In Iran, North Korea and Burma we have all the makings of a combustible 2011. All three countries are run by dictators who want nuclear weapons to increase the weight they can throw around their long-suffering neighbourhoods. And they appear to be prepared to risk war in order to get them – or at least to remain in power. In 2011, war might indeed be the result: the question is which of the three pariahs is most likely to light the fuse.
Iran, pressing ahead with its nuclear programme in the teeth of international sanctions, will arguably pose the greatest danger in the next 12 months. Its neighbours in the Middle East dread the prospect of a nuclear Iran – especially Israel (itself a nuclear power), which would sooner launch airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities and risk retaliation than see Tehran’s hostile regime obtain the bomb.
Reclusive North Korea is less vital to the wider world’s geopolitical health, but it poses a more serious risk of near-term conflict. While Pyongyang is making slow progress in its quest for a usable atomic weapon, experts believe it is still several years away from possessing a nuclear warhead and a missile to fire it with.
Yet if its nuclear threat remains immature, the North’s conventional arsenal poses a huge danger to the South. It has over 10,000 artillery pieces pointing at Seoul and this makes any military operation to knock out Kim Jong-il’s nuclear plants too risky to attempt. The two Koreas are past masters at rattling sabres without ever really crossing swords – and they may yet overcome the recent plunge in their relations. But Washington and Seoul will have to tread more carefully than ever with the fractious North in 2011, both to avoid war and to keep those nukes in the laboratory and away from the launch pad.
Burma is the furthest away from developing a viable nuclear weapon (probably at least a decade, despite North Korea’s friendly assistance) – yet it is also the closest to war. The country’s military junta has been amassing troops in the north-east of the country ready for an attack on the loose alliance of rebel groups which for decades have defied its authority; it has also been buying Russian attack helicopters to back up the campaign. The Burmese highlands are one of Asia’s remotest corners, but they could erupt into one of its most notorious within the next few months.
So what grounds for optimism in 2011? China, which has unique leverage over all three problem states, might just deliver some. A war on its Burmese border is certainly unacceptable to Beijing; so is the implosion of the Korean Peninsula; and so too is war in Iran, a key trading partner and provider of one-third of Chinese energy imports. In 2011. the Chinese have a big opportunity to play the role of both patron and peacemaker by steering these three volatile outliers back into the political mainstream.