5 Potential Global Flashpoints

By Michael Petilli


There are many challenges facing the world today, none more pressing than the threat of Islamic terrorism. We must of course face this problem head on but as grand strategists we are also tasked to look beyond the challenge of today and discern and mitigate future conflicts and disasters. In this article we will highlight 5 potential flashpoints that the new generation must keep a close eye on.


  1. The Arctic

Global warming is having a massive impact in the geopolitical arena. Droughts, floodings, dwindling resources are causing massive migration and competition between groups of people. One area where this is playing out that does not make a lot of headlines is the Arctic. As the ice caps melt at alarming rates, a treasure trove of resources, (oil, natural gas and minerals) has been revealed underneath, worth an estimated $17 trillion.

These revelations have skyrocketed the Arctic’s geopolitical value and nations have been lining up to stake their claims. The United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Iceland and the Scandinavian countries are all vying for drilling and shipping rights. Unlike Antarctica, which has a treaty forbidding territorial claims, claims in the Arctic fall under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which entitles countries to an exclusive economic zone 200 miles from their shores. Russia has attempted to push those boundaries further, even going so far as to plant an underwater Russian flag at the North Pole in 2007.

Besides the clearly disastrous environmental consequences that would come from an unhindered drill fest in the Arctic, there is another reason to be concerned: the increased military footing around the Arctic between NATO and Russia. War games and joint military exercises in the Baltics and Norway, most notably Operation Cold Response, portend a new Cold War and with Russia outpacing its rivals in terms of Arctic military infrastructure things could quickly boil over. It is too dangerous for the world to ignore the Arctic and as the ice continues to melt, steps need to be taken immediately to prevent a devastating future conflict.


  1. Cyberspace

The internet has connected the world in unprecedented ways but it has also brought about a number of dangerous challenges, none more so than hacking.

Hacking has evolved over the years from the common, individual focused identity theft to large scale, politically motivated attacks. It is increasingly becoming a tool of governments and non-state actors to infiltrate and sabotage their rivals. The human capital heavy espionage of the Cold Wars has been virtually replaced by an invisible tete-a-tete between coders.

In 2010, the United States and Israel covertly attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities using a computer worm called Stuxnet. This was not the first or last time a government employed cyberwarfare tactics in modern times. China has been consistently accused of hacking US companies for trade secrets in recent years and countries continue to bombard each other with sly attempts of infiltration. American cybersecurity has proven itself to be disconcertingly weak. In June 2015, the US Office of Personnel Management was breached, compromising the data of nearly 4 million people.

It is not only governments but criminal and terrorist organizations, as well as revolutionary “hacktivist” groups like Anonymous, that are using these techniques. One of the main concerns for cybersecurity experts is the possibility of a terrorist attack on the national electrical grid. These hacks on critical infrastructure are a real and present danger, which is why it is important to stay vigilant about cyberspace as a crucial national security priority.


  1. The West Bank

It is a given that Israel-Palestine would be a given potential flashpoint but developments in the West Bank could push it beyond the territorial dispute we commonly think of.

The West Bank refers to the area west of the Jordan river delineated as Palestinian territory, ostensibly under the rule of the Palestinian Authority, it has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Since that time resentment against Israel and disappointment with the Palestinian Authority have led to youth uprisings, or Intifadas, which perpetuate a cycle of violence and oppression.

One of the main issues in the West Bank revolves around the Israeli settlements in the territory. In violation of international law, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have moved to homes in the West Bank, often with the aid and protection of the Israeli military. These settlements are developed in a way to insulate the Israelis from the local Palestinians and creates infrastructure that allows for an Israeli monopoly on necessities like water.

To make matters worse, the tension over settlements have inflamed religious extremism on both sides. Palestinians have ramped up an effort to frighten Israelis with random, suicidal knife attacks, while many Israeli settlers have also used violence, infamously firebombing a Palestinian family’s home in 2015, which burned an 18-month old child alive. Many of the Jewish settlers subscribe to a sort of manifest destiny regarding their eventual dominance over all “Israeli land”. This is further exacerbated by Christian Evangelical groups, who fund the settlements in order to hasten the apocalyptic requirement of the Jews being in total control of Israel.

