2018 Second-Quarter Forecast

[This article is VERY long. Give yourself plenty of time – it’ll be worth it. -Bob]

Re-Blogged From Stratfor

Table of Contents

(GOH CHAI HIN/MLADEN ANTONOV/SAUL LOEB/JOE RAEDLE/TOM MIHALEK/FENG LI/TAB1962/DONVICTORIO/KEVIND/STR/AFP/Getty Images)

    1. Overview

The White House Takes on the World: The White House will bump up against the laws of the United States and the central tenets of the World Trade Organization as it launches a global trade offensive in the name of national security. U.S. production costs will rise in response, and countries will target America’s politically sensitive sectors in retaliation.

Trade, Technology and Taiwan: Tension between the United States and China will spike, putting businesses caught in the fray at risk. While the White House targets Chinese trade and investment with its protectionist policies, Congress will rouse Beijing’s ire by upgrading U.S. ties with Taiwan.

A Race to the Cutting Edge: As the United States turns its attention toward its competition with China and Russia, the development of disruptive weapons technology among the great powers will further degrade the world’s arms control treaties. Beijing will funnel state funds toward artificial intelligence research in hopes of catching up with its American adversary while the West struggles to navigate antitrust and data privacy concerns.

The Stubborn Problem of Nuclear Proliferation: Building on a brief detente, South Korea will try to persuade the United States and North Korea to reconcile their mostly intractable positions on the issue of denuclearization. Meanwhile, Iran will rely on Europe’s support to keep its nuclear deal alive as Saudi Arabia uses the same agreement to negotiate a civilian nuclear program of its own.

Fighting for the Future of Europe: Headed by a divided Germany and an emboldened France, the debate over eurozone reforms will expose the deeper divides threatening Continental unity as Italy stands ready to flout any rules-based regime that Berlin and its northern allies propose.

Balancing Oil and Building Batteries: Global oil producers, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, will extend and adjust their agreed-upon production cuts to counter U.S. shale output over the long run. In the alternative energies sector, battery developers will have to contend with the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s attempt to rake in more revenue as the world’s demand for cobalt grows.

Trouble Brews in the Americas: Mexico will let Canada take the lead in confronting the United States on trade issues during NAFTA negotiations. Trade tension will likewise mar Washington’s rocky relationship with Brazil as the two remain at odds over how to manage Venezuela’s economic crisis and its regional spillover.

India Protects Its Periphery: China’s deep pockets and wide maritime reach will draw India into closer defense cooperation with the United States, Japan and Australia as it works to balance against its increasingly powerful neighbor.

Ankara’s Ambitions Take Center Stage: A rising power in its own right, Turkey will push its troops deeper into northern Syria and Iraq while laying claim to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, upsetting Cyprus’ plans for the energy resources that lie beneath the disputed waters.

Global Trends

In today’s world, nations are becoming increasingly interconnected by air, land, sea and cyberspace. As globalization has knitted countries and continents closer together, the borders of the map and the barriers of geography have been rendered, in some ways, obsolete. Now events in one region can more easily have consequences in another, at times even rippling across the globe. We explore those with the greatest impact on international decision-making during the forecast period below.

(NASA/Newsmakers)

Highlights

  • The White House’s economic assault against China will cause collateral damage around the globe, but on their own, tariffs will likely do little to solve the United States’ perceived trade deficit problem.
  • As concerns about data privacy and corporate monopolies give rise to new regulations in the West, China will pump its resources into the development of strategic technologies to try to catch up with the United States.
  • Cryptocurrency regulations will proceed apace while more and more countries experiment with the perks of state-backed cryptocurrencies, including insulation from sanctions and diversification away from the dollar.
  • United in their goal of countering the rise of U.S. shale, global producers led by Saudi Arabia and Russia will extend their production cuts and work toward a more enduring cooperation deal.

The Bull in the China Shop

As U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 trade agenda put it, “these are exciting times for U.S. trade policy.” That may be the understatement of the year. The White House is ready to take aim at the global economy this quarter, and the bull’s-eye is sitting squarely on Beijing.

Trump is convinced that China’s economic rise poses a national security threat. And when it comes to China’s penchant for dumping goods, enacting unfair subsidy regimes, distorting the market and violating intellectual property rights, many countries in the developed world would agree. The United States, however, isn’t willing to wait around for the European Union and Japan to address these challenges in a managed, multilateral forum. Instead it will follow an “act now, talk later” strategy that it believes — rightly or wrongly — will coerce Beijing into coming to the negotiating table on Washington’s terms. The United States also hopes its tactics will galvanize free-trade advocates to reform institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) so that they, too, can bring China in line with international trade and investment norms. That’s the idea, anyway.

But just as the United States claims that China benefits from a rules-based global trade order by refusing to play by those rules, the White House is bending many of them to make its point. For instance, the sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum that Washington will use to combat overcapacity in the name of national security will produce a litany of legal challenges within the United States and at the WTO, as affected countries — including members of the European Union, China, Brazil, Japan and South Korea — protest the measures. In fact, many will retaliate with anti-dumping and countervailing duties of their own against the United States, taking care to target politically sensitive sectors like agriculture ahead of midterm elections in November. These reprisals may even take on an anti-American tone: The European Union has already threatened to crack down on iconic American imports, including Harley Davidson motorcycles, bourbon and blue jeans.

