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The Three Rings of Conflict – Part 2 of the World War IV Series

In this five-​part series, I explore the development and scope of what I have termed World War IV. This series is based on my presentation at the CDA Institute Roundtable “Knocking on the Door of World War IV,” held in Ottawa on 10 June 2015.

Three major areas of conflict – or what might be called rings of conflict – dominate contemporary political and strategic developments. On how they develop and interact hinge the prospects for world peace in the face of a possible World War IV.

The first ring of conflict is shaped by tensions between the Euro-​Atlantic states and the Russian Federation. For the time being, this conflict revolves around the question of whether it will be Moscow that determines the domestic and foreign policy orientations of the former Soviet republics that have not become European Union and NATO members or these countries themselves. In this way, Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to prevent these countries from being examples of development models that differ from Russia’s, and whose credible emergence could spell his demise. Moscow’s weapon of choice in this contest is the existence of significant Russian-​speaking minorities throughout former Soviet space. Its currently preferred stratagem is to support disgruntled local elements in the states emerging from the defunct USSR with Russian volunteers and equipment, with a view of carving out more or less autonomous entities on the territory of these states.

The second ring of conflict is constituted by the broad band of countries with significant Muslim populations that stretches from Mauritania in the west to Pakistan in the east, extending to the more religiously-​mixed states of the Sahel and adjacent areas, as well as non-​contiguous countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. The conflict profile of these lands ranges widely, from theatres where central governments oppose jihadist forces to where there is no central government at all and generalized chaos has ensued. This is the current situation in no less than five countries in this area: Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, and partly so in two others, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Increasingly, what we observe across this region are several inter-​related different kinds of conflict: an inter-​Muslim war pitting Sunnis against Shiites, the former with several champions, the latter championed by Iran; another inter-​Muslim war in which fundamentalists and modernists vie for supremacy; a conflict in which ethnic and religious minorities strive to defend their fundamental human rights and oftentimes their survival; strategic competition among the major state actors of the region – all this strewn with opposing views about what should be the place of Israel and the role of outside powers in the region.

The third ring of conflict is centred in East Asia. The primary question revolves around China’s rise as a great power, and whether this rise will be benign for the region or precipitate large-​scale conflict. There are several driving issues here. One is about territorial sovereignty over islets, adjoining waterways and underlying resources. China is embroiled in disputes over boundary lines at sea with no less than six of its regional neighbours. A second issue concerns unfinished business from World War II. As we have seen at different junctures in recent history, quarrels over what happened or did not happen during World War II – and who was responsible – persist particularly amongst elites in China, Japan and the two Koreas: the tensions among these states have potential for consolidating revanchist agendas that could descend into regional conflict. These two issues serve as a fig leaf for fundamental divergences about socio-​economic and political choices, and regional power ambitions. In an effort to maintain its political status quo, China wants to neutralize the attraction of different socio-​economic and political models espoused by the other Chinese-​majority entities/​states of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Singapore.

The place of each of the rings in the conflict spectrum currently varies considerably. In the first ring, the conflict is for the time being at least still local and largely covert. In the second ring, the conflict is being waged in several regional states. In the third ring, the conflict is latent. That said, the ongoing or potential conflict in each of the rings could engulf all the states of the region. Each of the conflicts already has an international dimension, one that could become much more pronounced if and as the regional situation deteriorates.

Similarly, the dominant regional actors based in the region – Russia in the first, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-​Sham (ISIS) in the second and the People’s Republic of China in the third – share a number of common characteristics.

All three are revisionist actors, in the sense that they seek to challenge the strategic status quo in their region and perhaps beyond. All three are revanchist, wishing to reverse territorial losses incurred under entities that they see as their historical antecedents. All three are irredentist, aiming to reintegrate communities that for one or the other reason have been lost to other states or religious communities. All three are expansionist, apparently committed to increasing the territory under their control and/​or their influence over the decision-​making of neighbouring states.

So, on this last point, Russia has changed borders in Georgia and now Ukraine, and is poised to repeat this pattern elsewhere. ISIS is calling for an international caliphate that would replace the states of the region, purging it of non-​Sunni elements. As such, it presents a direct challenge to both Sunni states and the Shiite-​majority state of Iran, another possible regional hegemon, but like its Sunni equivalents one that does not appear capable of spreading its power beyond the areas where its co-​religionists dominate. As for the People’s Republic of China, it is challenging maritime borders derived from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 that it has signed together with all of the six regional states with whom it has jurisdictional disputes.

Finally, all these actors share the common challenge of needing to neutralize or critically weaken the role of the United States in their region if they are to meet their goals. For more on this, read the next blog in the series.

David Law, a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning Unit, is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-​based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with it sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance.

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