Global Watch

The globe is awash with dangerous flashpoints

Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan

As we move towards the latter part of the second decade of the 21st century, there are enough flashpoints to make the world a dangerous place.

The old greeting attributed to the Chinese, “May you live in interesting times”, is particularly appropriate for the first 16 years of the 21st century.

There are signs that we are entering not only a more interesting, but also a more turbulent era. 

There is growing consensus that major, even seismic, shifts are underway in global economic and political systems, with unpredictable and radical consequences.

In recent weeks there were some clear signs for this.


The British decision to leave the European Union (EU) will have far-reaching economic and political consequences, not only for Europe – with possibly more EU members opting to withdraw – but also for the rest of the world, regardless of the indifferent reaction of South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation.

Commentators and analysts differ on the consequences of Brexit, but agree that it will be dramatic.

The future of the EU itself could be in jeopardy, with Russia taking satisfaction in the fragmentation of the EU.

Opinions also differ on the effect it will have on future US-European relations. Some argue it will strengthen and others that it will become more strained, particularly if the US demands that its European allies take a stronger leadership role in addressing a long list of shared global challenges.

If not handled carefully, Brexit could undermine cohesion and cooperation, both within Europe and in US-European relations.

Refugee crisis

Europe is facing serious economic, political and security challenges, while thousands of refugees, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, pour into Europe, looking for a better life.

Socio-economic stability, normally associated with everyday life in Western Europe, is under pressure.

With the increase in terror attacks across Europe, rightly or wrongly associated with what many Europeans consider the uncontrolled inflow of foreigners, tension and anxiety are escalating, adding to the pressure on governments and their intelligence and security services.

These concerns about the ‘foreigner problem’ played a major role in the outcome of the Brexit vote.

As most EU governments appear uncertain and confused about how to handle the challenges associated with the seemingly endless influx of foreigners, support for populist and rightwing political parties has increased markedly.

The way in which the EU and the individual governments in Europe handle this prickly problem will have a profound influence on the future political landscape of Europe.

The Turkish dilemma 

The international consternation after the recent attempted coup in Turkey is largely because of Turkey’s strategic location and the timing of it in a tumultuous period in a volatile region.

In contrast, the four previous military coups in Turkey over the last sixty years caused little more than a stir.

This latest attempt came as a surprise to many and suspicion is rife that it was self-engineered by the Erdogan government.

Turkey is unique – a secular state with a predominantly Muslim population. More exceptional is the fact that the military and the judiciary have been committed to keep the country’s political system secular, ever since Mustafa Kemal, better known as Attaturk, laid the foundation of modern and secular Turkey in 1928.

Turkey moving closer into the West’s ambit and joining NATO in 1952, was seen as a major coup in the Cold War era. NATO membership guaranteed that Turkey would not become a Soviet ally.

Turkey’s plans to join the EU have been less successful and recent developments there, particularly President Erdogan’s crack-down after the coup attempt of 16 July, makes EU membership any time soon even more remote.

The complexities of Turkish politics have led to much speculation and rumours regarding the true motives behind the failed coup. What is undeniable, is that the developing rift between the Erdogan government and its Western allies is fuelled by Erdogan’s reaction and his embarking on a more conservative (some argue a radical Islamic) route.   

Erdogan is also accusing the US of complicity in the coup, demanding the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the man accused of masterminding the coup attempt.

Unless Erdogan and his Western allies find common ground, the consequences for NATO, lasting peace in neighbouring Syria and answers to the refugee crisis in Europe, could be far-reaching.

Trouble in the South China Sea

Tension, with the potential to destabilise the balance of power in the geopolitically important South China Sea, especially between the US and China, is on the rise. 

After two years of deliberations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on 12 July 2016 invalidated China’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea. It also declared China’s current reclaiming of islands and resources illegal and harmful to the environment.

It was a blow to China’s claims and attempts to expand its influence in the region. China, however, from the start refused to participate in the hearings and repeatedly stated that the Court in The Hague has no jurisdiction.

China also declared unequivocally that Beijing would in no way recognise the Court’s decision.

Defiantly, China bolstered its military presence in the South China Sea, which is an important strategic waterway through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually.

Overhauling its geopolitical priorities, the Obama administration a couple of years ago moved the Asia-Pacific region to the top of its priority list, in recognition of the importance of the region in global affairs.

With China and the US at loggerheads for supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region, China has repeatedly blamed the US for stirring up trouble there.

Citing international rules, the US has conducted freedom-of-navigation patrols close to Chinese-held islands, prompting a senior Chinese admiral to warn that such activities “could end in disaster”. State media also warned that countries outside the region should stay out of the South China Sea issue and gloated that, “Western countries have a long history of failing to establish orderly rule over parts of the world. The Middle East is a classic example.”

China also, with some justification, accuses the US of having not yet ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but calling on China to abide by the ruling of the Court.

The same US hypocrisy is present in its demands that countries adhere to the rulings of the International Criminal Court (ICC), but with itself refusing to become a member of the same court.

How the US handles the aftermath of the Arbitration Court’s ruling is widely seen as a test of Washington’s credibility in a region where it has been the dominant security presence since World War II, but is now struggling to contain an increasingly assertive China.

US presidential election  

Against this backdrop the US has gone into election mode with the two presidential candidates having accepted their nominations.

Described as the “biggest spectacle on earth every four years”, the November election takes on special significance – not so much because Hillary Clinton is the first woman in US history to contest a presidential election, but because she and her Republican Party opponent, Donald Trump, are without doubt, the two worst presidential candidates in US history.

If they are the best the US political system can present, the world’s most powerful nation is in deep trouble.   

Presidential elections in the US can be dirty, but this one has the potential to become really messy. And, to make matters worse, it is rumoured that Russia is covertly stirring the pot.  

The US media, not without justification, have gone into overdrive after WikiLeaks ‘exposed’ biased and irregular actions during the Democratic Party’s nomination process.

The leaks or ‘cyber war’ were allegedly masterminded by Russian intelligence as part of a clandestine Russian strategy to upset the US presidential election.

The world might be safe from large-scale military confrontations, but there are more than enough flashpoints across the globe to make the planet a troublesome place. 

by Garth Cilliers

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