7 Eurasian Hotspots That Could Lead to Major (Nuclear) Wars
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of conflicts in Eurasia (Council on Foreign Relations, n.d.). There are conflicts with a high intensity, such as the Ukraine War, and there are conflicts that are at a much lower intensity, which have been going on for decades, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Additionally, there are tense situations that are not conflicts yet, but might turn into armed conflicts in the (near) future, such as the tensions between China and Taiwan. Some of such conflicts, like the civil war in Myanmar, notwithstanding their tragic consequences, are relatively local affairs. However, there are a number of (potential) conflict hotspots that could turn into major regional or even global wars. This article will discuss seven of those hotspots. Six of the seven hotspots involve at least one nuclear power, and three of those hotspots directly involve China. To be clear, the argument of this article is not that the start of a major war in these hotspots is inevitable or even likely. These hotspots may never evolve into a major war, and some may never become an armed conflict at all. Yet, because the implications of a major war developing from these hotspots are so grave, it is still relevant to discuss them. For the sake of peace and security in Eurasia, and the world at large, it is essential that all necessary measures are taken to decrease the odds of escalated conflict in these hotspots as much as possible.
1. The Ukraine War
This war needs no introduction. Six months after Russia’s invasion, the war has fortunately not spread to other countries. NATO has made it clear that it will not send troops to Ukraine or enforce a no-fly zone above Ukraine, to avoid a military confrontation with Russia and to avoid the conflict from spreading beyond Ukraine (NATO, 7 July 2022). Russia has so far not sought a direct confrontation with NATO either. However, in the fog of war things are messy, and in this fog events can unfold that no one intended. Russia has fired missiles as close as ten miles from Poland’s (a NATO member) border (Lau, 13 March 2022). What if the next Russian missile misses its target (as seems to be common for Russian missiles) and lands across the border in Poland? This hypothetical, but not implausible situation has the potential to bring a nuclear-armed Russia in direct confrontation with NATO and its nuclear powers (the United States, the United Kingdom and France).
2. Cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in something akin to a cold war since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Although the two rivals have not fought each other directly, they have been involved in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen (Gater-Smith, 2020, p.160-162). As usual, nuclear weapons complicate the situation. Iran has been developing a nuclear program since the 1980s and may have the capabilities to develop a nuclear weapon in just a few weeks if it wants to, according to one estimation (Samore, 2022). Saudi Arabia for its part has been developing its own nuclear infrastructure in response to Iran, in what may be an unfolding nuclear arms race (Shay, 2018). Meanwhile, the negotiations about the Iran Nuclear Deal between the US and Iran have come to a standstill, and president Biden has made clear he will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power (Council on Foreign Relations, 2022). With a potential nuclear arms race, violent proxy wars and a confrontational US, this situation possess all the necessary elements to escalate into a major war.
3. Tensions between India and Pakistan
India and Pakistan have been enemies from the very moment both states gained independence from the UK in 1947. Since then, the two countries have fought three wars (in 1947, 1965 and 1999) over, among other things, disputed territory in the Kashmir region (Council on Foreign Relations, 12 May 2022). The most recent war, in 1999, was fought when both countries were in possession of nuclear weapons. This was the first and one of only a few times in history that two nuclear weapons states have come into direct military confrontation (Roblin, 14 June 2021). Fortunately, both countries refrained from using their nuclear arsenal, but past results offer no guarantees for the future. India-Pakistan relations remain very tricky. For instance, in March 2022 India accidentally fired a missile that is capable of carrying nuclear weapons at Pakistan (BBC, 24 August 2022). Such accidents, combined with the hostility between the two countries and their nuclear capabilities offer ample opportunity for military escalations. If things do escalate, it is conceivable that China, as a close ally of Pakistan and a strong rival of India, gets involved as well. This would open up the possibility of a much broader conflict.
