Will 2023 be a better year for international peace and public health?


Armed conflict, not peace, defined 2022, thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and raging wars elsewhere, from Yemen and Syria to Ethiopia. Internal conflict, meanwhile, exacerbated in several countries, from the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt to Myanmar and Nigeria.

But what has stood out is the international fallout from the war in Ukraine, which, by contributing to global energy and food crises, has affected countries across the world.

Will 2023 be a better year for international peace and stability? And is there any prospect of the global energy and food crises easing and the COVID-19 pandemic finally coming under full control?

The disruption in global energy markets, which has led to soaring energy prices, is largely linked to Europe’s rapid shift away from cheap Russian energy, which long powered its growth. Given that the European Union accounts for 11 percent of global energy consumption, its switch to alternative sources at a time when international oil and LNG supplies are already tight is having an adverse global impact.

High energy prices have spurred runaway inflation in many countries. And high inflation, in turn, has triggered a cost-of-living crisis. The specter of a global recession looms large in 2023.

Meanwhile, just when COVID-19 fears are easing and relative normalcy is returning in everyday life, the COVID-19 tsunami in China threatens to spread new strains globally.

Three years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime created a global pandemic with its coverup and slow response to the COVID-19 outbreak at home. Now, it has put the world in peril again by abruptly abandoning its unsustainable “zero COVID” policy and easing almost all restrictions in one go, resulting in a huge COVID-19 surge in China that has reignited fears that the country could export new variants.

That probability has been heightened by another factor: China, instead of containing the current COVID spike within its borders, has just lifted all international-travel restrictions for Chinese, leading to a major boom in sales of air tickets out of the country.

This is redolent of how China spawned the pandemic: After COVID originated within its borders, it allowed residents of Wuhan and other virus-battered areas of Hubei province to travel abroad but imposed domestic-travel restrictions on them so that they did not take the coronavirus to Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities. In fact, it was only after COVID cases with Wuhan links were detected in Thailand and South Korea that China belatedly acknowledged its coronavirus outbreak through the party-run People’s Daily on Jan. 21, 2020, including admitting human-to-human spread.

It’s a testament to China’s rising power that, without incurring any international costs, it has effectively stonewalled international investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 virus, including its possible escape from the military-linked Wuhan Institute of Virology.

President Biden’s administration, meanwhile, has effectively let China off the hook, in part because American government agencies – from the National Institutes of Health to USAID – funded dangerous research on bat coronaviruses at this Wuhan lab.

More broadly, although 2022 was not a good year for peace, 2023 may not be much better, given the new cold war.

It is worth remembering that competition and conflict are inherent in a world in which there is no supranational government to enforce international law or protect the weaker states against the more powerful states. This explains why weak, vulnerable states seek protection by aligning themselves with one great power or the other.

The harsh truth about international law is this: International law is powerful against the powerless but powerless against the powerful. Just the history of the past 25 years is replete with examples of big powers invading small, weak nations, including reducing several of them to failed or failing states.

International conflict often arises when major powers attempt to maximize their security, including by asserting spheres of influence or seeking to contain rival or emerging powers. If one great power feels that a nation within its traditional sphere of influence is drifting into the orbit of a rival power, it will use all possible means to try to reverse that direction, as exemplified by Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

While seeking to consolidate its hold on the nearly one-fifth of Ukrainian territory it occupies, Russia has since October launched volleys of cruise missiles and drones at Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, especially its energy grid, in an apparent strategy of undermining morale by throwing that country into cold and darkness amid freezing winter temperatures. Ukraine, despite a growing arsenal of Western advanced weapons, including air-defense systems, has been unable to stop such debilitating attacks, resulting in widespread power outages becoming common.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the “save Ukraine” narrative has been eclipsed by the “bleed Russia dry” narrative, which is rooted in the belief that the costs to the American taxpayers for providing weapons, battlefield intelligence and other aid to Ukraine are dwarfed by the benefits.

The U.S. directed about $50 billion in assistance to Ukraine in 2022, and its new $1.66-trillion spending plan includes $45 billion in additional aid for that country. The assistance may be massive (it is the largest U.S. aid to any European nation in more than seven decades), yet its proponents contend that, from a bang-per-buck perspective, it is highly cost-effective in helping to degrade an enemy’s military capabilities for a single-digit share of America’s annual defense budget — without the loss of a single American soldier.

In this light, the war is unlikely to end anytime soon, despite its devastating costs for Ukraine and its people.

Eventually, when Russia and the U.S. both realize that they are unlikely to achieve their key objectives in Ukraine, a negotiated settlement to the conflict could emerge.

But with the Ukraine war diverting America’s attention away from the growing strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, the danger is growing that China could move against Taiwan. U.S. intelligence now reportedly believes that Xi could act against Taiwan before the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

A Chinese attack on Taiwan would likely have a greater global impact than the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

America’s role is central to preventing a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, a technological powerhouse with the world’s 22nd-largest economy by gross domestic product. The new $1.66-trillion spending plan, however, provides just $2 billion for Taiwan (and in loans, not grants), prompting the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), to quip, “We say we want to meet the China challenge but then we don’t fund Taiwan in a way that is necessary.”

Against this background, 2023 is likely to prove a challenging year for international peace, especially as the war in Ukraine grinds on and China persists with its expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, including intensifying coercive pressure on Taiwan.

Meanwhile, with politics coming ahead of public health, the threat from the pandemic is far from over. Whether COVID-19 had a natural or human-made origin remains unknown.

As we look ahead, the enduring lesson from the failure to unravel the genesis of a pandemic that has killed some 6.7 million people, including more Americans than did World War II, is that “gain of function” research of the type conducted in Wuhan is the greatest existential threat to humankind ever produced by science — a bigger threat than nuclear weapons.

Such research to enhance the virulence or infectiousness of pathogens by altering their genetic make-up is continuing in some labs in the West, China and Russia. And it needs to stop.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press). Follow him on Twitter @Chellaney.