Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.01.15

What will not happen in 2019

the japan times on January 5, 2019

As always, my new year starts with the joy of reading a few hundred New Year's cards from old friends and new acquaintances. As always, typical greetings include, "Wishing you a very happy and calm new year!" or "Looking forward to continuing a good working relationship/friendship with you in 2019." For the past few decades, unfortunately, in most cases the new year has never been as happy or calm as wished for in the New Year's cards.

What about 2019 then? A few weeks ago a Tokyo-based weekly economic magazine asked me to make predictions about the Middle East in 2019 from a geopolitical perspective. I first declined, saying "I am not an astrologer," but eventually I wrote a piece with the title "What will not happen in the Middle East in 2019." The article, to my surprise, generated a lot of positive buzz. So today I decided to write about "what will not happen in the world in 2019" from a geopolitical perspective. Nobody can predict what will happen in the new year, anyway!

Before listing what will not happen this year, let's start with global geopolitics.

Russia and China, the two major land powers located at both ends of Eurasia, will compete against the United States, a major sea power, and its allies. The land powers are determined to change the status quo by force, if necessary. Small powers on the rim of the continent are becoming incorporated into the two land powers.

While the European theater -- the western end of the Eurasian continent -- is basically land-oriented; the Asian theater is fundamentally maritime. Therefore, the sea lines of communication between the Middle East and East Asia are becoming more important and they will become a single Middle East-Asian theater of operation.

And now here's what won't happen:

1. North Korea will not denuclearize.

Since New Year's Day 2018, East Asia has been swayed by an inter-Korean plot for normalization. To make matters worse, the U.S. joined this poor regional theatrical performance. Even with a second U.S.-North Korea summit, Pyongyang's denuclearization will not make substantive progress.

2. China will not give in to the U.S.

Beijing finally realized that the U.S. is targeting China's very political process and, therefore, no Chinese Communist Party leader can make the necessary concessions to Washington. This boring boxing match of the two hegemonic major powers will continue for years with no knockdowns or winners.

3. Southeast Asia will not unite.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states have never been united due to their heterogeneity. Beijing will not have enough power to control all of ASEAN, but it can veto any anti-Chinese decisions or resolutions through Laos and Cambodia -- which is enough for China to kill consensus among the member states.

4. India will not become a U.S. ally.

India, a subcontinental entity, is neither a land or sea power in the 21st century "Great Game." While New Deli considers China's "Belt and Road" initiative as a means to contain India, it may not want to contain China with the U.S. India is mainly concerned about China's naval activities in the Indian Ocean.

5. The Middle East will not be stable.

U.S. President Donald Trump may further reduce the American presence in Syria or Afghanistan, but such a seemingly strategic move will only destabilize the Middle East. The U.S., however, will not leave the Gulf region, leading to a continued showdown between Washington and Tehran for years to come.

By the same token, the U.S. cannot discard the Saudi royal family, which might have been deeply involved in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate last October. People will not forget it, but Trump and the princes in Riyadh will behave as if nothing happened.

6. The European Union will not be divided.

The objective of uniting Europe politically has been to prevent the region from losing itself between the Soviet Union/Russia and the U.S., according to the consensus among Europe's political elites. Therefore, the EU will not break up even if Britain leaves the union.

So long as France and Germany work together, the EU will survive, although nationalism and populism may lead to a further deterioration in some member states' domestic politics. In this regard, the outcome of the next general election in Germany will show what direction Europe is heading in.

7. Russia will not halt its espionage.

As long as Russia's president is a veteran KGB agent, the Kremlin's clandestine efforts to undermine democracies in the West will continue. Those operations have now become presidential matters and Western nations, including Japan, will continue to be vulnerable to them.

8. Trump will not be impeached.

Even if the investigation by Russia-gate special council Robert Mueller intensifies or concludes, Trump's impeachment process will not begin. At the moment, once die-hard Trump supporters are wary but still reluctantly support the president. Trump will stay in power as a president who neither governs nor will be impeached.

9. Japan will not dramatically change.

Finally, some words about Japan. The international situation mentioned above may provide Japan with a golden opportunity to maximize its national interests on the global stage. Nonetheless, while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's power base is stable, voters continue to sense a feeling of political stagnation. Things may start to change depending on the outcome of the Upper House election in July as well as the negotiations on the four islands located off the northeastern coast of Hokkaido, which have been occupied by the Soviet Union/Russia since 1945.

All in all, 2019 may not turn out to be as happy and calm as wished for in New Year's greeting cards.