 

 

By using creative arguments to wield the most powerful trade weapons in its arsenal, the United States will back the WTO into a corner. Legal challenges in the organization take years to play out, but if the arbitration ends in Washington’s favor, it will endorse a dangerous precedent of invoking national security to justify economic protectionism. Should the WTO rule against the United States, the White House could opt to ignore the decision altogether by citing American sovereignty, undermining the institution’s credibility in the process. (Notably, the White House will also continue to paralyze the WTO’s arbitration system by blocking new appointments to the appellate body.)

In the meantime, steel and aluminum consumers in the United States will have to bear higher input costs. Contrary to Trump’s logic that higher tariffs will reduce trade deficits, they aren’t guaranteed to make Chinese steel less competitive in the United States. Metals exporters subject to U.S. tariffs will divert their goods to other markets around the world, which in turn will cause big metals importers to throw up barriers to protect their markets from a flood of foreign products. Amid the ensuing trade scramble, the United States hopes to persuade the European Union and Japan to join its crusade to counter excess global steel capacity. But Washington’s partners may instead choose to stand up to its blatant protectionism and push back against the United States under the auspices of the WTO.

The United States’ opening trade move may be to target overcapacity, but intellectual property will be high on its list of concerns as well. Under a Section 301 investigation into whether China’s technology transfer and investment requirements of American firms operating inside its borders are discriminatory, Washington will take action against Beijing — both within and beyond the bounds of the WTO. (The investigation must wrap up by August, but Washington may release its findings before then.) The United States is already entertaining some legally questionable moves, such as declaring a national emergency in response to China’s intellectual property violations, to impose punitive measures and erect safeguards around certain U.S. industries like consumer electronics, household appliances and automotives. Along with Europe, it will also continue to block Chinese investments in the tech sector as it sees fit, pointing to national security as its motive.

China, of course, won’t take Trump’s trade jabs lying down. In addition to imposing its own restrictions on some U.S. agricultural goods, Beijing is likely to selectively apply regulatory pressure on American companies with stakes in China. And when the time comes for Beijing to negotiate with Washington, it will have a handful of concessions — expanding U.S. access to the Chinese market and boosting Chinese imports of U.S. goods in certain sectors, to name a few — to offer. The external pressure mounting against China’s economy may even accelerate the country’s ongoing attempts to tackle overcapacity at home.

Though the White House may be willing to stomach the political risk attached to tariffs that ratchet up metals prices for U.S. industrial consumers, it will show more caution as it navigates North American trade negotiations. The ongoing NAFTA talks will stretch beyond this quarter, thanks to major sticking points on rules of origin requirements for the auto sector and to Canada’s more assertive stance against the United States. So far, domestic political checks on Trump’s actions have dissuaded the president from abruptly withdrawing from the pact. As he leans on more aggressive trade measures in the months ahead, overruling defenders of free trade within his administration, Congress will take on a more assertive role in regulating the country’s commerce abroad. Though U.S. lawmakers will have greater room to insulate existing free trade agreements, including NAFTA, their ability to counter unilateral tariffs leveled by the executive branch will be limited.

The White House’s trade policy will be one of several factors fueling market volatility in the second quarter. Any uptick in expectations of inflation could lead to four hikes in U.S. interest rates this year instead of three. While by no means certain, this outcome would cause overvalued asset prices in U.S. equity markets to deflate. Higher interest rates could also strengthen the dollar and put more pressure on the central banks of the eurozone, Japan and China to tighten their monetary policies as they guard against the outflow of capital — with consequences for economic growth that could ripple across the globe.

Reining in Rogues and Rivals

The president’s approach to trade offers yet another example of his willingness to override the concerns of national security professionals within his administration on certain issues. Many have called for a more measured and targeted approach to avoid entrapping strategic U.S. allies and increasing the costs of U.S. defense. Still, as long as these voices remain in the White House, they will continue to restrain Trump’s responses to thornier foreign policy matters.

Among them will be nuclear containment. Despite worsening military friction between the United States and North Korea this quarter, a U.S. strike on the Korean Peninsula will remain an unlikely prospect — particularly given the promised summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Meanwhile, even as the United States urges Europe to threaten Iran with sanctions related to its ballistic missile program, Washington will stop short of tearing up Tehran’s nuclear deal altogether. But new nuclear proliferation concerns are emerging in the Middle East. Having already secured Russia’s stamp of approval for a preliminary roadmap, Saudi Arabia will use the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and global powers as a framework for a deal on a civilian nuclear program in the kingdom that includes domestic enrichment rights. Though it won’t be thrilled with the idea, the United States will work to ensure that it — rather than a rival like Russia — is best positioned to partner with allies in the Arab world that seek civilian nuclear programs of their own.

As it fends off Moscow’s encroachment in the Middle East, Washington will prepare for a more fundamental competition with Russia and China. At the beginning of the year, a series of U.S. defense reviews all but confirmed this by dubbing the two eastern giants the main strategic threats to the United States today. As the great power competition takes shape, countries caught in the middle will have no choice but to adapt. Some, like Ukraine and Taiwan, will use the contest to fortify their alliances with the United States. Others, like the Philippines, will find it increasingly difficult to balance their relationships with both sides.

