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Opinion: The challenges of generational change across the globe

15 July 20160 comments

A snap audit today of global leadership personnel would find Malcolm Turnbull forming a majority government by the skin of his teeth in Australia, Britain getting a new and untested female Prime Minister in Theresa May and Hilary Clinton about to face off against Donald Trump in the US election.

A similar audit of global stability would find uncertainty in global financial markets in the wake of Brexit, the refugee crisis in Europe showing no signs of abating; China muscling up in the South China Sea by building militarised islands and declaring air security zones; and, Russia’s Vladimir Putin continuing to attempt to wedge the west with military intervention in the Ukraine and support for the al-Assad regime in Syria.

Add to mix the emerging media circus around who will be the next Secretary General of the United Nations and you have the west’s key leadership and its grasp of geopolitical policy and diplomacy arguably at a weak point as global challenges are increasing exponentially in terms of their complexity and potential dire consequences.

With 65 million people displaced around the globe and the march of global warming, some pundits are saying modern civilisation – and certainly civic society post-World War II – is on the verge of a ‘generational crisis’.

If this ‘generational crisis’ evolves into a global catastrophe or worse – war – those most affected will be those least likely to be able to cope with its consequences.

A group of geopolitical observers has distilled the issues around this potential crisis into four basic threats to stability. The first three are prosaically Russia, China and the Middle East. The third, more interestingly, is cyberspace.

They say Russia remains a formidable nuclear power, with the ability to project force anywhere in the world. Although economically weak because it depends on dwindling-in-value oil revenue, a risk stems from Putin’s growing reliance on military action abroad to maintain his popular support base – notably in Ukraine and now in Syria.

China is still a poor country, with per capita GDP about a quarter of the US’s but its massive population gives it the ability to spend up big on military hardware.

China is now expanding its strategic reach. And with surging nationalism domestically, it is asserting maritime claims in the South China Sea that conflict with claims by other countries in the region including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

It is relying on the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ originally created by Taiwan in 1947 to justify a claim to most of the South China Sea, where it has created artificial islands and asserted sovereignty over their surrounding waters.

US strategists such as Harvard University economics professor Martin Feldstein describe China’s policy as “anti-access area denial” or an effort to keep the US Navy far from the Chinese mainland and from the ports of America’s allies in the region.

Feldstein says that China is also expanding its geopolitical influence through initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, aid programs in Africa, and its “One Belt, One Road” plan to establish maritime and territorial links through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia.

In the Middle East, much of the world’s focus has been on the threat posed by ISIS to civilian populations – including Europe and the United States.

Recently ISIS has been losing ground and momentum but a bigger issue for the region is the interminable conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf states view Iran, the region’s Shia power, as their strategic adversaries. Saudi Arabia, particularly, fears that Iran wants to settle old scores and try to shift custodianship of Islam’s holy sites in Mecca and Medina to Shia control.

A conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would also be a fight over the vast oil riches of the Arabia Peninsula and the enormous financial wealth of small Sunni Gulf states.

The fourth source of risk, some observers say, is cyber-war. They say it has the potential to overshadow and even fuel all of others because borders and military force is no protection from it.

Cyber-war might include attacks on vital infrastructure – electricity grids, air traffic systems, oil pipelines, water supplies and financial platforms, according to East-West Center political scientist Ian Tindall.

“The really interesting and scary thing about the prospect of cyber conflict is that it has the potential to feed into all these other sources of conflict,” Dr Tindall says.

Recent cases have been blamed on China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea but small groups or individuals might be the source of such attacks.

In the light of challenges such as these, issues like budget deficits, political apathy and Collingwood’s forward line might not seem so difficult.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist