When the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold War ended, it appeared that the world would enjoy a period of peace and good will. The Soviet Union dissolved and the nations in its orbit went off on their own, enjoying a taste of freedom. China was in a period of rapid growth, its prosperity tied to its relationship with the advanced Western nations who were buying its products, establishing factories to use its labor, and exporting it technology to modernize every facet of its economy. Seemingly, China and America were locked in an interdependent relationship where the only conflict might be over currency manipulation or other financial issues. And notwithstanding the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the threat from Al Quaeda seemed minimal and ISIS had not even been born yet.
How the world has changed over the last twenty years, with danger and conflicts challenging the West and the United States from multiple directions and with multiple antagonists. North Korea is threatening the West with nuclear weapons, and it is not known yet if the Iranian nuclear deal with be a success.
However, the most immediate and possibly most dangerous adversary is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That nation has grabbed the Crimea, instigated a low level war in eastern Ukraine, and has injected Russian planes and troops into Syria in support of the faltering Assad regime. Though supposedly brought in to target ISIS, Russia has been bombing the moderate anti-Assad forces to help Assad’s military regain lost territory. In addition, Russian planes have been testing NATO and American defense reactions by flying close to allied airspace in Europe and Alaska. Their submarines have also intruded into European coastal waters and near vital undersea cables that carry vast amounts of data. Whether or not Putin wants a confrontation, the conduct of his military forces does not generate confidence in the West. Putin has also spoken about upgrading his tactical nuclear weapons.
China has been flexing its muscles as well in ways that are disturbing to its immediate neighbors and to the U.S. and its allies in spite of our economies being tied together. The Chinese government has claimed dominion over the entire South China Sea and the islands within that area in addition to islands in the Sea of Japan. Artificial islands have also been built by China on submerged reefs that can be used for landing strips or military bases. On these issues, China has refused to acquiesce to accepted laws of the sea or to agree to arbitration by an international tribunal. Warnings to the U.S. were given by the Chinese military when an American naval vessel sailed into waters claimed by the Chinese that were previously open to navigation by all ships. Warning was also given when an American plane flew over the contested territory. Whether China will be able to back down on the disputed waters issue and potentially “lose face” remains to be seen. China is rapidly expanding its military under Chairman Xe who has censored Western ideas and kept a tight lid on the Internet and free discourse.
There are also the Islamic radicals that the West has to deal with, both ISIS and Al Qaeda and various offshoots. At the moment, these groups seem most focused on the Middle East and South Asia, but find Western culture and ideas an anathema, with a willingness to kill any Westerners they capture. In reality, Russia and the U.S. could benefit by a combined and coordinated effort against the Islamic extremists in Syria, as Russia has a large Muslim minority and has battled Islamists in Chechnya and Dagestan. Many of the young men from these territories have joined ISIS and would be a significant threat to Russia if they returned home.
However, Putin is not quite rational in his vision of where to lead his country. Instead of concentrating on economic growth and prosperity for his citizens, and an alliance with the West in regards to shared objectives, he appears more interested in asserting Russian power and glory, and supporting a brutal dictator in Syria. His actions in the Ukraine and the resulting sanctions have damaged the Russian economy, even though the Russian population seems to have applauded his moves. Of course, Putin’s control of the media has had a lot to do with the Russian reaction to his exploits.
China also has reasons to join the battle against the Islamists with the U.S. and Russia, given the radicalism that appears to be entrenched in Xinjiang among the Uyghurs. Some of this may be the result of Beijing’s policy of bringing more Han Chinese to reside in Xinjiang, an area that is the Uyghur homeland. Supposedly, the best jobs have also gone to the Han and religious practices by the Uyghurs have been discouraged.
Chairman Xe’s assertion of Chinese sovereignty over waters that are far from the Chinese mainland have raised concern among all seafaring nations as well as China’s neighbors. Whether this will lead to actual conflict between China and the United States when our economies are so intertwined remains an enigma. There are many reasons for both nations to back away from conflict, but rationality does not always reign supreme when glory and “face” are considerations.
Thus, clashes and confrontations are lurking in many areas around the globe that were unseen twenty years ago. The world has become a dangerous place again.
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Copyright 2015 The Moderate Voice