Spurred by their rivalry, the United States, China and Russia will continue to develop disruptive weapons technology. But rather than force all parties into compliance with existing arms treaties, this dangerous race is more likely to further degrade the deals as time goes on. Accusations of violations will continue to fly between the United States and Russia as the pivotal Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty steadily falls apart, undermining talks on the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in the process.

A Mad Dash to the Cutting Edge

At the same time, the United States and China will jockey for the leading edge in artificial intelligence, which stands to have a profound impact on both military and civilian life. The United States is still ahead of China on this front, but Beijing is sprinting to catch up. And whereas big tech firms will have to contend with data privacy concerns and antitrust investigations in the West, China’s corporate giants will be largely unfettered in the mad dash for technological dominance.

Data privacy and its role in the evolving relationship among citizens, companies and states will take the spotlight in the European Union in the months ahead. Though European governments are particularly keen to protect the privacy rights of individuals, the Continent is simply too large a market for tech companies to avoid entirely. The General Data Protection Regulation set to take effect across the European Union on May 25 will thus set a global precedent for tech firms trying to navigate data privacy challenges.

The financial tech sector will follow the same path. Now that the speculative bubble around cryptocurrencies has burst, states will have more space to craft rules for cryptocurrencies, distributed ledger technology and initial coin offerings. Other industries — from supply chain management to insurance to health care — are beginning to adopt and regulate distributed ledger technology as well, albeit at a slower pace. Pending regulatory approval, a recently announced joint venture between IBM and Maersk Line shipping will bear watching because it may pioneer the use of blockchain technology in the management of global supply chains.

As governments wrap their heads around the benefits of alternative currencies, more state-backed cryptocurrencies will crop up throughout the year, each driven by a different motive. For advanced countries, such as Estonia, cryptocurrency adoption is a natural step in digitizing their economies. For Iran and Russia, it could offer some insulation from the sanctions against them. Cryptocurrencies can also be useful to shambolic economies like Venezuela or Zimbabwe, where people have lost trust in fiat currencies, want to back their currencies with a commodity or hope to shield themselves from sanctions. And as small, dollarized countries like the Marshall Islands are discovering, cryptocurrencies can offer greater economic flexibility and an alternative to the dollar.

Old Challenges and New Appetites in Energy

The U.S. energy industry, a major steel consumer, will be hit hard this quarter by hefty steel tariffs that jack up its production costs — and at a time, no less, when U.S. oil output has broken records at over 10 million barrels per day. Though U.S. shale production may moderately decline as a result, it won’t be enough to ease the concerns of OPEC and its external partners, which have trimmed back their output in an effort to balance out the growing supplies of their American competitors. So far, production dips in Mexico, China and Venezuela are helping to offset the relentless climb in U.S. and Canadian output. OPEC and non-OPEC producers will probably extend their cuts through the end of the year when they meet in Vienna in June. The details of a longer-term agreement, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, to counter U.S. shale production will likely emerge around the same time as well.

Elsewhere in the energy realm, demand for lithium-ion batteries — and the corresponding need for cobalt and lithium — is on the rise. At its heart is China, whose environmental reforms and technological drive are fueling the development and demand for electric vehicle batteries. But the world’s newfound appetite for these resources will create a host of geopolitical challenges. This quarter, battery producers will have to grapple with new legislation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a major source of cobalt, that will increase mining royalties owed to the government. And although Argentina and Chile are well-positioned to attract foreign investment into their lithium sectors, growing political instability in Bolivia will hurt its chances of doing the same.

 

Americas

The Americas stretch from the Arctic Circle in Canada to the southern tip of Chile. This geographically, culturally and politically diverse region is home to the United States, a nation whose geography helped it become the foremost economic and military power in the world — an ascendance aided in part by bringing Mexico and Canada into its sphere of influence. Farther south, the nations of South America are like islands, separated by vast spaces of impenetrable mountains, rivers and jungles. Try though these countries may to integrate more closely, deeper ties such as those that characters North America will prove elusive.

(FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

Highlights

  • The White House’s new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum will raise prices for U.S. manufacturers and invite retaliatory measures from other countries in the process.
  • Under pressure from Congress and the agricultural lobby, the United States will stay in the North American Free Trade Agreement this quarter, despite Canada’s resistance to Washington’s protectionist demands and Mexico’s reluctance to compromise ahead of its presidential election.
  • In Mexico, established parties such as the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN) will fight an uphill battle against general dissatisfaction with the political establishment.
  • Though other countries in the region will become increasingly concerned this quarter about Venezuela’s deepening economic crisis, Brazil and Colombia will butt heads over what to do about it.

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The White House Raises the Stakes on Trade

The U.S. approach to trade will take center stage this quarter as President Donald Trump’s America First policies lead to action. After imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, the White House may also move to punish Chinese trade practices through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and unilateral tariffs. And pressure from lawmakers will push negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) beyond the quarter.

Unless they are granted exemptions, some of the countries targeted by the new tariffs will soon start retaliating against the United States. South Korea, Brazil, Japan and the European Union, for example, will launch challenges in the WTO and take other retaliatory measures, which could lead to new or higher tariffs on U.S. exports, mainly in the agricultural sector. Overseas, meanwhile, the oversupply of aluminum and steel will worsen as exporters shut off from the U.S. market scramble to divert their products elsewhere, prompting other governments around the world to erect additional barriers against imports of the metals.