4. Border dispute between China and India
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China 1949, the country has had a dispute with India over their shared border in the Himalaya. The two Asian giants fought a war over this border in 1962 (Richards, 2015, p.3-5). In June 2020, border skirmishes led to the death of 20 India soldiers and an unknown number of China soldiers, another rare occasion of direct military confrontation between two nuclear powers (Westscott, 2021, p.8). With 60.000 troops on both sides of what is called the Line of Actual Control between China and India, another armed clash is a realistic scenario (Rajagopalan, 2 August 2022). Both China and India have barely any formal allies due to their non-alignment policies, which limits the potential of a Sino-India conflict to spill over to other countries (Scobell & Nathan, 2012, p.140; The Hindu, 21 July 2020) . Still, it is unlikely that other nuclear powers would remain completely on the side lines in such a conflict. The US, France and Israel are close to India, while Pakistan is close to China. Russia is close to both countries (Bhattacharya, 2004; Browne, 2017; Bharti, 2022). The hostile Sino-India relations thus continue to be very risky.
5. Tensions between China and Taiwan
China sees the self-governed island of Taiwan as a part of its own territory that should at some point be brought under Beijing’s control. Thereby, China explicitly keeps the option of taking the island by force open. Furthermore, China claims the Taiwan issue should not “be passed down from one generation to the next” (Xinhua, 10 August 2022). Read: Beijing’s patience is running out somewhere in the foreseeable future. Yet, in Taiwan the public support for unification with China is according to a recent survey only 6.5% (Election Study Center National Chengchi University, 12 July 2022), hence Taiwan is not voluntarily going to submit to Beijing’s control. Thus, the only way for China to get control over Taiwan is to impose it by military force. In May 2022, president Biden stated unambiguously that the US would militarily intervene to defend Taiwan were China to attack (Wong, 23 May 2022). It is debatable whether this is now the official US Taiwan policy or not, but in any case the US would seriously consider responding militarily to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. This makes the Taiwan Strait a potential location for a Sino-US war.
6. Maritime disputes in the South China Sea
In the South China Sea, China has maritime disputes with countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines over who gets to economically exploit which parts of the sea and who can claim sovereignty where (Council on Foreign Relations, 4 May 2022). The US has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines (The Avalon Project, 30 August 1951), meaning that if China gets into an armed clash with the Philippines in the South China Sea, the US is legally obliged to militarily come to the Philippines’ aid. However, China could also directly clash with the US, since the US regularly sends navy ships through the South China Sea to show that the sea is open to use by everyone (the so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations). This could for instance lead to a collision between a Chinese and a US ship that spins out of control militarily (Panter, 6 April 2021).
7. War between North and South Korea
Ever since Korea has been split in a North and a South in 1945, the two Koreas have been in conflict with each other, making it one of the longest-running conflicts in Eurasia. The 1950-1953 Korean War has also never formally ended, since no peace treaty has been signed (Kelly, 20 September 2021). Although there is no actual fighting between the two Koreas, the relations remain hostile. In the first half of 2022, North Korea conducted 31 missile tests, much more than the 8 missile tests it did throughout the whole of 2021 (Green, 14 June 2022). North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons makes the situation quite dangerous. Moreover, North Korea is a formal military ally of China (China’s only formal alliance), while the US has an alliance with both South Korea and Japan (Lee, Alexandrova & Zhao, 2020, p.587-590). Thus, if an armed conflict were to materialize between both Koreas, this would result in a Sino-US military conflict too.
To conclude, from the Ukrainian plains to the Persian Gulf, and from the Himalayan border lands to the Taiwan Straits, there are a number of hotspots in Eurasia that could escalate into major (nuclear) wars. Does that mean all is lost? Is Eurasian destined to become a nuclear Armageddon? Fortunately not, because despite all political tensions, conflicts and nuclear warheads present in Eurasia, no nuclear war or new world war has occurred since 1945. Partly, this may have been dumb luck, there were various historical occasions in which slightly different decisions made by individuals could have led to catastrophic outcomes. However, there are also tangible measures that governments can take to reduce the odds of a major nuclear war. These includes arms control regimes, a respect for the rule of international law and confidence-building measures. Unfortunately, many of those guardrails have been removed since the end of the Cold War. In the most recent example hereof, China cancelled three dialogues with the US related to military affairs, in response to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, 5 August 2022). Such developments are extremely worrying.
If you are curious and want to gain more information about which conflicts are going on where in the world, two sources are recommended: 1. The Global Conflict Trakcer of the Council on Foreign Relations https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/ 2. The University of Uppsala’s Conflict Data Program https://ucdp.uu.se/exploratory
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