Is World War Three looming?
Tensions at a number of geopolitical flashpoints means the threat of real conflict looms
As tensions ramp up between the West and its antagonists in Russia and China, fears are growing that proxy wars could develop into wider armed conflict.
US officials have warned the European Union that Moscow may be on the verge of another military invasion of Ukraine as its troops gather near the border, while others remain wary of multiple hotspots where Beijing might want to make its military mark over the next decade.
Last night, MI6 chief Richard Moore warned that the rise of China was the Secret Intelligence Service’s “single greatest priority” as Beijing continues to “conduct large scale espionage operations against the UK and our allies”.
Moore, known as C, said “tectonic plates are shifting” as China shows more willingness to assert its power.
In his first public speech, made to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, he said Beijing’s “growing military strength” and desire for reunification with Taiwan, by force if necessary, “pose a serious challenge to global stability and peace”.
His comments came weeks after US President Joe Biden said America had a commitment to defending Taiwan, although a White House statement later insisted that its policy of “strategic ambiguity” remained in place.
The policy “leaves vague exactly how the United States would react”, explained The New York Times, and many experts think it is now time for more clarity.
The newspaper suggested Biden’s rhetoric “may be reflecting a desire to toughen Washington’s language to counter new Chinese capabilities, which would allow far more subtle moves to strangle Taiwan - cutting off undersea cables, internet connections and liquid natural gas shipments - than an outright invasion”.
Tensions also remain high in the South China Sea. Beijing views the expanse off the coast of East Asia as sovereign territory, while Washington regards “China’s militarisation of the area as a transparent rewriting of the international rules”, said The National Interest. “Neither side is backing down – nor does either country seem interested in a compromise,” the US magazine added.
Biden held virtual talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, in part, to ensure that the competition between them “didn’t drift into armed conflict due to a misunderstanding at a global hotspot”, said BBC’s China correspondent Stephen McDonnell.
The conference seemed a “genuine attempt at a reset” and could “alter global geopolitical relations in a concrete way”, he continued.
But Pentagon officials remain wary that China could start a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait or other hotspots “sometime in the next decade”, said Michael Beckley, an associate professor at Tufts University, and Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins, in The Atlantic. While Biden may have asserted that the US is not seeking to begin a new cold war, that is “the wrong way to look at US-China relations”, they said.
“A cold war with Beijing is already under way. The right question, instead, is whether America can deter China from initiating a hot one.”
A build-up of nearly 100,000 Russian troops, artillery and tanks along the border of Ukraine over the past month has prompted fears of a new invasion, although Russia denies it has any such intention, said Politico.
“We see an unusual concentration of troops, and we know that Russia has been willing to use these types of military capabilities before to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine,” the head of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg, has said.
Ukraine and the West have also pointed the finger at Russia for the migrant crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus. The Belarusian government has been accused of “causing the crisis by encouraging migrants from the Middle East to come to Belarus and then taking them to the border”, said DW.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused Russia of being the “mastermind” behind the crisis, with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the situation is designed to “threaten security, sow division, and aim to distract from Russia’s activities on the border with Ukraine”.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba sees Russia’s actions as part of a wider plan. “When we see migrants used as a weapon, when we see disinformation used as a weapon, when we see gas used as a weapon, and soldiers and their guns… these are not separate elements,” he said. “They are all part of a broad strategy to shatter Europe.”
Indeed, these “flashpoint” events may individually seem to have “complex roots”, said Bob Seely in The Telegraph, but the work of Putin is “behind them all”.
“Putin’s Kremlin has been preparing for conflict ever since he declared the new age of hostility in a 2007 speech in Munich,” Seely continued, but his words have been “largely ignored by nervous Western nations”.
Seely contends that Putin aims to do three things as his time in power reaches its final decade: “First, destroy an independent Ukrainian state; second, shatter Nato and third, cement Russia’s role as an illiberal rival to the West.”
MI6 also remains “actively focused” on Iran, said its chief yesterday, noting that the Iranian leadership has “embraced an explicit doctrine of conflict with both Israel and the West” since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
The country uses Hezbollah to stir up “political turmoil” in other countries, has built up a “substantial cyber capability” to use against its rivals, and continues to develop nuclear technology “which has no conceivable civilian use”, said Moore.
Long-awaited talks to restore Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal began in Vienna this week, three years after Donald Trump pulled the US out of the agreement. Iran responded to the withdrawal with “a public, step-by-step ramping up of the machinery used to enrich uranium – the nuclear fuel needed for a bomb”, explained NPR.
Biden wants to rejoin the deal, which would limit Iran’s nuclear activities in return for an end to crippling economic sanctions. However, Tehran is refusing to hold direct talks with Washington as it is no longer a member of the accord.
Representatives of China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK convened in Austria on Monday, while messages were relayed to an American representative separately.
After talks on the deal stalled, Iran elected a “new, hard-line president” and there have been a series of attacks, suspected to originate in Israel, on the country’s nuclear programme, including the assassination of a leading Iranian scientist, said NPR. “That raises the risk of conflict at the bargaining table.”
So far, Western diplomats have expressed “guarded optimism” and “relief” after Tehran formally agreed to discuss steps towards compliance with the agreement, said The Guardian. But there is “still a suspicion” that it is “playing for time” as it develops nuclear technology.
Speaking in London on Monday, Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, claimed Iran would only “play for time, earn billions from lifting sanctions, deceive the world and covertly advance their nuclear programme”.
Last month, in a clear signal of increasing concern over Iran’s activities, Gulf states joined Israel for the first time in a joint military exercise organised by the US Navy, reported the BBC. It’s a move “almost unthinkable” only three years ago, and follows the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, which saw the UAE and Bahrain normalise their relations with Tel Aviv.
Since then, there has been “an intense exchange of diplomatic, military and intelligence contacts between Israel and those Gulf states” as the region is increasingly anxious over Iran’s activities.