Beyond its move on metals, the White House may take action against China this quarter after a separate trade investigation into some of the country’s business practices. The inquiry, opened under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, focuses on activities among Chinese firms, such as pressuring foreign companies operating in China to share intellectual property, conducting unauthorized technology transfers and illegally intruding into commercial business networks. The investigation may well continue beyond this quarter; the United States has until August to render its decision on the matter. When it does take action, though, the United States will bring WTO cases against China and will try to do so in coordination with Japan and the European Union. It will also pursue measures outside the WTO — probably tariffs or quotas in sectors in which Chinese companies have forced technology transfer from U.S. firms, such as consumer electronics, appliances and automotive parts. In response, Beijing is likely to impose tariffs of its own on key U.S. agricultural exports like sorghum and soybeans, while tightening regulations on American companies investing in China.

On the domestic front, too, the White House will face challenges to its agenda. Lawmakers up for re-election will be loath to support many of the administration’s policy proposals. Even the president’s watered-down immigration reforms stand little chance of reaching the 60 votes required to pass in the Senate. Trump’s infrastructure funding plan will likewise run up against high hurdles, given that Congress has already approved a two-year budget deal.

NAFTA: To Be Continued

November’s midterm elections will also limit the Trump administration’s leeway in negotiations to revamp NAFTA this quarter. The White House will at first keep a hard line in the negotiations to get the best deal it can from Canada and Mexico. In time, however, Republican members of Congress concerned about the economic and political consequences of failed NAFTA talks will push the administration to compromise on some issues, including rules of origin on automotive products. Their pressure will probably work: As the elections approach, lawmakers are threatening to use legislative means to prevent the United States’ withdrawal from NAFTA, making the move unlikely for now.

The United States isn’t the only NAFTA member facing an election this year. Mexico’s government will be in a similar bind ahead of the next presidential vote in July. Consequently, President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration will resist Washington’s demands in the negotiations. Mexico City will continue with the talks. But whether it can quickly reach a final deal over NAFTA will depend on how it handles disagreements with the United States over rules of origin, investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms and a proposed sunset clause to establish periodic review of the trade agreement.

Aware of the political considerations constraining its fellow NAFTA members, Canada will keep an aggressive stance toward U.S. policies like these. Ottawa, for example, will press for a deal on automotive rules of origin in the next rounds of NAFTA negotiations. Its aim in doing so will be to persuade Washington to compromise in its quest to tighten regional content requirements for tariff-exempt vehicles in the bloc. (Provinces such as Ontario may follow the central government’s lead and adopt laws to counter U.S. protectionist measures at the provincial level.) The Canadian government will agree only to a slight increase in rules of origin requirements in the automotive sector, and Mexico will let it take the lead on challenging the United States.

Election Races Heat Up in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil

For Mexico, NAFTA negotiations are hardly the only issue at stake in the approaching presidential election. The hotly contested race for the presidency will intensify this quarter as the leading candidates enter the final stretch. Though populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador capitalized early on public dissatisfaction with the government, the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) will try to narrow his lead, drawing on its extensive political networks to mobilize voters. The conservative National Action Party (PAN), by contrast, will continue to struggle to overcome its divisions. Margarita Zavala, a former first lady of Mexico who left the party in October 2017 to run as an independent, is sure to siphon off votes from PAN’s candidate, Ricardo Anaya — to the benefit of the other contenders. The split could help push Lopez Obrador that much closer to clinching the presidency in July.

Before then, Colombian voters will cast their ballots in a highly competitive presidential election. Six major candidates are vying for the office. With such a crowded playing field, odds are good that even a party carrying only a fraction of the vote, such as the right-wing Democratic Center, could advance from the election’s first round, slated for May 27, to the runoff in June. Whatever the outcome, however, the next government will have a legal obligation to proceed with implementing the peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, since Congress approved the agreement last year.

In the meantime, the Colombian government will try to salvage its peace negotiations with the country’s second-largest militant group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), having suspended the talks Jan. 29 after members of the group repeatedly attacked security forces. A peace deal with the ELN would drastically reduce violence against energy infrastructure, private companies and energy contractors in oil-producing regions of Colombia, such as Norte de Santander, Putumayo and Arauca. But the government will be hard-pressed to move the negotiations forward. At best, it will simply manage to resume the talks before handing them off to the incoming administration, which will then decide whether to continue them.

Neighboring Brazil will spend the second quarter gearing up for its own presidential election, set for October. In the wake of a wide-ranging corruption probe, the country’s outsider politicians will have a better shot at victory this year. The leading candidate, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, faces an all but certain criminal conviction that will take him out of the running — leaving a gap that onetime dark horse contenders will emerge to fill. Candidates such as former Supreme Court President Joaquim Barbosa, TV personality Luciano Huck and Sao Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party could all gain ground in the opinion polls this quarter. Ahead of the elections, the Brazilian government will try to pass economic reforms — such as an initiative to privatize state assets, including state electrical company Eletrobras — to draw investors to the country as its economy slowly recovers.

Argentina Attempts Domestic Reform

Economic reform will also be a top priority for Argentina’s government this quarter. President Mauricio Macri’s administration will press for a partial labor reform to lower costs and remove red tape for businesses in the country. A comprehensive labor bill to amend Argentina’s strict laws on firing workers and to grant companies major tax breaks will be difficult to push past the country’s powerful labor unions and the leftist opposition’s sizable minority in the Senate. Instead, Macri may opt to work with the unions to hammer out sector-by-sector reforms.

