After the whirlwind of 2017, retrenchment, calm and stability are much needed. Unfortunately, trends established in the year that passed will continue and as a result, the year ahead is more likely to be marked by growing tension and the likelihood of conflict is mounting. Nothing is inevitable — political decisions will determine what does and does not occur — but we must prepare now to head off the worst outcomes.
Of immediate concern is the increasingly worrying confrontation between North Korea and the world, a crisis whose flames are being fanned by U.S. President Donald Trump’s insistence that Pyongyang cannot acquire the capability to threaten the U.S. homeland. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is as determined as Trump in his quest to do just that and there is a rising probability that this simmering standoff will boil over in the next 12 months. The prevailing communication between the two countries — Twitter threats and insults along with the exchange of press statements — cannot be allowed to substitute for diplomacy. Negotiations must be given a chance.
Resolving that crisis will be impacted by the state of relations between Japan and South Korea. The Seoul government’s assessment of the December 2015 “comfort women” agreement has resolved nothing and has merely kicked that divisive issue down the road. South Korea must decide where its long-term interests lie. We believe that the answer is clear: a strong and mutually supportive relationship with its neighbor and partner, Japan. Both sides must make good-faith efforts to make that possible, but the Moon Jae-in government must endeavor to “finally and irreversibly” resolve this issue — as the December 2015 agreement promised.
Central to resolution of the North Korea issue, and critical to the future of the entire region, is the U.S.-China relationship. During his first year in office, Trump abandoned the harsh anti-China rhetoric of the campaign and tried to work with Beijing. That effort has been largely unsuccessful and as a result U.S. policy toward China is getting tougher. Expect Washington to take an increasingly hard line against China in economic issues, which will anger the Beijing government. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is newly empowered after a successful 19th Communist Party congress and has little need — or inclination — to suffer such slights. Geopolitical lines are being sharpened in Asia and no country will be able to sidestep that confrontation.
Xi’s consolidation of power will also have implications for China-Taiwan relations. Frustrations are rising in Beijing as the Taipei government refuses to accommodate the mainland in its cross-strait policy. Xi has made clear his desire to resolve “the Taiwan problem” as part of his historical mission. Given the role of Taiwan in the U.S.-China relationship, problems with Washington and mounting impatience toward Taiwan could prove combustible.
A similar dynamic will affect Russia, where Vladimir Putin will likely win a fourth term as president and use that mandate to more loudly reassert Russia’s great power status. Expect Russia to flex its muscles in Europe, and demand a greater say in the domestic politics of states in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics. The success of its program to meddle in the politics of democratic states will encourage Moscow to step up those programs, sharpening tensions between them and Russia. Putin may also use tensions elsewhere as a cover for his own aggression.
In the Middle East, the Islamic State caliphate is gone, but its soldiers have dispersed, many to their home countries where they will resume activities on behalf of the IS leadership. IS too seeks to sharpen lines between the faithful and nonbelievers; other governments must not fall into that trap and make recruitment any easier or support any more acceptable.
Another confrontation is brewing in the Middle East, this one between Iran and its antagonists. Mohammad bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, is determined to beat back any Iranian challenge to Riyadh’s regional role, backing proxy wars and blatantly interfering in the domestic politics of regional countries, as the strange resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri attests. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu similarly seeks to contain Iran and diminish its regional influence. Both men enjoy a close relationship with Trump and there are fears that they will feel that they have a green light to proceed more energetically to achieve that objective.
While the trend lines are disturbing, no conflict is ordained. Each will be, at some point, the result of political calculations. Governments and other actors must begin now to create shock absorbers and crisis management mechanisms to ensure that any crisis is contained. While Japan is directly affected by only some of these problems, it will feel the impact of all of them. It must be prepared.