Entering 2022, the world looks more dangerous than it has at any time since the late 1980s. Real conflicts of interest in Eastern Europe and the East China Sea have set the table for the first serious great-power conflict in decades. Crises in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and the Himalayas continue to smolder.
Here are the five most dangerous flashpoints for the eruption of World War III, in descending order of peril:
Easily the most likely flashpoint for great power war in 2022 lies along the border between Russia and Ukraine.
Over the past six months, Russia has steadily built up forces along the frontier as Kyiv, Moscow, and Washington have traded barbs. Russia’s immediate concerns involve the Ukrainian acquisition and use of Turkish drones along its border regions, along with a general increase in Ukrainian military power. Moscow’s long-range problem is its inability to reverse the Western orientation that Kyiv has adopted since 2014.
Russia has publicly argued that it wants to resolve the issues of Ukraine and of Russia’s relationship with NATO on a permanent basis. The United States and NATO have not responded positively to these overtures, but have notably failed to guarantee Ukraine’s security. If Russia launches an invasion of Ukraine things could get ugly quickly. Despite improvements in Ukrainian forces, most analysts expect that Russia would win quick victories along the border, potentially gaining access to the Ukrainian heartland.
Direct Russian military action would put immense pressure on the United States to respond in some fashion. However, the US can support Kyiv in several ways without direct intervention. This includes economic sanctions against Russia, cyberattacks against Russian infrastructure, the transfer of weapons to Ukraine, and the sharing of real-time intelligence with Ukrainian forces. The use of any of these tools, especially if they show some success on the ground, could lead to a confrontation between Moscow and Washington.
Over the past year, long-simmering US concern over the Chinese threat to Taiwan has seemed to come to a boil.
Chinese military capabilities have grown rapidly over the past decade, and now constitute a major obstacle against US intervention. At the same time, China’s military remains untested, and an amphibious assault across the Taiwan Strait would constitute one of the most sophisticated military operations in history.
The potential for miscalculation is immense. The United States maintained a studied ambiguity towards Taiwan for the past forty years as it developed a strong economic relationship with the People’s Republic of China. This “strategic ambiguity” was designed to remove the incentive for Taiwan to declare independence while not giving China an excuse to invade. Some in Congress have now called for an end to this policy, and for more full-throated support of Taiwan’s international position.
A war could begin in several different ways. China could launch a “bolt from the blue” attack designed to catch US and Taiwanese forces unawares. Alternatively, tensions in other aspects of the US-China relationship might convince Beijing of the likelihood of a change in the US stance towards Taiwan, leading to a pre-emptive attack. Finally (and least likely) Taiwan might attempt to make its independence an accomplished fact, which most analysts believe would incur Chinese military intervention.
In any eventuality, escalation would be difficult for either side to manage, and a fight over access to Taiwan could quickly degenerate into a general war.
Any honest appraisal of US policy towards Iran now recognizes that then-President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, was a disastrous mistake.
The US effort to increase military and economic coercion against Iran has failed. Iran has stepped up its nuclear efforts while improving the sophistication of its missile forces and increasing its covert activities across the region.
Negotiations have thus far failed to restore the status quo, as the United States has stumbled over its inability to commit and Tehran has taken a tough attitude. If negotiations fail to bring Iran into some kind of a deal, the threat of military action lurks in the background. While the Biden administration doesn’t seem excited about the prospect of war, US allies in Riyadh and Jerusalem could try to trigger a confrontation. Similarly, if Iran comes to believe an attack is inevitable, it could pre-empt with all the tools it has available. Iran lacks committed great power backing, but a conflict in the Middle East could open opportunities elsewhere for Russia and China.
The North Korea front has gone quiet over the last couple of years, as the DPRK has struggled too much with the covid pandemic to bother making much trouble internationally.
Japan, South Korea, and the United States have similarly been happy to let sleeping dogs lie, focusing on bigger international and domestic problems rather than trying to cut through the apparently intractable Korean situation.
To the extent that North Korea has made the headlines the news largely seems to be positive, with the US and Seoul coming to a mutual understanding on the prospects for a formal end to the Korean War.
And yet… the problem of North Korea remains unresolved. It is not a failed state but it faces enormous economic, social, and political problems. Historically, Pyongyang has used external belligerence to attract international attention and force a resolution of its concerns. While North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon in several years, a resumption of testing, combined with additional tests of its missile arsenal, could erase much of the calm that has ensued over the past few years.
Tensions between China and India have mellowed over the past year, but we should not forget that the border between the two countries witnessed lethal confrontations over the past two years.
India and China have worked hard to reduce tensions along the border, but basic disagreements over territory and disposition remain. Both countries have continued to build up infrastructure in the region that could support rapid military mobilization.
Neither Beijing nor Delhi seem particularly interested in throwing down over control of remote mountain regions. But it is not difficult to envision renewed skirmishes that then draw in other problematic aspects of their relationship. Although China enjoys considerable military superiority, some trends appear to favor India. The burgeoning technological relationship between Delhi and Washington is a source of concern for Beijing, especially given the newfound willingness of the United States to engage in long-term technological agreements such as AUKUS. If China comes to understand renewed tension along the border as part of a general encirclement strategy rather than as a bilateral problem with India, it might become more willing to take serious risks to resolve the situation.
World War III in 2022?
The Covid pandemic has demanded much of the world’s attention over the past two years. This hasn’t stopped geopolitics in its tracks, but it certainly has redirected the priorities of global leaders. The pandemic isn’t over, but it is becoming part of the background noise of international politics, and great powers are recalibrating and reasserting their interests. We shouldn’t expect great power war in 2022, but we should always be aware of the potential for things to get out of hand. Most importantly, we should take care to consider that the conflicts above are interactive and interdependent. If war breaks out with Iran, it affects decision-making over the whole world.