In addition to their focus on domestic reform, Argentina and Brazil also share a concern on matters of foreign trade. The two countries — the largest economies in the Common Market of the South (known by the Spanish acronym Mercosur) — are reluctant to expose their local automakers to greater competition. The issue will be a lingering point of contention in Mercosur’s negotiations with the European Union over a free trade agreement and could drag the talks out beyond the second quarter.

Venezuela’s Unraveling

To the north in Venezuela, the enduring political and economic crisis will become a source of growing concern for the surrounding region. President Nicolas Maduro will seek a second term in office in May in an election that will be neither free nor fair by the U.S. government’s standards. Because Maduro’s military and civilian allies won’t allow an election that would jeopardize their hold on power, the administration will manipulate the vote as needed to ensure a favorable outcome, despite the threat of heavier sanctions from Washington. Even if the United States offers the president an amnesty deal to leave his post, officials around him will probably make sure that the arrangement includes a carefully managed transfer of power to a candidate of their choosing.

All the while, Venezuela’s economy will continue its decline, pushing tens of thousands of Venezuelans abroad, mainly to Colombia and Brazil. Lawlessness and emigration will only accelerate as their country sinks ever deeper into crisis. The governments of Brazil and Colombia both see Venezuela hurtling toward a point of no return. Yet they will differ in their approaches to the issue. Bogota will back Washington’s efforts to pile more sanctions on the Venezuelan oil sector, while Brasilia will resist them. Nevertheless, Brazil and Colombia alike will tighten their border controls in the coming months to stem the flood of Venezuelan migrants, who will compete with local workers for jobs and, in some cases, engage in criminal activity.

The threat of a Venezuelan military incursion into Guyana will also put neighboring countries on edge. As economic and political problems weigh on the Maduro administration, such a maneuver will become more likely, either as a bid to seize land for illegal mining or as an attempt to delay an International Court of Justice ruling on the Guyana-Venezuela border. The incursion could even occur as the unsanctioned act of a local military unit. Were that to happen, Caracas would probably allow the incursion to continue, since military disloyalty is a growing worry for Maduro’s administration.

In Cuba, Castro Bows Out

Across the Caribbean, Venezuela’s main security ally, Cuba will experience a momentous transition this quarter. President Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother, Fidel Castro, in 2008, will step down April 19 and appoint Miguel Diaz-Canel to lead in his stead. The transition will bring an end to the Castro brothers’ rule after 59 years. But major changes in Cuba’s foreign policy are unlikely. Diaz-Canel’s new title notwithstanding, real control of the island nation will lie with Cuba’s armed forces, which control much of the economy. The military will remain wary of U.S. intentions — particularly since the Trump administration tightened sanctions against it in June 2017. And so, the U.S. trade embargo will stay firmly in place. Lifting the embargo would require the military to loosen its grip on Cuban politics, and Havana simply isn’t ready to take that step.

 

Europe

To the west of Eurasia lays Europe, a region predisposed to division. It is surrounded on nearly all sides by islands and peninsulas that make it difficult for Europe to cohere. The northern half of the continent, moreover, sits on a plain whose short, meandering rivers tend to empower countries without forcing them to work with others. The southern half is situated on more mountainous terrain that has historically impeded the creation of strong, unified economies. As a result, Europe is a continent riven by pockets of distinct cultures whose differences are all too often irreconcilable.

(canadastock/Shutterstock.com)

Highlights

  • The European Union will negotiate ways to boost spending, share financial risk, tax technology giants, and overhaul the bloc’s agricultural and cohesion funds in the coming quarter.
  • However, the divided bloc will water down, postpone or only gradually implement the proposed measures.
  • Italy, saddled with a hung Parliament, probably won’t make disruptive moves that would precipitate a eurozone crisis. By the same token, it will have a tough time enacting reforms meant to stave off trouble for the currency area down the line.
  • Though the United Kingdom and the European Union will negotiate the terms of their trade relationship once the Brexit is complete, they won’t reach a firm deal in the next three months.

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Debating the Future of Europe

The European Union has long suffered an identity crisis, but this quarter the evergreen debate about where the bounds of national sovereignty end and supranational authority begin will consume most of the Continent’s attention. The bloc’s members and institutions will present their grand designs for reform, offering plans to increase spending, share risk, overhaul governance structures and fill in budgetary gaps left by the United Kingdom’s eventual departure. All of these ideas aim to deepen European integration, but thanks to the enduring divisions within the bloc and an abiding resistance to transferring more power to Brussels, members will struggle to move any closer together on the issues creating such controversy among them. So although plenty of proposals for change will be made, most won’t be implemented within the next three months.

Many of the suggestions will come from France and Germany, the European Union’s leading political and economic powers. Driven by a growing economy and its own plans for reform back home, France will push for an ambitious road map to greater cohesion. But Germany, whose government is split between a center left that supports many of Paris’ views and conservatives who are skeptical of its intentions, will do what it can to moderate French proposals.

