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Where Will War Break out Next? Predicting Violent Conflict

October 26, 2022

By Adam Burke

Uncertainty over the future is rising on the world stage. The war in Ukraine, geopolitical tensions between China and Western nations, the threat of economic recession, political instability, and accelerating climate change create a backdrop of anxiety that violent conflict will spread.

Will these trends bring instability and conflict to Asia in the coming years? Are wars between nations, still rare in the twenty-first century, back on the agenda?

Most efforts to predict the future fall flat, and early-warning tools for violent conflict are no different. Experts have long tried to identify where and when future wars will break out, but this worthy goal and the huge benefits it could bring remain out of reach.

Improved modeling and better data may lead to breakthroughs at some point. For now, available approaches can’t make sense of the noise—too many variables to consider, too much murky information, and too many unproven links between events. In this field, futurology is still a fool’s game.

Talking concisely about threats and risks, however, is less of a potential banana skin. Drawing on a compilation of evidence, analysts can try to identify places where the risks of violent conflict are greatest, even if they can’t say for sure that it will happen.

 A camp for Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar stretches as far as the eye can see in Bangladesh, with the mountains of Myanmar visible in the distance.

This more modest goal is still a major challenge. Across Asia, evidence on the overall pattern of conflicts is mixed. Optimists can point to major improvements in recent years, as both the number and intensity of wars declined. Between 2010 and 2020, as summarized in The Asia Foundation’s State of Conflict and Violence in Asia 2021 report, conflict fatalities in most of South and Southeast Asia fell by two-thirds, from around 6,000 per year to around 2,000.

The figures look very different, however, if Afghanistan is included. In 2019, Afghanistan sustained 40 percent of all fatalities from organized violence worldwide, registering more than 31,000 combat-related deaths. A huge drop in violence followed the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2021, but the subsequent Taliban takeover deprived many of their rights, especially women; terrorism remains a persistent problem; and the likelihood of a sustained peace in these circumstances is slim.

Also in 2021, a military coup led to surging violence in Myanmar. Protests began peacefully until harsh suppression by the armed forces triggered a descent into intense, widespread conflict. The military tried to assert their control against a rising tide of armed opposition, and within a few months even areas of the country that had previously been calm were engulfed in fighting with new resistance groups.

Elsewhere in Asia, rising tensions have undermined stability, risking a reversal of the progress of the past decade. Domestic politics in many countries have become more polarized as leaders drum up support from the mainstream by inciting resentment against religious minorities. Mass protests also emerged in many cities, from Hong Kong to Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The pressures that fueled these events seem likely to persist or increase into 2023 and beyond, with unpredictable implications. Long-established norms of tolerance and pluralism in many countries have been undermined by the rise of authoritarian leadership and the loosening of checks and balances against abuses of power. China’s rapid growth and the decline of the U.S.-led global consensus on liberal norms have reinforced this trend. The risks of great-power rivalry have grown concurrently, and the return of Cold War–style proxy wars is a distinct possibility.

Economic stress raises the stakes and stokes instability. Much of Asia has made historic strides in reducing poverty in just two generations—creating unprecedented improvements in the quality of life, but also setting up new tensions. The new prosperity is often uneven. For example, the share of India’s wealth enjoyed by the wealthiest 1 percent grew from around 23 percent in 1995 to 33 percent in 2021. Looking ahead, the number of U.S. dollar millionaires in India is expected to more than double between 2022 and 2026.

These trends create a perception of inequality across Asia’s increasingly educated and aspiring populations. Uneven access to justice, business opportunities, and official positions fuels resentment as privileged elites take advantage of crony connections, family ties, and financial clout to act with impunity and evade the law.

The current economic downturn aggravates these frustrations. Rapidly rising prices and slower growth are felt most sharply in countries where years of mismanagement and high levels of external debt have compounded the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sri Lanka has already suffered through an acute economic collapse that led to mass protests and political crisis. Other vulnerable countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, and Laos may follow in the coming years, with unstable and potentially violent outcomes.

Climate change will create further stress as extreme weather events and rising sea levels generate humanitarian crises and undermine farming and fishing communities in the most vulnerable areas. Where people are fighting to maintain a standard of living that is under threat, some political leaders will inevitably choose the low road by pandering to communal identities and grievances and directing them at convenient scapegoats. Divisions within societies may in turn become more acute, leading to potential outbreaks of majoritarian or communal violence and perhaps a resurgence of longstanding subnational tensions.

Widespread use of online communications, especially social media, ratchets up the tension. Rules-based regulation and shared agreement on how the internet is managed remain elusive goals as many governments actively seek to control or manipulate the information space, both domestically and abroad. Social media also makes organizing protests easier—from dispersed insurgencies to leaderless mass movements—even if it does not ensure their success. Other new technologies such as facial recognition are radically shifting how states can monitor populations, while cyberattacks and drones offer new possibilities for online and offline disruption.

Together, these are the ingredients for a more unstable and potentially more authoritarian Asia. There is not enough evidence to say for certain that the region as a whole will endure higher levels of conflict, but the underlying stresses suggest that violence will flare in some places at least. Working out where war or instability is most likely requires delving into the politics and social complexities of each country, each community, and each locality. The conditions that generate conflict in one place may not do so in another, and there is no elegant shortcut to help us predict what will happen next.

For those looking to encourage stability and forfend conflict in a complex and rapidly changing world, understanding how broad trends play out on the ground helps identify where the risks are greatest. This knowledge can help us plan strategies and concrete steps to reduce tensions or negotiate compromises. Conflict-prevention measures make objective sense given the hideous costs of war, but they are always politically challenging, and every bit of evidence helps.

Adam Burke is director of The Asia Foundation’s Conflict and Fragility program. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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