Russia’s war against Ukraine will not end
Vladimir Putin’s war was defined by failure in 2022. His early assaults on Kyiv and Kharkiv were repelled. His Black Sea flagship was sunk. Ukrainian counter-offensives have reclaimed large amounts of territory, including the strategically important city of Kherson in the east. As the conflict enters a second year, Putin has acknowledged that it “could be a lengthy process”, but he likely believes that if he can sustain the attack for long enough and inflict more pain on Ukraine and its partners, then he can end it on his own terms. It is hard to see why Kyiv would agree to a ceasefire, even if one were offered, without a full Russian withdrawal when recent experience shows that a pause would only give Moscow time to regroup. Thus, the tempo of the fighting might slow, but the war will grind on through 2023.
The struggle over Taiwan’s future will be renewed
Following the US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, the Chinese military staged live-fire drills around the self-governing island and launched missiles over the capital Taipei. Last summer’s display of firepower was only the most visible sign of the underlying struggle for Taiwan’s future, however, with Beijing’s increasingly assertive tactics hardening public opinion against the Chinese Communist Party on the island. In the US, the new Republican speaker of the house will almost certainly seek to stage their own high-profile visit to Taipei to demonstrate that they are tougher on China than the Democrats, especially as the 2024 race for the White House begins. Taiwan is also preparing for its own presidential election in 2024, when Tsai Ing-wen could be replaced by a more outspoken figure. All the elements for a renewed crisis are in place.
China will never return to its “zero Covid” policy
For almost three years, China’s handling of the pandemic was a central theme of its domestic propaganda. Unlike in the West, where hospitals were overwhelmed and large numbers of people died, Chinese citizens were told that their government was keeping them safe through the “zero Covid” policy that used mass testing, contact tracing and strict lockdowns to limit the virus’s spread. In December 2022, however, following an extraordinary wave of protests and with the economy faltering, the government reversed course. Most controls were lifted, and propaganda outlets shifted to emphasising how mild the virus had become. The coming months could be gruelling. The vaccination rate for older people lags behind the general population and China’s healthcare infrastructure is poorly equipped to handle the anticipated surge in cases. Yet we should not expect a return to “zero Covid”. Having recognised that the economic and social costs of the policy were unsustainable, Beijing is committed to reopening, whether the country is ready to do so or not.
North Korea will test a nuclear weapon
In 2017, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un presided over a series of nuclear and missile tests, provoking a crisis on the Korean peninsula and trading threats of “fire and fury” with then US president Donald Trump. Kim then moved to diplomacy and attempted to extract a deal on sanctions relief. With Joe Biden now in the White House and the conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol in Seoul, Kim knows there is little prospect of a deal in the near term, but also that China and Russia have no appetite to back new sanctions against him at the United Nations, as they did in 2017. As he increases the pace of testing again, Kim may well decide there is little to lose by pressing ahead with his stated goals, including developing tactical nuclear weapons. It is a matter of when, not if, the next nuclear test is carried out.
Joe Biden will run for a second term in the US
There are plenty of reasons why Joe Biden, who is already 80, might not stand again for the presidency in 2024. His son, Hunter Biden, will be subjected to endless congressional investigations over the next two years. Then there is the promise he made in 2020 to act as a “bridge” to the next generation of Democratic leaders, hinting that he saw himself as a transitional president. Yet Biden is also the only politician who has beaten Donald Trump, and he can cite the Democrats’ better-than-expected midterm results as evidence that his approach to the presidency is working. Plus, there is the lack of an heir apparent, with the vice-president Kamala Harris polling poorly. Biden can make a compelling case to himself and his party that he has a duty to run again to stop Trump, and that the handover to the next generation will take a little longer than planned.
This article was originally published on 2 January 2023.
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege