The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the military coup in Myanmar, and a new cold war, with the countries once again withdrawing into blocks, were among the major developments witnessed in 2021.
As curtains are about to fall in 2021, experts feel that the Russian military buildup near the borders of Ukraine, Chinese assertions on Taiwan and the South China Sea, coupled with its border standoff with India, and deepening military and diplomatic cooperation between Moscow and Beijing have thrown significant challenges to geopolitics.
The developments also posed significant challenges to the US plans to reassert its leadership, which under new President Joe Biden revived the “Pivot to Asia” strategy by putting more military assets in the Western Pacific. In August, the White House approved the sale of $750 million in arms to Taiwan.
Responding to these maneuvers, China dispatched a record number of bombers and fighters into Taiwan’s air defense zone in a display of dominance.
According to a report released by the Center for a New American Security, Russia and China have entered into a symbiotic relationship causing further worries to the US and its allies. While Russia is procuring Chinese electronic components and navel diesel engines to circumvent US sanctions, its missiles and fighter technology are giving Beijing an edge in the Pacific against the US.
The possibility and probability of a two-war front are not only worrying India, which has tense borders with Pakistan on its western side but the teaming up of Russia and China is causing nightmares to the US as well.
“The greatest risk facing the twenty-first-century US, short of an outright nuclear attack, is a two-front war involving its strongest military rivals, China and Russia,” a former senior American diplomat A. Wess Mitchell wrote in the US journal National Interest in August.
Further, China’s firing a hypersonic missile that moved five times the speed of sound in July not only surprised the Pentagon but also underscored the speed with which Beijing has mounted a strategic challenge to the US military.
In response to growing Chinese assertiveness, Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson jointly announced a new trilateral security partnership named AUKUS in September.
The most significant part of the deal was the US pledge to provide Australia with technology to build eight nuclear-powered submarines. The statement announcing the pact justified it as necessary to “preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific” region.
The move, however, angered France, which fumed because AUKUS terminated a $37 billion agreement it struck with Australia in 2016 to build a dozen diesel-electric powered submarines. As a result, Paris recalled its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington, a move without precedent in bilateral relations with either country.
The Russian military buildup near the Ukrainian border prompted Biden to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin through a video link. Biden warned Putin that the US would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event Russia invaded Ukraine.
But the year 2021 will go down into history with the dramatic return of the Taliban in power in Afghanistan and its bloodless takeover of the capital Kabul in August.
In 2020, former US President Donald Trump had struck a deal with the Taliban that required withdrawing all US troops by May 1, 2021. Two weeks before that deadline, Biden ordered that a complete US withdrawal be concluded by no later than Sept. 11, 2021-- the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. But surprisingly, Afghanistan’s national army collapsed and the Taliban overran the country.
The US had spent more than $2.3 trillion on Afghanistan over two decades, or roughly $300 million a day for 20 years, according to the US-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
Ousting of democracies and COVID-19 surge
While a military coup in Myanmar in February deposed the nascent democratically elected government led by controversial Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, far away in Africa, another Nobel laureate politician Abiy Ahmed involved militarily against Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Some 2 million Ethiopians were displaced.
Fledgling democracies in Chad, Mali, Guinea, and Sudan all were ousted in coups.
While the speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were developed was stunning, the mutation of the virus and its new variants creating havoc across the globe was also unprecedented. The delta variant, first identified in December 2020 in India, was more infectious than its predecessors and soon became the dominant strain around the world.
As many as 3.4 million people have lost their lives to COVID-19 in 2021, so far, according to the data-tracking website Worldometer. Although COVID-19 was detected in 2019, it turned into a pandemic in 2020, taking 1.95 million lives in that year. In November 2021, South African scientists identified the emergence of a new coronavirus strain -- the omicron.
The pandemic exposed the UN-led global order, which failed to bring out a collective solution to the global issue. Just 4.2% of people in low-income countries have received the first dose. Across Africa, only 6.3% of people are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, a tracking website affiliated with Oxford University.
On the climate change front, President Biden committed to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office, while China agreed to discontinue financing coal-fired power plants overseas, and Iceland opened a facility to take carbon dioxide out of the air.
At the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, referred to as COP26, in Glasgow in November, countries pledged to take steps to address climate change, including by cutting methane emissions.
Some good news from Middle East
The May 2021 conflict between Israel and the Palestinian resistance group Hamas generated headlines around the world. A report by the independent monitoring group Airwars found that the conflict killed up to 192 Palestinian civilians and injured hundreds more over 11 days of fighting. Israeli warplanes destroyed the offices of various media outlets, including Al Jazeera and the Associated Press.
Two Anadolu Agency journalists, Mustafa Hassouna and Mohammad al-Aloul, sustained injuries while covering an Israeli strike in the northern Gaza Strip.
The rest of the Middle East brought good news with the tensions between the countries waning. The year started with Saudi Arabia reopening its border with Qatar, ending a three-year-long diplomatic crisis. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also repaired broken ties, reflecting the new realities taking shape in the region. The UAE and Iran are discussing the possibility of normalization, or at least have been in contact to avoid any conflict, according to a US-based think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In March, Pope Francis met in Iraq with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the first-ever meeting between a pope and a grand ayatollah.
Biden’s victory had brought optimism that the Iran nuclear deal might be revived three years after Trump quit the agreement. But it took almost a year to achieve modest gains in Vienna at the seventh round of talks. The parties are still nowhere closer to any agreement.
Inflation and economic downslide continued to hit the world. As the demand surged in 2021 with vaccines becoming available, many countries found themselves short on supplies. Shortages of shipping containers and backups at ports around the world further complicated matters.
In the US alone, the size of the workforce fell by 5 million people from the start of the pandemic. The supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19, which have contributed to a worldwide surge in inflation, continue to hit countries and may linger for years, according to CFR.