By Hu Xiaodao
The past year of 2021 has witnessed COVID-19 rampaging across the world, changes never seen in a century evolving in acceleration, and the world entering a period of instability and reform. Today let’s take a look back at the major hotspots that will exert far-reaching impacts on the international situation.
1. Russia-NATO relation mired in “Ice Age”
In 2021, the situation in east Ukraine kept escalating and the relation between Russia and NATO plummeted to a historical new low.
Despite NATO’s claim to be committed to forging a partnership with Russia and conducting dialogue and pragmatic cooperation in areas of common interests, the two sides have barely worked together on anything. Judging from their conflicts on a range of issues, from refugees on the Belarus-Poland border to Ukraine, the strategic struggle between Russia and NATO is likely to keep escalating in the future.
2. American troops pulled from Afghanistan in disgrace
With the last C-17 transport plane taking off from the Kabul International Airport on August 30, America’s hurried pullback from Afghanistan finally wrapped up amid disputes and chaos.
Driven by the engrained hegemonistic mentality, no sooner did the US pull itself out of the quagmire in Afghanistan than it plunged itself into the vortex of major-power competition, which is in no way a wise move. If the Biden administration cannot give up its old-style mindset of creating enemies for itself everywhere, the US is bound to make more irretrievable strategic mistakes.
3. Russia, Belarus jointly respond to threats from the West
Russia and Belarus joined hands to respond to the strategic containment and threats from the West. In September, Russian and Belarusian Armed Forces conducted the Zapad-2021 strategic military exercise; in November, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko signed the Russia-Belarus Union State integration decree, vowing to jointly resist external forces to interfere in their internal affairs.
The suppression and containment by western countries has, contrary to what they expected, made Russia and Belarus more united than before. Going forward, the two countries may further intensify the all-round strategic collaboration through economic and trade cooperation, joint exercise and training, joint military operations, and integrated dispatch of troops, in the joint efforts to deal with challenges from the West.
4. Iranian nuclear issue remains unsolved
The seventh round of the Iran nuclear talks among parties to the Iranian nuclear deal concluded in Vienna, capital of Austria, on December 17. The statement issued after the talks said that the US and Iran didn’t reach a consensus on lifting the sanctions.
The US and Iran never reached an agreement either during the talks on the nuclear deal or on the diplomatic front. Iran was eager to push the negotiations forward, but the outcomes didn’t pivot on it alone – they required active efforts from the US side too, and the situation today should be attributed to America’s unilateral exit from the deal in the first place. Its position, or change of position, holds the key to whether the Iran nuclear talks will make any breakthroughs.
5. US, UK, Australia forge “trilateral security partnership”
On September 15, the US, the UK, and Australia announced to form a trilateral security partnership. According to their agreement, Australia canceled a contract on buying 12 conventionally powered submarines from France and turned to the US and the UK for technological support in its endeavor to establish a nuclear submarine force in the navy. This sparked alarm in regional countries and the international community.
The establishment of the trilateral security partnership not only brazenly stirred up confrontation and division, escalated the arms race, and sabotaged peace and stability in the region, but also breached the spirit of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and undermined the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty. The AUKUS is yet another testament to America’s practice of a hegemonistic mindset and ploy to forge an alliance system. But such a move, instead of cementing security interests for itself, has driven its traditional allies like France and Germany further away.
6. Palestinian-Israeli conflicts exacerbate
After multiple rounds of conflicts in April, Palestine and Israel announced a ceasefire on May 21 under the joint efforts of multiple parties.
The role of the US in the Palestine-Israel peace talks has gradually changed from a mediator to a trouble maker, and its intervention may further aggravate the Middle East situation. In view of this, the international community should build consensus on the issue and provide more support for Palestine and Israel to resume dialogue and negotiation.
7. DPRK and ROK resume official channels of communication
On September 21, ROK President Moon Jae-in called for resuming the ROK-DPRK and US-DPRK dialogue at an early date, and expressed his hope for relevant parties to jointly release the end-of-war declaration. On October 4, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released a communique that DPRK decided to restart all lines of communication with ROK from 9:00 am that very day.
Resuming communication means that ROK and DPRK now have the means to hold a dialogue any time to better understand each other’s intentions. It’s the first step toward improving bilateral relations. Relevant parties should resume at an early date the substantive consultations on the denuclearization and peace process on the Korean peninsula – that’s the only way to achieve lasting peace on the peninsula.
8. Gulf countries see ease in tension
At the beginning of the year, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE resumed comprehensive diplomatic relations with Bahrain and Qatar and normalized bilateral relations. In May, Saudi Arabia resumed engagements with Iran. On August 28, the Iraqi government hosted the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, which was considered an important conference demonstrating the reconciliation among Gulf countries. State leaders or foreign ministers of Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey attended the meeting.
The raging COVID-19 pandemic and America’s adjustment of its Middle East policy have added uncertainties to the situation in the Gulf region. Against such a background, a stable external environment and regional cooperation become more important, and regional countries all seek to restart dialogues, mitigate tension, and safeguard their own security. The overall landscape and state-to-state relations in the Gulf region are in a period of profound reshuffling.
9. Terrorist threats come back
The year 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the “9/11” terrorist attack. Although countries have continuously reinforced their capability of tackling terrorist attacks, the threat of terrorism has not been rooted up yet. From August to November, the extremist organization Islamic State (IS) launched 52 attacks in Afghanistan, causing more than 600 casualties. In December, it launched attacks in the Province of Dayr az Zawr in east Syria and the port city of Basra in southern Iraq, causing multiple casualties as well.
After the American troops pulled out of Afghanistan, terrorism has become a regular and more complicated phenomenonin the Middle East and South Asia. America’s 20-year-long anti-terror war in the country has only led to more serious and deadly terrorist attacks because it has all along only taken counterterrorism as a tool to promote its own geopolitical strategy. The US’ politicization of counterterrorism and smearing of other countries’ legitimate measures to fight terrorism and eradicate extremism has left an opening for terrorist forces.
10. COVID-19 continues wreaking havoc worldwide
The year 2021 has seen COVID-19 sweeping across the world with a string of mutations from Delta to Omicron, taking a serious toll on the politics, economy, public health, and social life of all countries. Countries like the US and India are hit most by the pandemic.
Generally speaking, the long-tail effect of the pandemic will continue to show and a turning point won’t arrive anytime soon. Therefore, joining hands in battling the pandemic remains the top priority for the international community. In the coming new year, countries around the world should stand side by side and weather through this tough period together with concrete actions. The country that is obsessed with political manipulation and eroding solidarity in the global anti-virus campaign will eventually eat the bitter fruits of its own making.
Editor's note: The original Chinese-version of the article was written by Hu Xiaodao, who is a researcher of the APD Institute. The article reflects the author's views and not necessarily those of China Military Online.