There may be trouble ahead...

JUST as 2010 dawns, global storm clouds are gathering; warnings of future wars over energy supplies, Russia threatening a new arms race, al-Qaeda still active and very nearly successful in a new attack on US-bound aircraft, Britain and China at loggerheads... Richard Bath assesses the world's hotspots and the prospects for the coming year


Vladimir Putin's refusal to sign a new nuclear disarmament treaty with the US unless President Barack Obama agrees to scrap America's seaborne missile defence shield represents a significant and deliberate ramping up of global tension. The Russian president's talk of "developing offensive weapons systems" is even more significant given that the purpose of the current talks was to update the 1991 Start I treaty which led to significant reductions in the number of American and Russian nuclear warheads.

With its ancient weaponry, Russia's nuclear arsenal remains its only real threat to America. Putin wants to ensure his country has some protection from the US. Otherwise, goes the Russian logic, Putin would simply be negotiating away Russia's nuclear deterrent.

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While that is a political deal Obama would never be able to sell on Capitol Hill – he was lambasted for unilaterally scrapping the land-based missile shield in Eastern Europe last year – it underlines how aggressively Russia is trying to safeguard the vestiges of its position as a superpower and how actively it will assert its rights within what it sees as its sphere of influence.

That aggression has already manifested itself, particularly concerning energy resources, which are becoming the real focus for tension. Russia's pugnaciousness has extended to cutting off the gas to Ukraine (the country in which Russia's Black Sea fleet is stationed), invading neighbouring Georgia and rattling its metaphorical sabre at any former Soviet satellite contemplating membership of Nato.


With the combined weight of the US-led coalition forces on one side of the Afghanistan border and determined action from the Pakistani army on the other, al-Qaeda is reforming and reconstituting itself in new areas where the US's ability to successfully combat Osama bin Laden's organisation is less well-developed.

The most obvious sign of this came just last week when it emerged that Nigerian plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was trained in Yemen, which is in danger of becoming a haven for al-Qaeda despite the CIA's long-running assistance of Yemen's elite counter-terrorism forces.

Abdulmutallab claimed many suicide bombers had also been trained in Yemen, leading the US to immediately double the amount of money spent on anti-terrorism activities in the poorest but most devout country in the Middle East. The US led a missile strike against militants earlier this month, killing 30, but the action simply inflamed Yemeni opinion against the US.

The cash-strapped Yemeni government is also fighting a war against separatists on its northern border with Saudi Arabia, and faces a domestic branch of al-Qaeda which has combined with its Saudi counterparts and which in August penetrated the home of Saudi Arabia's deputy interior minister, Prince Muhammad bin Naif, and unsuccessfully tried to assassinate the prince.

Since 2000, 46 foreigners have been killed in the country as a result of al-Qaeda activity, with that number increasing since a jailbreak by 20 leading al-Qaeda operatives in 2006.

Yemen's government is in danger of losing control of large parts of this populous country, which could hardly be in a more sensitive area. It is on the Arabian peninsula, at the mouth of the Red Sea and facing the two war-ravaged failed states of Somalia and Eritrea on the horn of Africa – nations where al-Qaeda is also making huge strides. Could it be the next Afghanistan?


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The extent to which relations between the UK and China have been damaged by China's decision to go ahead with the execution of British heroin smuggler Akmal Shaikh is still unclear, but the gulf between East and West on the vexed issue of human rights is unmistakable. China's refusal to acknowledge Shaikh's allegedly bipolar condition is clear evidence of the differences in culture. He is the first European to be tried on a capital crime in the past 50 years.

China currently executes 72 per cent of all prisoners put to death in the world, with 5,000 Chinese shot or killed through lethal injection in 2009 for one of the 68 crimes to which the death sentence applies, including tax fraud and embezzlement. China particularly resented the 27 British efforts to intervene, which it regarded as interference in its internal affairs and a sleight on its sovereignty.

The gradual loosening of state control within China, allied to the country's relentless worldwide quest for raw materials and its spiky mistrust of foreigners, has increased the scope for conflict with the West. The unwillingness of Chinese negotiators at the Copenhagen summit on the environment to countenance independent verification of its carbon emissions was a high-profile example of this.

