Lazar Cartu Conveys: Reasons to be fearful – the international news review of …

Lazar Cartu Conveys: Reasons to be fearful – the international news review of …

A year of high anxiety was rendered more alarming by intensifying clashes of interest between world powers. As international cooperation declined, and nationalist agendas gathered strength, China, the US, Russia and Europe, and their respective allies, emulators and proxies, engaged in often dangerous competition.

The Chinese communist regime’s increasingly assertive behaviour at home and abroad, reflecting the authoritarian outlook of its paramount leader-for-life, Xi Jinping, produced head-on collisions with western countries, notably over Hong Kong, trade, technology and the repression of the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang.

When the US and Britain objected to the abusive treatment of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, they were told to mind their own business. Sweeping opposition victories in local elections delivered a stern rebuke to Beijing, which it ignored. After six months of unrest, neither side seemed ready to back down.

The unauthorised release to western media of hundreds of internal party documents exposed a ruthless government policy to indoctrinate up to 1 million Uighurs illegally held in concentration camp-like detention centres. China claimed to be fighting Islamist terrorism.

Xi also attracted strong criticism over his signature Belt and Road global investment and infrastructure initiative, which Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, called a debt trap for the unwary. His alarm reflected fears over declining US leverage in the Asia-Pacific region, Africa and Europe.

This decline was further illustrated by China’s mostly successful efforts to extend its sway in the South Pacific and the East and South China seas. “Freedom of navigation” patrols by western navies frayed tempers.

Enhanced US diplomatic support and weapons sales to Taiwan, and Beijing’s reported covert efforts to subvert its “renegade province’s” presidential election next month, also fuelled tensions. In a defence white paper, China stressed its peaceful intentions but also its “combat readiness” and region-wide war-fighting capabilities.

Before seeming to agree a trade deal in mid-December, Donald Trump escalated US-China rivalries on another front, imposing swingeing tariffs on imports and ostracising Huawei, the state-backed telecoms company. China retaliated in kind even as national economic growth slowed. The result was increased market volatility, bad blood and fears of another global economic crash.

Trump’s confrontational and chaotic policies caused problems around the world. After prematurely boasting he had eliminated the North Korean nuclear threat, he failed to nail down a substantive agreement. The latter half of the year saw renewed weapons tests by Kim Jong-un’s regime, which set a 31 December deadline for progress.

Chaos reigns in the Middle East

A member of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, carries a wounded girl after a reported Russian air strike in Idlib province

A member of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, carries a girl after a reported Russian air strike in Idlib province. Photograph: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

In the Middle East, confusion reigned as Trump pushed Iran to the brink of war, then pulled back. With damaging US economic and financial sanctions, plus a global oil embargo still in place, and with Iran experiencing unprecedented levels of violent domestic political unrest, the potential for explosive conflict in 2020 was high.

In north-east Syria, Trump dismayed European allies while delighting Russia and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad by ordering the withdrawal of US troops. His decision gave the green light to a Turkish invasion that targeted the west’s Kurdish allies in the fight against Isis. In Idlib, the last populated province not under Assad’s control, hundreds of civilians and aid workers were killed by Russian and Syrian forces while hundreds of thousands were displaced.

The lack of joined-up western policy in the Middle East, and clashing US-Europe interests, were on disastrous show in Israel, where Trump took a series of unilateral steps. The US recognised Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem and the captured Golan Heights, and claimed Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories were legal.

Under Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing leadership, Israel mounted repeated military attacks on Iran-linked targets in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, maintained the blockade of Hamas-led Gaza, and aligned with autocratic, US-allied regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Instability deepened as Netanyahu failed to win successive elections and was charged with corruption. A third poll looms.

The Syrian fiasco cast additional doubt on Nato’s cohesion. Turkey further defied its allies by buying a Russian missile system. Trump continued to denigrate the alliance and flounced out of a fractious summit in London after fellow leaders mocked him. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, who favours stronger EU defence, said Nato was “brain dead”.

Russia meddles

If the aim of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is to divide and weaken the western democracies, 2019 was a golden year. Russia’s Middle East leverage rose sharply, notably in Turkey, Syria and Libya. Collaboration with China expanded. Moscow’s disruptive hybrid warfare and online disinformation campaigns roiled Britain, eastern Europe and the Balkans.

In the US, the Mueller report and the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s actions in Ukraine exposed both Russia’s hidden hand and the skill with which Putin has outmanoeuvred US intelligence agencies, hoodwinked Republicans, and made a “useful idiot” out of Trump. The impeachment process starkly exposed divisions ahead of a 2020 presidential battle that promises to be uncommonly destructive.

America’s neuroses seemed to radiate outwards. Trump’s attempts to stem the flow of migrants turned the US-Mexico border into an armed camp where shocking human rights abuses abounded. His closed door policy, plus US aid cuts, aggravated economic and security problems in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

South America erupts

A fire set by supporters of Evo Morales in Sacaba, Chapare province, after his resignation as president.

A fire set by supporters of Evo Morales in Sacaba, Chapare province, after his resignation as president. Photograph: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Further south, a ham-fisted US bid to unseat Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro nearly turned a crisis into a catastrophe. Bolivia’s long-serving leftwing president Evo Morales tried his hand at election-rigging and was ousted – an outcome that, for once, was not Trump’s fault.

In Brazil, rightwing populist Jair Bolsonaro became president in January and quickly established himself as a global bogeyman – principally over attempts to exploit the Amazon rainforest by burning it down. In Canada, prime minister Justin Trudeau was his own worst enemy, narrowly winning re-election despite the so-called blackface scandal.

It proved another bad year for the rule of international law, multilateral cooperation, human rights and peace-making. The geopolitical paralysis of the UN security council over issues such as Syria, Israel-Palestine, Ukraine-Crimea, and Libya, usually pitting the US and Europe against China and Russia – and sometimes Europe against the US – mostly continued unchecked.

Efforts to end the Yemen conflict achieved little. The same was true in Afghanistan, where it emerged that Nato and Afghan government forces were killing more civilians than the Taliban. Myanmar rejected claims in The Hague that it committed genocide against Rohingya Muslims.

International treaties fared no better. Following his rejection last year of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, Trump formally reneged on the Paris climate accord. The US also quit the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty and signalled it would not renew the New Start strategic nuclear arms treaty that expires in 2021.

Trump announced $500bn in additional spending on nuclear weapons systems – thereby speeding up a new nuclear arms race with Russia and China, which both updated or expanded their arsenals. The White House backed Saudi efforts to build nuclear power plants without the usual safeguards. Critics said this could open the way to Riyadh acquiring a nuclear bomb – and provoke other countries to follow suit.

The weakening of the rules-based global order had extraterrestrial impact. Trump unveiled a revamped Space Command tasked with asserting US dominance in space – which he dubbed “the next war-fighting domain”. The move,…

Jon Cartu

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