The settlements are the biggest impediment to a two-state solution. The Obama administration has called them “corrosive”. It is doubtful they will end soon and as the violence continues to escalate it seems likely there will be a Third Intifada. If this situation continues to be handled poorly there will be violent and destabilizing consequences for the region and the world.


  1. Kashmir

The border between India and Pakistan is one of the most militarized places on Earth. The two counties have been at each other’s throats since their formation when British India was violently partitioned in 1947. A significant component of the tension is religious animosity: India is majority Hindu and Pakistan is majority Muslim. This deep seated hatred has culminated in military conflicts and terrorist attacks over the years.

However, control of Kashmir, the territory in between the two countries, has been the major source of contention. Kashmir is currently partitioned between India and Pakistan (with a minor section controlled by China) based on the population’s religious majority. This agreement has been consistently contested by military skirmishes but also by various attempts at democratic elections within the region.

The main reason that the Kashmir conflict could spiral into a global flashpoint is water. Kashmir is the source for most rivers in the Indus River basin, the system that effectively sustains the agriculture and hydro-electricity in many communities in both India and Pakistan. In 1960, the two countries signed the Indus Water Treaty which gave control of three western rivers to Pakistan and three eastern rivers to India but the problem quickly emerged of Indian dams and the flow of water to Pakistan.

Global warming will bring this dispute over water to a fever-pitch. According to the Asian Development Bank, Pakistan is one the most “water-stressed” countries in the world and close to being “water scarce”, there is less than 1000 cubic meters of water per person per year (down from 5000 in 1947). They are drawing too much water from their reservoirs and in danger of a serious shortage.  India will reach similar water levels by 2025 and as the region gets hit by higher and higher temperatures (last year, India saw a record setting heat wave) there could be serious consequences.

International institutions must do all they can to find a solution to the conflict and resource dilemma because if these countries go to war and unleash their nuclear arsenal it could well spell the end of humanity.


  1. South China Sea

Linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the South China Sea serves as an important shipping lane with over half of the world’s commercial shipping passing through it. As the site of massive international trade, it sees the movement of billions of dollars between China and the member states of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as well as from across the Pacific.

One-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas passes through the Straits of Malacca, the strategic chokepoint south of Singapore. Not only does the South China Sea feature the shipping of natural resources, it is also reportedly abundant in resources itself. Estimates vary but the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports proven oil reserves to be around 11 billion barrels and natural gas at 190 trillion cubic feet.

The South China Sea has become so contentious because of the competing territorial claims by countries in the region looking to capitalize on the underwater resources. Most ambitious is China’s Nine Dash Line, which effectively claims the entire sea at the significant expense of its main rivals, Vietnam and the Philippines. In order to buttress these claims, China has aggressively pursued a policy of building artificial islands and constructing quasi-military infrastructure on them. In addition, they have instigated confrontations by deploying oil rigs into disputed areas and ramming fishing vessels from other countries who stray too far.

This heavy handed approach has provoked a disturbing game of brinkmanship between China and the United States. In January 2016, the US Missile Destroyer, USS Curtis Wilbur, sailed near the Beijing-controlled area in the disputed Paracel archipelago in attempt to challenge China’s excessive claim and assert “the right of freedom of navigation”. China condemned the action as a violation of Chinese sovereignty. This has not been the first confrontation between the two powers with a number of US flybys over China’s artificial islands springing both sides into military alert.

In March 2016, the US announced an increase in its military presence in the South China Sea. For the first time in decades, conventional American forces are being deployed to bases in the Philippines and will beginning joint patrols with its host country. This is seen to be a counter move to China’s deployment of military assets to its newly created islands. The Pentagon maintains that the action is not meant to be provocative but China has accused the US of hypocrisy and stated they are ready for whatever conflict it might stir up. While surely just bravado, the actions show that the tension between the United States and China is increasing and the South China Sea is a potential flashpoint that must be carefully monitored.


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