In addition to their own differences of opinion, the two powers will have to wrestle with wider rifts among European Union members. Like France, Southern European states want to increase EU spending, protect their economies from foreign competition and more evenly distribute financial risk within the eurozone. Their neighbors in Northern Europe, however, are eager to make the bloc smaller and less bureaucratic, lift barriers to trade and investment, and reduce financial risk in the currency area. Concerned about the compromises Germany might make with France, some hard-liners, such as the Netherlands and Austria, will pressure Berlin not to give too much ground to Paris. (Anxiety stemming from political instability in Italy will only reinforce these members’ desire to effect change with care.) As a result, Southern Europe appears to be headed for disappointment as the European Union will likely focus on measures that will take years to introduce, require reducing financial risk before sharing it, and settle on a lower spending cap than France and its allies hope for.

Money will be on many members’ minds as the European Commission presents its proposal for the bloc’s next multiyear budget. The plan will probably ask members to contribute more funds, suggest new sources of revenue for the commission and offer ways to adjust how money is spent in the bloc. Unsurprisingly, the European Union’s net contributors (most of which are in Northern Europe) will push back against calls for higher payments, while net receivers (most of which are in Eastern Europe) will throw their weight behind the motion. Meanwhile, countries across the Continent will resist the idea of strengthening the bloc’s institutions, fearing that their sovereignty would weaken in the process.

Budget talks will naturally lead to discussions about agricultural subsidies, which account for the biggest portion of the bloc’s spending and can be a hot-button issue, given the industry’s propensity for actively defending its interests. The European Union will probably alter how it uses agricultural funds, but states in Southern and Eastern Europe will staunchly oppose any deep spending cuts in the sector. Countries in Eastern Europe will also be reluctant to link the disbursement of cohesion funds to recipients’ respect for the rule of law. Because the next multiannual budget won’t enter into force until 2021, both debates will extend well beyond the quarter.

Corporate taxation will be high on Europe’s agenda as well, especially with regard to the digital realm. The European Commission and countries with large economies, such as Germany and France, will try to make sure that internet companies pay higher taxes to the states in which they operate. But countries with smaller economies, such as Ireland and Luxembourg, believe such taxes run counter to their economic models, which rely on special tax deals with multinational firms. This issue, too, will likely go unresolved in the months ahead. Should the European Union fail to reach a unanimous decision on the matter, a smaller group of members could choose to closely coordinate their tax policies — an approach that will not be as effective, particularly if many countries with low taxes opt out.

The Fate of the Eurozone

Tricky negotiations will also take place in Italy this quarter. After general elections on March 4 produced a divided Parliament, the country’s mainstream parties will have to come to terms with the strong performance of their anti-establishment opponents — and their subsequent demands for a say in the next Italian government. Until a government emerges (coalition talks will take months to complete), a caretaker administration will run the country. The interim body will be limited in its ability to introduce economic and political change, and the delay in much-needed reforms could create problems for Italy down the line. However, the country’s parliamentary fragmentation will also reduce its chances of severely disrupting the eurozone in the coming months — and temporarily drive down the financial risk that the elections posed to the bloc. Once Italy has cobbled together a ruling coalition, however, Rome will test Berlin’s resolve by advocating the revision of EU fiscal rules.

Greece, too, will try to figure out what its future looks like this quarter. The country’s lenders will insist on maintaining some degree of oversight over the Greek economy once Athens’ bailout program expires in August. Greece will try to minimize that supervision as much as possible, and it will likely reach a compromise with its creditors toward that end, accepting light oversight that lacks the stringency of a bailout program. In addition, the parties will talk about the future of Greece’s debt. Though lenders won’t agree to write down a portion of it, they will be open to the idea of extending repayment periods or linking payments with Greece’s economic growth. Considering the complexity of these issues, negotiations will probably stretch past the first half of the year.

Brexit and Beyond

As the European Union tries to knit itself closer together, the United Kingdom will work to cut itself free from the bloc. Over the next few months, the two parties will negotiate the future of their trade relationship after the Brexit is complete. London will angle for a comprehensive free trade agreement and a special customs deal that would protect the United Kingdom’s access to EU markets while preserving its independence in trade and immigration policy. But Brussels, determined to safeguard the integrity of the single market, will argue that the United Kingdom cannot participate in some parts of the bloc and not others. Coupled with the European Union’s reluctance to include the financial services sector in any trade deal, the dispute will probably prevent London and Brussels from reaching an agreement this quarter.

Meanwhile, questions about the future status of the Irish border are getting harder to ignore. The United Kingdom and European Union still have time to hash out a settlement that keeps the border open in the wake of the Brexit, but it will be tough to do in the face of London’s contradictory desire to leave the EU customs union. Though calls from within the United Kingdom to remain in the customs union will spread, the British government won’t heed them. All the while, the Republic of Ireland will threaten to veto the Brexit process unless a satisfactory solution is found.

One thing could stall the talks between London and Brussels: the replacement of the British prime minister. Disputes within the governing Conservative Party about how to handle the Brexit as well as displeasure with Theresa May’s performance could prompt the change in leadership. Though May seems unlikely to resign within the quarter, the possibility can’t be ruled out.

EU: Regional Blocs

To the east, Central and Eastern Europe will face their own dilemmas. If left unchecked, the European Union’s ongoing friction with such countries as Hungary, Poland and Romania could someday reduce their influence in EU decision-making and threaten their access to bloc funds. But because these dangers aren’t imminent, the countries won’t feel pressured to change their ways.

