Henley & Partners
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Henley & Partners

Future Forecast: Geopolitical Risks for 2020

Ryan Cummings, Director, Signal Risk, South Africa

The discourse around globalization has for a long time centered on how the shared realities of different people, places, and even spaces show that the world is more connected than many perceive it to be. These commonalities are often touted as being the panacea to the socio-economic and political challenges constraining the creation of a more synchronized and prosperous world. The severity of these challenges is often less evident in these discussions, however, as well as the manner in which they cut across spatial and social cleavages — effectively dividing the collective ‘us’. As 2020 beckons, these issues flare as brightly and influentially as ever.

Climate Change
Climate change has appreciably impacted the developing world, although in the developed world it is more a point of debate for policymakers. This is particularly so in Africa, where it has slammed into the continent’s social, economic, and political landscape. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth that made landfall in Mozambique in the first quarter of 2019 may highlight this best. Of the two, Cyclone Idai was by far the most destructive, killing more than 1,200 people, destroying more than 90% of the port city of Beira, and leaving a trail of damage amounting to an estimated USD 2 billion. Although the impact of the cyclones was amplified by poor infrastructure and insufficient emergency coordination, both storm systems had reached strengths close to that of Hurricane Katrina of 2005, which devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas when it made direct landfall along the USA coastline.

Hurricane activity data recorded by meteorologists at the Colorado State University revealed that the 2018 North Atlantic and Eastern Pacific hurricane season was the most active on record. Considering the combined number, strength, and duration of tropical storms that formed, the season had generated more energy on the Accumulated Cyclone Energy index than any other year recorded.

The effects of climate change are not limited to the impact of severe weather phenomena: changes in climatic conditions can influence political stability. In geopolitical zones such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, more frequent droughts have affected food security and driven people to migrate. In many instances, climate-induced shortages of water and land have forced communities out of their established habitats, leading to them encroaching on land belonging to other populations. These encroachments, in turn, have sparked violence that has increased in scale and frequency. Trend analysis suggests that forced migrations and related communal violence are likely to increase in 2020.

Although the impact of climate change is most obvious in Africa, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is concerned that climate-related conflict may also occur in South and Southeast Asia.1 It notes that both geopolitical regions — where an estimated 2.5 billion people live — will face an increasing threat of conflict linked to climate-induced migration and associated resource rivalries in the coming years.

Intra- and Inter-State Conflict
Conflict itself will continue to be a key geopolitical risk in 2020. In most parts of the world, conflict remains hyperlocalized, generally occurring on an intra-state level. Although this trend is not expected to shift, even localized conflict can have wide-ranging geopolitical repercussions. While localized and intra-state conflicts dominated the global landscape in 2019, the potential for an inter-state conflict of potentially global proportions will threaten in 2020. Tensions between the USA and Iran reached near unprecedented
levels when Iranian missiles downed a USA naval reconnaissance drone that Iran alleged had entered its airspace. Following the incident, USA President Donald Trump reportedly ordered an airstrike against Iranian military installations but later reversed the order several minutes before it was executed. Talks between the erstwhile rivals have since eased tensions. However, the incident indicates how a seemingly innocuous act could lead to armed conflict between two powerful and well-supported countries in a region that is still stumbling from ongoing conflict in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Iran is not the only country with whom the USA has a difficult relationship that could escalate into open conflict in 2020. Tensions between the USA and North Korea are still elevated despite both countries committing to dialogue. Highlighting the fact, reports quoting USA military sources in July indicate that the North Korean government has continued to develop ballistic technology capable of detonating a nuclear warhead in any part of the USA. A country that possesses this technology may not necessarily use it. But North Korea’s continued development of its nuclear program does not align well with negotiations, which center on the Asian country getting rid of its nuclear capability in exchange for the USA and other countries lifting their economic sanctions. A trade war between the USA and China could cost the global economy as much as a conflict waged with weapons. The trade war, played out through reciprocal tariff hikes on goods manufactured in the other’s backyard, has negatively influenced revenue streams for companies in both countries. Since negotiations between China and the USA have only paused the spat, the World Trade Organization noted that global free trade was on the precipice of its worst crisis in half a century — a sentiment that experts reiterated at the 2019 G20 Osaka Summit held in June.

Niggling Nationalism
Growing nationalist sentiment may explain the hardline positions of the governments of China and USA — the same sentiment that is influencing the economic, political, and social trajectories of an increasing number of states. This is especially evident in Venezuela. Bolivarianism (the continuation of national-patriotic ideals) initially provided relief from poverty and defined the reign of the late former president Hugo Chavez. But now Venezuela is buckling under crippling debt and geopolitical isolation. Hyperinflation and the collapse of social services have resulted in at least 3.6 million Venezuelans leaving the country since 2015, an exodus that shows no signs of abating. As a result, the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration have asked for international support to help the resource-constrained countries (such as Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, and others in the Caribbean) that have absorbed refugees.

Across the Venezuela border, Brazil is undergoing a nationalist tilt of its own. Former military officer Jair Bolsonaro was elected to the presidency in the country’s October 2018 elections, coming to power on a program that memorialized the military regimes that once dominated South America’s political landscape. Adopting the political ideologies of these regimes has polarized the country. The Indian electorate has re-elected Narendra Modi as prime minister, a move that will likely see the continuation of a shift away from liberalism toward ethno-religious nationalism. Modi’s bold promotion of Hindutva — an ideology that views Hindu hegemony as the natural condition of the Indian state — has widened fissures within the country’s social fabric, particularly between its Hindu and Muslim citizenry.

Moreover, Modi’s nationalist stance has only increased long-standing tensions with Pakistan. Modi has accused India’s neighbor of hosting and possibly sponsoring Muslim separatists operating in India-administered Kashmir. After a suicide bombing by a Kashmiri-based terrorist group and an Indian airstrike in Pakistani territory in retaliation, these sentiments led to a military exchange between Indian and Pakistani forces in late February this year. As many as 40 Indian soldiers were killed in the original suicide bombing along a section of the Jammu–Srinagar National Highway. Although tensions eased when Pakistani authorities arrested several individuals suspected of being involved in the attack, the incident showed Modi’s willingness to act aggressively toward India’s neighbor in response to the actions of Muslim secessionists operating within its borders. The rise of nationalist governments in Brazil, China, India, and Russia makes South Africa the only country within the BRICS consortium to have maintained its liberal appearance.

The rise of nationalism in Europe was substantiated during the EU elections in May 2019. Although pro-European centrists will maintain their grip over the EU legislature for the next five years, nationalist parties in France, Italy, Poland, and the UK performed strongly, which will undoubtedly concern European leaders seeking greater inter-connectedness within the regional bloc. Of these countries, attention will focus squarely on the UK, which must formalize its exit from the EU in the lead-up to 2020.

Secessionist Surge
The desire to secede also burns strongly across the African continent. In Cameroon, armed groups in the country’s anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions continue to vie for independence. Its francophone-dominated government has been accused of marginalizing the regions economically, politically, and socially. There are no immediate signs of this so-called Anglophone Crisis reaching a peaceful resolution, since both the separatists and the Cameroonian government remain committed to armed violence.

Although not currently focused on seceding, Hong Kong residents’ discontent with a contentious piece of legislation could escalate into calls for complete independence from mainland China. At present, the protest movement’s goal is for the extradition bill to be scrapped. This bill provides for both foreign and local Hong Kong residents to be subject to prosecution in mainland China. With initial protests of a few thousand people growing to more than 1 million as seen in early June, the campaign, if successful, could embolden Hong Kong nationals to pursue more ambitious social and political objectives.



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