People keep asking me the same thing: “Is there going to be a third World War?” Everywhere I go lately, people seem to want to know the same thing.
The context is disturbing. The war in Ukraine has been going on for more than three months and has already taken over 3,000 innocent lives in Russia. Meanwhile, China has begun militarizing the Asian Seas with little fanfare. And nationalist egoism is on the upsurge across much of the world.
However, while there are no hard and fast answers to most geopolitical issues, there is one thing I learned early in my career: There is never a clear-cut answer or yes-or-no solution to any question concerning it. Every individual I come into contact with appears to believe that the Ukraine War might be the first salvo in a World War III. In all fairness, nations have plunged into world war over considerably less in the past. In the summer of 1914, the assassination of an understated Austrian archduke sparked off the First World War (although there were, of course, other reasons why things had come to a simmer). On the other hand, the war in Ukraine is far less dangerous than people believe.
President Vladimir Putin claimed that the Russian military intervention in Ukraine was a fear that NATO would expand right up to its borders. Ironically, this has become more likely than before, owing to Putin’s war to prevent it: Finland and Sweden have abandoned decades of neutrality and submitted applications for NATO membership. Many fear that if they are accepted, Russia will attack them.
Although it is tempting to believe that such a vast country has no internal conflicts, the reality is that Russia has had problems in Ukraine. Moscow attempted to go straight for the throat and capture Kyiv in its early days. The plan was a failure, and Putin replaced the general in charge of his war. He has since scaled back his aim to gain more friendly territory in eastern Ukraine. Moreover, Russia would be suicidal if it started a war with Finland or Sweden, mainly because it might lead to a much bigger fight involving significantly more powerful militaries. (As a matter of fact, hours after his deputy foreign minister issued a statement warning Finland and Sweden of “consequences,” Putin declared that he had “no issues” with them.)
On the other hand, China is considerably more frightening. Like Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping is vain to the point of being psychopathic. He has far greater financial resources than Russia’s stumbling economy has ever permitted. While the rest of the world was focused on Ukraine, Xi has been strengthening China’s military presence in the seas, with particular attention paid to the Pacific island-states. Xi is seeking pacts with Pacific island-states that might allow for the deployment of troops. Xi Jinping is no different from Putin in that he has his eyes on a neighbouring nation, this time Taiwan.
Does Xi plan to attack Taiwan and start World War III? That is dependent on how Xi views China’s economic challenges. Following the ham-fisted “zero-Covid” economic policy, China’s economy has taken a beating this year. A new surge could bring up old issues once again. But, on the other hand, Xi may choose not to risk a military conflict with Taiwan (and the United States). He might also believe that fighting Taiwan would help him recover his sagging popularity and divert the attention from the economy.
In my view, the third and the most devious risk is the resurgence of nationalist ego. For years, growing nationalism has sparked a pandemic of repression and majoritarian violence in much of South and Southeast Asia, affecting nearly three billion people. Moreover, the continued authoritarian populism of countries as diverse as Myanmar and the Philippines may result in hundreds of millions of refugees in the years ahead, leading to international conflict.
Even in the world’s high population density areas, communal conflict is a largely unacknowledged political danger. To conclude, much the same way as Putin or Xi’s great power politics will impact whether there will be a World War III, so does how insane each dictator can act within their own country.