Contested Spaces


Theme 5: Contested Spaces

The global economic trajectory of the past forty years has produced an increasingly interconnected, ever shrinking world, driving competition over resources and territory fuelled by both historical and contemporary motives – a trend that is likely to be exacerbated in 2022. Fuelled by the economic fallout of the pandemic driving competition in an increasingly polarised world, Sibylline's proprietary ASTRA data captures this deteriorating trajectory for risks associated with contested spaces over 2021. The key indicators of armed conflict border disputes and regional tensions all increased over the past 12 months – a trend that is likely to increase global focus on areas which have been historic sources of confrontation and instability.

While disputed boundaries have long characterised international relations and commerce, 2022 will see the risks around contested spaces continue to increase, posing a direct challenge to both governments and businesses alike. Mounting tensions in the South China Sea will continue to rise into 2022 driven by the growing militarisation of the space as exemplified by China's construction of airbases and Western freedom of navigation exercises. The AUKUS agreement signed in late 2021 is an apparent indicator of American focus on curtailing Chinese power regionally that has added to US-China rivalry. With 20% to 33% of global shipping passing through the South China Sea, businesses will be exposed to supply chain disruption should tensions rise further, while those western entities operational in China remain at risk of harassment in regard to both staff and assets. 2022 will see border tensions and the risk of armed conflict remain elevated in the region, principally driven by Beijing's continued pressurising of Taiwan through both assertive rhetoric and military tactics such as October 2021's airspace violations.

Competition for access to oil and gas reserves will ensure that numerous contested maritime disputes drive localised tensions and increase the scope for the disruption of maritime operations. The continuing dispute between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus over the development of gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean is unlikely to diminish over 2022, ensuring it remains a source of instability within the EU and NATO. Meanwhile, longstanding Venezuelan claims over Guyana and its on- and off-shore oil reserves will drive the continued harassment of vessels in the disputed Esequibo maritime territory, with the Maduro regime set to maintain its nationalist rhetoric around the issue to buttress its position domestically.

Armed Conflict Border Disputes

The changing global climate will see tension rise in areas of the planet with a challenging water and energy security environment. Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, will experience growing competition over water resources, compounding the scope for confrontation in an ethnically diverse region that routinely experiences violence along numerous disputed borders. Competition over water resources threatens to drive instability as Central Asia already faces the uncertainty emanating from a Taliban-led Afghanistan and the enduring challenge of extremist activity.

Elsewhere in Eurasia, the frozen conflicts managed by Russia in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will continue to allow Moscow to use contested spaces in those countries as a tool to destabilise their internal politics and ensure Russia's continued influence within the former-Soviet Union. A return to full kinetic conflict in the Ukraine's Donbas or the South Caucasus Nagorno-Karabakh region remains unlikely, however the Azeri-Armenian confrontation over the latter will remain a source of significant instability. In Kashmir, sporadic violence will maintain the scope for more significant escalations such as that of 2019 between India and Pakistan and the 2020's confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops.

Elsewhere, confrontational rhetoric surrounding the post-Brexit settlement will feature prominently in 2022. The status of Northern Ireland and its relation to the single market will continue to strain relations between the UK and the EU. In the case of the latter, the ongoing negotiations over protocol agreed in 2020 represents a tangible threat to the relative stability fostered on the island of Ireland over the past two decades. Further disputes are likely to arise around fishing rights with the post-Brexit confrontation between Paris and London unlikely to abate in 2022, with France's upcoming presidential elections likely to see intensified union activity and rhetoric from political leaders.

Space will also emerge further into the spotlight as an increasingly contested arena between states. The development of hypersonic weaponry and creation of space forces by major and middle powers over the past five years reflects the growing focus on space as a warfighting domain. The growing space economy, worth over 440 USD billion in 2020, coupled with our established reliance on satellites for both consumers and businesses, will see an acceleration of efforts to regulate space. The US, China and Russia in particular will compete to influence and shape international space policy whilst simultaneously looking for opportunities to weaponise this domain.

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