Hungary’s policies, for instance, probably won’t change much after the country holds general elections on April 6. The polls will certainly test the popularity of the ruling center-right Fidesz party and the right-wing opposition Jobbik — both of which hold nationalist and Euroskeptic views. But in the likely event that voters re-elect the Fidesz party, Hungary’s strategy at home and abroad won’t significantly shift. To maintain the support of its constituents, Poland’s government will stick to its guns as well. Though Warsaw will try to balance the defense of its domestic policies, such as a controversial judicial reform, with the easing of tension with the European Union, its overtures to Brussels and Berlin will likely be cosmetic. Finally, in Romania, the government’s biggest challenge will come not from the European Union but from the streets, as its people stand ready to demand a stronger effort to combat corruption.

Divided EU Foreign Policies

The European Union’s lasting divides will be clear in how it handles the ever-pressing issue of immigration. The Continent will work with countries of origin in Africa and the Middle East to try to prevent migrants from reaching its borders. EU members will also mull plans to modify the Dublin system, which stipulates that the country of a migrant’s first entry is responsible for processing his or her application for asylum, and to more proportionally distribute asylum seekers throughout the bloc. Southern Europe will lobby for greater solidarity, while Eastern Europe will reject proposals for migrant relocation. Though a compromise is possible, Central and Eastern Europe won’t be able to stomach the introduction of a system that automatically spreads asylum seekers across Europe.

So, the Continent will keep relying on Turkey as a means of stemming the tide of migrants reaching its shores. To ensure Ankara’s continued cooperation, the European Union will balance its criticism of Turkey’s domestic policies with talks aimed at deepening bilateral trade. But tension may flare amid Turkey’s brewing territorial dispute with Cyprus over the energy resources of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Should a Turkish drill ship enter Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, Europe would have no choice but to react. However, because the Continental bloc lacks the appetite for a showdown with Ankara, it would limit its reaction to symbolic moves, such as the suspension of bilateral summits or temporary cuts in financial aid to Turkey.

 

Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa is the world’s crossroads. It encompasses the Arabian Peninsula, the mountains of Iran, the plains of Turkey, the deserts of the Levant, the lands north of the Sahara and all coasts in between. The story of the region, as is so often the case of places stuck between foreign players, is the story of trade, exchange and conflict. The traditional powers of the region are Turkey and Iran — Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the current Arab powers — and their competition for influence over the region’s weaker states makes the Middle East and North Africa an arena of violence and instability.

(Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Highlights

  • In spite of U.S. sanctions against it, Iran will lean on Europe to keep its nuclear deal with the global powers intact, exercising restraint on such thorny issues as ballistic missile tests to keep the West divided over how best to contain it.
  • Turkey’s ambitions could stir up trouble, potentially bringing it into conflict with Iran’s forces and local allies in Syria and with Europe in the energy-rich eastern Mediterranean.
  • Saudi Arabia and its powerful Sunni neighbors will try — albeit unsuccessfully — to check Iran’s regional influence by shaping the outcome of Lebanese and Iraqi elections in their favor.
  • Political contests in Egypt and Tunisia will showcase the inability of North African countries to provide the security and economic guarantees their citizens demand. 

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It All Comes Back to Iran

The Middle East has never been known for its stability, but Iran’s fondness for meddling in its neighbors’ affairs has made peace in the region all the more difficult to preserve. At least, that’s the belief that will fix Washington’s gaze squarely on the Islamic republic this quarter. As the United States steps up its efforts to counter Tehran’s activities abroad, Iran will devote its attention to digging in its heels and defending its turf. For the most part, it will succeed, standing its ground on the Syrian civil war and preserving its political influence in Iraq and Lebanon as each country holds elections.

Still, Iran will have little control over one aspect of its fate: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Rather than having much say in the future of its nuclear deal with the global powers, Tehran will have to wait to see what legislation U.S. lawmakers and European diplomats craft to increase international oversight of Iran’s nuclear program and facilities. Hoping to fend off attempts by the West to constrain its behavior, Iran will probably keep its long-range ballistic missile tests and provocations in the Persian Gulf to a minimum in the months ahead. But when all is said and done, Tehran won’t be willing to compromise its own strategic interests by hamstringing its weapons program at home or by curbing its support for militant groups abroad.

The Art of the Nuclear Deal

U.S. President Donald Trump issued an ultimatum in January to Congress and the European Union: Fix “the disastrous flaws” in the JCPOA by May 12 or the United States would withdraw from it. Despite this vow, however, the White House doesn’t want to give Tehran a reason to resume its nuclear program by triggering the agreement’s collapse. Instead, to keep the JCPOA intact while working to strengthen it, the United States will put in place mechanisms to automatically reinstate sanctions if Iran violates its commitments to the accord. Washington will also slap new sanctions on entities that support Tehran’s ballistic missile program, though it will take care to avoid flagrantly violating the nuclear deal itself.

Iran may even agree to minor constraints on the range and testing of its ballistic missiles. However, it probably won’t enshrine these limits in a formal pact, especially as it clings to its professed need for a weapons programs amid the threats mounting against it elsewhere in the region. Iran will make its case to friendly partners in Europe, such as France and Germany, as they work with the United States to draw up a supplemental agreement aimed at discouraging some of Iran’s more controversial activities.

