Flashpoints Mounting

The number of potential flashpoints globally is growing. Could they spill over into serious conflict? Possibly, possibly not. The number of flashpoints and the nature of the tensions, not to mention the lessons from history, certainly make it possible. It may therefore be a case of hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

What is changing?

Events in Syria continue to attract a lot of attention and the regime continues to attack its citizens. Criticism is also growing, from the Arab League as well as Syria’s neighbours Turkey and Jordan as well as Iran, who are now reaching out to the opposition. That opposition however, remains fragmented.

In Egypt, concern is rising about the delays in handing over power to civilian rule. Having originally indicated elections would take place in 2011, the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has indicated that they may retain power till after the election of a new president and the drawing up of a new constitution – possibly until 2013. Trust in SCAF is falling.

This week saw the publication of a highly critical report by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) of Iran’s nuclear programme, in which they summarised a range of intelligence about the scale and nature of the activities. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera had published a story saying that Israel was planning a strike against Iran’s nuclear programme.  The leak was attributed to, but not confirmed, previous leaders Israel’s intelligence services, both of whom were ‘hawks when in post’, but who wish nonetheless to avoid such a strike.  The US government is said to support such a strike option, and the UK government is said to support the US.

China meanwhile is expanding its fleet and looking to expand its role and influence in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and also the Western Pacific. Vietnam, India, Japan and the Philippines have all expressed concerns about a variety of incidents – boat collisions followed by strong comments from the Chinese government; major manoeuvres near disputed islands; general build up and expansion of the Chinese navy. The USA is expanding its presence in the area as a result, in part at the request of Vietnam; India is positioning more of its fleet in its East coast ports; the USA is experiencing Chinese activity in the Western Pacific – previously only dominated by the US navy.

US drone attacks against Al Qaeda continue to cause friction with Pakistan, on top of the recent controversies surrounding the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Why is this important?

The number of flashpoints and the nature of the tensions give significant cause for concern. Any one of these flashpoints is potentially significant; several simultaneously increases the dangers several fold, potentially overloading global diplomatic capabilities and raising the risk of a nation taking advantage of global attention being focused elsewhere to take stronger action.

Companies need to hope for the best, prepare for the worst; look at their exposure and think through what the impact of a major regional conflict might be; or significant interruption to oil supplies from the Middle East.

Sadly, history tells us that naval expansion, for example in the run up to the First World War, can lead to war. So too can the disintegration of states after the removal of a dictator, as happened in Yugoslavia on the death of Tito.  A double dip recession would only exacerbate any or all of these tensions.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations. www.ShapingTomorrow.com