Is China’s power peaking? And other top national security questions for 2022

Xi Jinping
Associated Press-Andy Wong
Associated Press-Andy Wong

From the Jan. 6 insurrection to the omicron variant of COVID-19, 2021 has been a wild ride, with its share of unanticipated developments. So what are the top risks to worry about in 2022? The short answer is, 2022 will be a bit like 2021, only more volatile, as many problems brewing this year may come to a boiling point.

The COVID-19 crisis: COVID not only tops the list; it intensifies many other risks. It is not just the obvious risk of the omicron variant spreading across the U.S. like a storm of locusts.  Low vaccination rates in much of the developing world – under 10 percent of people in Africa are vaccinated – risk spawning still more new mutating variants, possibly more contagious or even vaccine-resistant.

Global instability: A cluster of other risks – driven or worsened by COVID-19 – may imperil global financial and political stability. Many developing nations took big economic hits from COVID-19, facing worsening debt crises, global middle classes slipping back into poverty and food insecurity.

The World Food Programme has warned that 45 million people are on the brink of famine across 43 countries. Such realities may foster political instability, and turn some fragile states – Haiti, South Sudan, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar and, at the top of the list, Afghanistan – into failing states. There is a high risk of state failure, with humanitarian catastrophe, regional instability and massive refugee flows all possible results in Afghanistan. The economy (other than drugs) has ground to a halt, with massive unemployment, institutions from its central bank to health system unraveling and some 23 million facing famine.

China peaking: For all the fears of a rising China, its weakness may pose as great a risk. Why? The concern is that energy shortages, demographic decline, declining growth and productivity, and debt, exemplified lately by the beleaguered property giant Evergrande but running much deeper, reflect an outdated economic model. Chinese debt is now 290 percent of its gross domestic product. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the tech sector and now on the property sector, which accounts for some 29 percent of China’s economy, highlights the fragility of the country’s economic system.

Yet Xi may see needed market reforms promised in 2013, but then rejected, as too difficult politically to implement. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has opted for bolstering state-owned enterprises and control of the private sector, despite private firms that have been driving growth and innovation.

Something has to give. Some fear that Xi may divert attention from stagnation with a more aggressive military policy toward Taiwan to shore up the CCP’s nationalist legitimacy. But an economically struggling China could also unravel global stability: China has driven some 30 percent of global growth for the past decade. As well as being more confrontational, a weak China could thus tank economic growth around the world while disrupting financial markets and supply chains. The attendant lost wealth and jobs could spark unrest and/or intra-party turmoil in China.

Russia-Ukraine clash: Russia’s large military buildup near its border with Ukraine has heightened concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin sees his neighbor as “unfinished business.” If Putin, who seems increasingly mindful of shaping his legacy, were to act on such instincts, he has a spectrum of options: negotiating a list of demands for security guarantees he’s given Biden; a limited military action in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas; an all-out military invasion to seize Ukraine as a pliant buffer in Russia’s sphere of influence.

Some observers argue that Russian fears of potential retaliatory measures such as the cancellation of the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany and U.S. sanctions against Russian banks would deter Russian military aggression. But Putin’s desire to avenge NATO expansion and recoup former Soviet space may override the likely costs of an intervention.

U.S.-Iran diplomacy failures: The Iranian government has increased its nuclear-enrichment efforts and issued escalating demands for the United States to ease sanctions and grant assurances in order for Tehran to agree to a new deal to curb its nuclear program. Israeli cyberattacks on Iranian nuclear facilities – and Iran’s response to those activities – are escalating.

Congressional pressure is building on President Biden to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. Military action against Iran’s nuclear program by the U.S. or Israel cannot be ruled out if diplomacy fails. Iran, meanwhile, could conduct missile and drone attacks against Gulf oil facilities and U.S. military bases — and use surrogates to engage in a shadow war against Israel.

U.S. democracy further decays: Freedom House’s 2021 report, which documented a global democratic retreat, highlighted an 11-point decline in its freedom score for the United States over the past decade — putting the country 51st on its freedom list. The report cited as indicators the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election based on false claims of election fraud that former-President Trump and much of the Republican Party still promote. Polls suggest that some 70 percent of Republican voters, and 30 percent of voters overall, believe that Biden was not legitimately elected, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The U.S. political divide appears to be widening as the 2022 elections approach — with each side seeing the other not as opponents but as enemies. An alarming number of Americans now view violence as acceptable, including nearly a third of Republicans. Gerrymandering and new election laws in at least 19 states, some empowering more partisan state legislatures rather than state election officials to determine election results, could tilt outcomes. With the GOP positioned to retake the House and possibly the Senate in 2022, there is little evidence that these trends will abate.

These are highlights of a larger new report on annual top risks and global trends that my colleague Mathew Burrows and I have authored, drawing on our experience at the National Intelligence Council forecasting global trends and scanning the horizon for policymakers. On a low-to-high spectrum, we judge the risks discussed above as medium-to-high. 2022 will not be a boring year.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags China Chinese Communist Party Chinese politics COVID-19 pandemic Donald Trump evergrande freedom house International sanctions during the Ukrainian crisis Iran Joe Biden Nord Stream Russia Sanctions against Iran Ukraine Ukraine-Russia border Vladimir Putin

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