AS 2021 draws to a close, most of us remain understandably preoccupied with the impact of the pandemic. But there are other forces, geopolitical ones out there too that are shaping our futures.

On the face of it they might seem ­remote and distant to the lives of most of us, but as history has repeatedly shown, events can take dramatic, unexpected turns into which countless numbers of us are drawn.

Perhaps never since the height of the Cold War has there been such a growing sense of great power political division hovering on the horizon as there is right now.

Few things underscore that more than last week’s 90-minute video call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s leader President Xi Jinping.

The theme was simple enough, the ­language unequivocal and mutually ­endorsed as “a new model of ­co-operation” whereby “China and Russia should carry out more joint actions to safeguard the ­security interests of both parties.”

Not for the first time such ­expressions of “co-operation” have left many ­observers wondering whether Beijing and Moscow are set on shaping a new international ­order or merely hoping to force some ­adjustments to the current one. The latter for example might simply mean ­advancing national interests without fundamentally transforming the global system.

But even if this were the “limited” ­motive, so high are the stakes that there ­remains the inevitable risk of ­confrontation with the West which could potentially lead to a military showdown.

Just casting an eye around the world right now it’s easy to identify any ­number of volatile situations with the capacity to boil over. The most obvious are the ­current tensions with Russia over Ukraine and China’s territorial ambitions to fulfil its destiny and “reunify” the motherland by retaking control of Taiwan.

While it remains unlikely that Putin and Xi are talking about coordinated military action, this has not stopped some senior diplomats from pondering the ­implications if they were.

In a recent article entitled: The Drums of War in Taiwan and Ukraine, Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden and ­international diplomat, insisted on the need for international ­policymakers to contemplate the possibility of ­simultaneous invasions of Taiwan and Ukraine.

“Taken together, these two acts of ­conquest would fundamentally shift the global balance of power,” Bildt says, sounding the death knell for a world ­order that has “underpinned global peace for decades”.

It’s a stark warning and one that ­presents a scenario some might dismiss as alarmist, China-Russia relations after all have historically often been marked by mutual wariness.

But other analysts say things have changed markedly from those days back in the 1960s when one border conflict ­reportedly pushed Moscow and Beijing to the point of nuclear war.

While not formally allied, Russia and China have moved ever closer together since 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine that fanned the separatist war in the eastern Donbas border region. Following this, ­Putin secured a major gas supply deal with China that underscored Beijing’s support for Russia in the face of US and EU sanctions over Ukraine.

Then as recently as this October, ­Chinese and Russian warships conducted joint naval drills in the western Pacific for the first time and less than a month later, on November 19, the joint militaries sent bomber flights into Japanese and South Korean air defence zones, forcing Seoul to scramble its fighter jets in response.

“It’s the strongest, closest, and best ­relationship that the two countries – Russia/China – have had since at least the mid-1950s. And possibly ever,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, Senior Fellow for Russia, and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), speaking to Al-Jazeera at the time.

Close and strong as this growing ­relationship appears, many ­international observers still maintain that it’s still far from a guaranteed military alliance ­between the two.

Instead, it’s real aim they say is more about underpinning trade links and ­providing assurances that should either of them move unilaterally on Ukraine or ­Taiwan respectively, the other would ­remain neutral in the face of likely ­international condemnation.

Whatever the endgame it’s clear that both Putin and Xi are sending out an ­unequivocal message to the West. One that recognises how much the world ­order is changing, and that both Moscow and Beijing more than ever will have a ­stronger voice and role in its reshaping.

AFGHANISTAN - West’s dilemma: Provide Taliban with cash or millions will starve 

The National:

IT’S a measure of the dire humanitarian situation right now in Afghanistan that the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has launched a crisis appeal for the country. 
For those unfamiliar with the DEC, it brings together 15 UK aid agencies – including Save the Children, Islamic Relief, and the British Red Cross – who have now joined to ask the public to donate.  

Even in a world ravaged with problems, DEC appeals don’t happen that often. Only when faced with a near overwhelming humanitarian emergency does the call go out for such a massive collaborative effort. But right now in Afghanistan this is such a moment.  

With the UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimating that more than half of the country’s 40 million people cannot feed themselves and three million children malnourished with more than a million at risk of dying, this is the tipping point for Afghanistan.  

Obviously, the need to get food and other humanitarian aid into the country to save lives goes without saying. But the crisis also poses something of a geopolitical and strategic dilemma for the international community who have withdrawn from Afghanistan. 

Most see withholding the country’s foreign financial reserves from the now ruling Taliban as crucial leverage in bringing the Islamists to heel in terms of human rights abuses and repression including execution of rivals and preventing older girls from going to school.  

But many humanitarians argue that now is not the moment to focus on holding the Taliban to account and that addressing starvation must be the immediate priority.  

“If you turn off that tap, no country could withstand that kind of economic shock, whatever the motivations,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, Afghanistan director at the WFP.  

“What’s scary is how quickly it has deteriorated,” she warned last week, speaking to the Financial Times. 

