The world in 2019: China, Russia and Iran sprint ahead

Domestic troubles force Trump to take “America First” abroad, whilst China, Russia and Iran push to expand their influence

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump
Xi Jinping and Donald Trump

The last few years have been nothing if not eventful on the global stage. Fortunately, there have been, no new major conflicts in the vein of those such as Syria and Ukraine, with the former having moved into its endgame stage, and the latter remains a finely-balanced, intractable conflict in which Russia holds all the cards. The global order is undergoing a period of transition from a US-dominated system to a more fragmented, region-focused organism, which means that there are more countries which are active on the regional and global levels than there has been at any point in recent memory, so it worth casting an eye on the year ahead. 

Starting from the United States, Donald Trump will go into 2019 with the House of Representatives being firmly in the grasp of the Democratic Party, which will mean his domestic agenda will become far more difficult to implement. The House, along with the Senate, controls the purse strings, and they will be able to severely restrict his ability to pass budget bills on key items like the border wall with Mexico (which led to a third government shutdown under the Trump Administration). 

Given President Trump’s temperament and negotiating tactics, it’s difficult to see him establishing a cordial relationship with his opposite numbers in Congress, leading more or often than not to deadlock within the legislative branch, which will in turn force Trump to look abroad to strike deals on problematic foreign policy issues like North Korea. It is difficult for a national leader to bring calamity on the national scene in a short time - but in international relations, seemingly small decisions, like the withdrawal of all 2,000 US forces from Syria, can have close to immediate repercussions which take years to reverse, if it all. The United States remains at the centre of global politics, so Trump’s moves will leave a lasting impact. 

One cannot talk about the United States and not mention its increasingly powerful competitor: China. Beijing’s power and influence have been on the rise for decades, but it is only in the past five or so years that it appears to be approaching the stage where it can and will challenge the US for global leadership. It has been wise by seeking to expand its influence in areas where the US has shown little interest, thereby accelerating its rise with little fear of confrontation with Washington, with examples being Central Asia and Africa. Its Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to build infrastructure from Asia through Africa and Europe, will leave a lasting impact and dependency on Beijing by these client nations that will last for many years to come, providing it with an excellent foundation from which to build a lasting challenge for dominance in the 21st century.  

China’s moves in the South China Sea, where it has created artificial islands and militarised several of them, will remain a point of friction with both the US and other regional powers like Vietnam and the Philippines. Unless managed correctly, this could turn into a flashpoint. 

China is unlikely to want to back down, given that it views the South China Sea as being within its area of influence. America challenges this by pointing to international law, which allows freedom of navigation by all ships outside of internationally recognised national maritime boundaries, which does not put China’s claims on these islands within the framework of these agreements. The Sino-American relationship needs to be better managed than it has been of late, lest it lead to a more adversarial one. 

The status of Taiwan, which is de facto independent from Beijing, is also a sore point for the Communist government, who retain the ambition of reuniting the island province with the rest of the country. China wants its province back, and US tacit support for the breakaway territory will be increasingly challenged in the year ahead, directly and indirectly. 

The European Union has its own set of challenges to face in the year ahead. The European Parliamentary elections in the Spring will provide some clarity as to whether mainstream politicians still have credibility with their electorate, or whether the rise of populists and illiberal democratic rulers like Viktor Orban in Hungary will continue to grow in strength on the continent. It also has to contend with the attack on multilateral principles by the sitting US President, who sees little value in traditional alliances. 

It will be up to European leaders such as Macron and Merkel, who also have their own domestic concerns to contend with, to provide leadership at multilateral meetings such as the G7 and G20 in the year to come. This is especially true of international trade, where the EU is trying to balance reform of the World Trade Organisation whilst defending it against attacks from Washington, where the current administration sees the WTO as being biased and unfair in its judgements against the United States. 

Couple this with the war on the EU’s eastern flank in Ukraine, the continual rise of populism, and Brussels’ squabbles with members such as Hungary, Poland and Italy, and one would be forgiven for thinking that the EU’s plate is more than full at present.  

Looking towards the Middle East, the withdrawal of the US as a key player in the region has allowed Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel to begin to fill the vacuum left in its wake. The first three countries will be key to the final settlement of the conflict in Syria, and will look to establish spheres of influence within the region which may cause new types of tensions in the years ahead. With these three countries under the control of relatively authoritarian rulers, they have little concern of domestic opposition to deals they may make, or aggressive actions they wish to undertake. 

Whilst the situation may appear to be improving on the face of it, these three players will not hesitate to enforce their regional aims by force. As such, smaller scale actions in Syria should be expected to continue this year, whilst places such as Lebanon may see increasing tensions between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Israel in the months ahead, as the latter seeks to roll back Iranian influence around its borders. 

As the world adjusts to the reality of a post-American era, the EU and regional powers will find themselves needing to step up to steer the ship. It is in places like the Middle East, where a handful of powers will be granted more freedom to operate like never before, that the danger of conflict and instability is at its most acute. America will remain involved, especially with Trump having less operating space back home, but that involvement will be sporadic and lacking any cohesive strategy. Countries with long term ambitions such as China, Russia and Iran will stand to gain, and this will reshape global political dynamics going into 2020. 

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