For the umpteenth time, the US has welcomed Pakistan back into its fold, this time for two prime reasons, which emerged in 2022.
First, the US’ inability to manage Afghanistan and the realisation that the Afghanistan theatre needed focused handling with the Ukraine war and a none-too-stable Middle East. Second, the US also realised that given Pakistan’s geostrategic location and economic vulnerability, it was important to keep it within its fold. Pakistan’s ability to convert this to any advantage will depend on how it charts its internal politics.
However, the feasibility of the return of global terror is also contingent upon how the financial crisis and social turbulence in Pakistan and Afghanistan finally play out. The world must not ignore it because of prevalent uncertainty. The real manifestation will emerge sometime later, but before that, a lot can be done to prevent that.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University