While some independent aid provision is already underway, only by unfreezing the estimated $11 billion in Afghanistan cash reserves tied up in foreign and mainly US banks is there any real chance of addressing the humanitarian crisis insist some observers. 

“While the Taliban’s disregard for upholding rights is not doing their cause for legitimacy any favours, it is as if the international community has forgotten the Taliban does not represent the population, this was a takeover, not a democratic change,” pointed out Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan in a recent editorial for the Abu- Dhabi based newspaper The National.

Many agree, suggesting that one way to do this would be to adjust the existing international framework for dealing with the Taliban including the UN Security Council Resolution 1988 which established the Afghan sanctions regime and passed in 2011 but built on a decade of measures targeting the Taliban and their finances. 

Given the current circumstances with the Taliban now in control could the UN not make it clearer that the resolution, although still in effect, does not apply to humanitarian work? 
There are no easy answers or decisions here, but now is not the time for prevarication when faced with a humanitarian catastrophe. 

To donate to the DEC go to:

UNITED STATES - ‘Build back better’ will take that bit longer, says President Biden

The National:

IT’S probably the last thing that US President Joe Biden needed, for there’s no shortage of worries for the American leader right now. Despite pledges by Biden and the Democrats to get his $1.75tn Build Back Better bill done and dusted before Christmas it now looks likely that it will drag on into 2022. 

Readers will perhaps recall that the Build Back Better legislation was proposed by Biden ahead of his inauguration and included funding for Covid-19 relief, social services, welfare, and infrastructure, in addition to funds allocated towards reducing the effects of climate change

But some Democrats it seems are worried about excessive spending and persistent inflation and continue to hold out, which led to Biden last week speaking with Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia who has proved a frequent obstacle to passing the President’s domestic agenda. 

“We are still talking about different iterations, that’s all,” insisted Manchin, who when asked whether a deal could be done by Christmas, told reporters: “Anything is possible.” 

As Politico magazine recently pointed out Biden must tread carefully with Manchin, not least given that the traditional levers of power – potential primary challenges or pledges of presidential support – are less effective with the senator, given that he is the only Democrat in the Senate to have won in a state that former President Donald Trump also won by 40 points. 

Then of course also working against Biden is the fact that the Democrats made their own self-imposed deadline of Christmas, which many now believe was tantamount to making a rod for their own back. 

But why does all this matter? 

Well, put quite simply Build Back Better is Biden’s flagship economic programme, one that he promised would bring so much that was positive were he elected to office.

Now, of course, with the countdown having already started for the Democrats towards the 2022 midterm elections, the chances for implementing ambitious policies like this are getting slimmer by the day.  

The bottom line for Biden is that the longer all this is drawn out, the worse it is given his presidency has seen months of poor polling. The White House remains confident that it’s still on track and that Build Back Better will just take that bit longer. But with every week that passes you can’t help feeling that it will now fall short of its original ambitions, and that’s more bad news for Biden.

NORTH KOREA - Ten years of east Asia’s ‘little rocket man’ 

The National:

A DECADE now. Yes, can you believe it’s been that long since Kim Jong-un has defied the cynics by maintaining his grip over one of the world’s poorest countries. At the ripe old age of 37, Kim has now been in power longer than China’s President Xi Jinping.  

Given his comparative youth, Kim, or “little rocket man” as former US President Donald Trump once dubbed him, has no need of worrying about elections or limits on his terms of office and health permitting could conceivably remain as a “loving supreme leader” for yonks to come. 

All of which might be good for Kim and his cabal but bad for the vast majority of North Koreans.  

“He cannot feed the people, but he is able to keep the political regime alive,” observed one regional analyst recently. “And that’s more important to Kim.” 

Dismissed as too young and too inexperienced when he inherited the post of supreme leader aged 29 following his father Kim Jong-il’s sudden death on Dec 17, 2011, many thought he would not be able to keep the military and party in line. 

But militaristic power was a crucial part of Kim’s life from an early age. There are pictures of him as a child in full uniform, complete with full rank insignias, which he allegedly got for his eighth birthday 

Perhaps not surprisingly then Kim has since taken to his dictatorship role like a fish to water, including establishing the system of “Kim Jong-un-ism” that is centred on “Our People First”, “Our Nation First” and self-reliance. 

But all jibes aside it’s no joke that Kim banned laughing for 11 days to mark 10 years since his father’s death. In fact, all signs of happiness, alcohol, celebrating birthdays and food shopping were banned to mark the anniversary. 

Kim remains a ruthless individual, quite willing to execute his uncle, Jang Song- thaek back in 2013 and assassinate with the VX nerve gas agent his half-brother Kim Jong- nam in Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017. 

When Kim took over, some North Korea watchers thought the regime would collapse, and economic opening under Chinese supervision would follow. 

The country might have survived since then, but the price paid by ordinary North Koreans has been appalling including “an arduous march” a phrase used by the regime to describe the great famine in the 1990s that left anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of dead. One can only wonder how long the march of Kim will go on.