China's reaction to dissent remains harsh, with the followers of the Falun Gong religion ruthlessly suppressed and five ethnic Uighurs recently sentenced to death after separatist violence in the Xinjiang province left 156 dead. China's unprecedentedly strict controls on internet use are also anathema to the West, as is last month's 11-year jail sentence for respected academic Liu Xiaobo for openly calling for an end to one-party communist rule.


Beset by crippling internal unrest and at odds with most of the outside world over its nuclear programme, the increasingly desperate efforts of Iran's embattled conservative president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to maintain power threaten to further destabilise an already febrile region.

Oil-laden and gas-rich Iran's nuclear programme was always likely to be a profound source of global insecurity in 2010, given the widespread belief that its intention is to produce nuclear weapons ("nobody has any illusions about what the intent of the Iranian government is," said David Axelrod, a key aide to President Obama). Yet not even three rounds of UN sanctions have dented the theocratic nation's resolve.

The tensions engendered by Iran's nuclear programme, and US belief that the regime sponsors terrorism, have been dramatically exacerbated by Ahmedinejad's inconclusive re-election last June, an election which a sizeable proportion of Iran's overwhelmingly young 72 million population believed he lost. The subsequent civil unrest across Iran has been incessant as the populist grass-roots Green movement clashed with the police and army, the latest flashpoint being the funeral of reformist Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri at which scores of opposition protesters are believed to have been killed, including the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

While a deadly bomb attack on senior Revolutionary Guards showed that Ahmedinejad does have some justification for his paranoia, the Iranian president has nevertheless sought to blame the unrest on foreign powers, especially the US, Israel and the widely mistrusted former colonial power, Britain. During last week's crackdown on academics and journalists, Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki protested at Britain's "interference in our internal affairs", adding that Britain would "receive a punch on the mouth" if it did not "stop its nonsense".


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The temperature is already rising in the Middle East, where bullish Israel is facing challenges on several fronts. While premier Benjamin Natanyahu this week met Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak for talks on the Palestinian-Israel peace process that were described by both sides as positive, 2010 is sure to be even more testing than 2009.

The most immediate is that, despite the international opprobrium that Operation Cast Lead drew last year, the expectation within Israel is that this year will see another campaign in the Occupied Territories and against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Beirut. The conflict will this time be run according to the "Dahiya Doctrine", which says the only way to make the Lebanese and Palestinian civilian populations resist the presence of armed factions is to make the consequences of not doing so completely unbearable. "The next round will be different, but not in the way people think," said Giora Eiland, a retired major general and former chief of Israel's National Security Council. "The only way to be successful is to take much harsher action."

Also problematic is Israel's determination to strike a crushing blow on Iran's nuclear facilities should Jerusalem deem them close to becoming functional, while the Israeli government's decision to build 700 new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, effectively cleansing a large part of the city's Arab quarter, is likely to lead to conflict. Although building houses in the occupied West Bank is illegal under international law, Israel also appears set to allow more settler activity after the self-imposed ten-month moratorium runs out.


As the Christian and Aminist half of Sudan gears up to vote on secession in January 2011, the focus in Africa's biggest country will switch from the arid and embattled province of Darfur in the west to the lush southern half of this vast melting pot, where 133 languages are spoken.

If they go to schedule, the elections in 2010 are expected to be relatively tame, with everyone understanding that January 2011 will be the nation's defining moment. However, if they don't, the outcome will almost certainly be an imminent return to the ferocious 20-year civil war that only finished in 2005 with a power-sharing agreement between the Khartoum government and the southern fighters of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

The main problem is the law passed by the parliament in Khartoum after the SPLM walked out, which gives southerners living in the north a vote in the Southern elections, and referendum, which is widely seen as a ballot-rigging charter. "I do not think the north is ready to allow the south to go and have its independent state," said Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, the representative of South Sudan in Washington. "In 2010, an election can lead to war if you feel cheated. Even if you postpone that for one day, the people of southern Sudan will not accept it."

The second problem is the south is rich, fertile and the site of the country's vast oil reserves, from which the government is extracting half a million barrels per day. The south believes the north won't hold a referendum until it has extracted the lion's share of that oil. If that looks like taking a moment longer than next January, then this tinderbox corner of the world will descend into war again.