In the end, the European Union will back parts of Washington’s plan for discouraging further strides in Iran’s long-range missile program. But the bloc will ensure that the bargains it makes do not blur the line between Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activities or reinstate sanctions against the latter — measures the Continent promised to abandon under the nuclear deal. Because Europe considers the JCPOA to be a cornerstone of Middle East security, it will make sure that any allegations of violations by Iran filter through the deal’s dispute-settlement mechanism. The United States will hardly get everything it wants, but the new measures will be enough to persuade it to keep waiving certain sanctions, in spite of its deep misgivings about Tehran’s intentions.

Iran’s Arc of Influence

The uncertainty surrounding the nuclear deal will reaffirm Iran’s desire for a robust defense policy that includes the very activities fueling U.S. fears: ballistic missile development, covert operations and support for regional militias. But these outward objectives will clash with Iran’s need for domestic economic development — much of which can stem only from closer trade ties with the world at large.

Iran can’t afford to ignore the economic grievances of its citizens, either. The country, still reeling from some of the largest protests to sweep across it since 2009, appears to be nearing a potential turning point in its politics. The financial strain caused by lingering sanctions has triggered a debate about how to reform the political and economic model that has defined Iran for the past 40 years. Though an answer won’t emerge this quarter, the conversation will unfold over the next few months.

That Iran’s elected and appointed officials don’t see eye to eye on the issue will drag out the discussion even more. Though the administration will pay lip service to economic and social change, it won’t have the leeway to take action as Iran’s hard-liners use the precarious state of the nuclear deal to undermine President Hassan Rouhani and his moderate allies. Moreover, the government will have little attention to spare for domestic discourse while it’s distracted with the many military and political challenges abroad that lie before it.

The Syrian Civil War

The greatest military threat to Iran’s wide reach across the Middle East will arise in Syria. Turkey, Israel and the United States will each confront Iran there, but they will do so in their own ways and in pursuit of their own interests, rather than as a united front.

The most prominent clash will pit Turkey against Iran in northwestern Syria. Turkey is determined to weaken the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the region, and it has pressured the United States to support the withdrawal of those fighters from the city of Manbij, east of the Afrin canton. (Ankara will not launch a military offensive against the district while Washington’s allies are still in the area.) But Iran will seek to curb Turkey’s influence in the war-torn country by aiding Syrian troops and YPG militias in Afrin. Just to the south, Iran will also try to undermine the “de-escalation zones” that Turkish troops currently monitor in Idlib province, where Ankara hopes to bolster its influence by fortifying its Syrian rebel allies in their battle against extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Though the conflict between the Iranian and Turkish proxies will intensify in the months ahead, it won’t spill into the two countries’ trade relationship.

Russia, for its part, will work hard to make sure the fighting dies down. Having failed to translate peace talks into an exit from the protracted civil war, Moscow will settle for a conflict frozen in place instead. De-escalation zones will offer a means to that end. But Syrian President Bashar al Assad and foreign patron Iran won’t be willing to recognize these areas, throwing a wrench into Russia’s plans.

Troops loyal to al Assad, along with their Iranian allies, will also risk coming face to face with Israel as they conduct operations against rebel positions in southern Syria. Israel has a narrow window in which it can strike at its longtime adversary, Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and at Iranian targets across its northeastern border with Syria. Israel will probably take it, with the aim of preventing the entrenchment of Iranian-backed fighters along the edge of the Golan Heights.

Iraq and Lebanon Vote for Iran

Iran’s rivalry with its neighbors and the United States will seep into the region’s political battlegrounds in the months ahead as well. Iraq will hold general elections on May 12, and the bloc that emerges with the most votes will win the premiership — the country’s most influential political position. Iran’s local allies, who are well-placed and well-connected, will vie for the post alongside Iraqi nationalists and politicians backed by the Gulf Arab states.

Iran will count on Iraq’s mostly Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces and their associated political parties to perform well in the races. The fighters have become popular among Iraqis, thanks to their lengthy battle against the Islamic State. However, their growing presence nationwide has also elicited backlash from Iraq’s minority groups. To complicate matters, the Popular Mobilization Forces lack the full support of Iraq’s Shiite community. Nationalist parties and factions hoping to insulate Iraqi policymaking from external interference have split the country’s Shiite majority. These nationalists will cross ethnic and sectarian lines in search of coalition partners that will preserve the state’s sovereignty.

And therein lies Tehran’s deeper problem: Iraqi Shiites will not unite behind it, no matter how strategically positioned Iran is within its neighbor’s borders. Of course, that doesn’t mean Gulf states will be able to translate Tehran’s predicament into meaningful gains for their preferred candidates. Though these countries will try to use hefty investment into reconstruction and development projects in Shiite and Sunni regions to build relationships with Iraq’s citizens and political parties, the elections will likely still bring to power a weak government that favors Iran.

Iran’s allies will likewise stay in power in Lebanon, despite the best efforts of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. While the first two states compete for control over Lebanon’s fragmented Sunni constituency, the latter two will try to weaken the grip of Tehran’s partner — Hezbollah — by threatening the group, sanctioning it or aiding its Lebanese opponents. But in the absence of a viable challenger within the country’s Shiite community, none of these actions will strip away seats from the ruling party or, by extension, its Iranian backer.

Turkey’s Resurgence

Wading into its neighbors’ elections won’t be the only play for influence the Turkish government makes this quarter. As Ankara reveals its reach in northwestern Syria, popular support at home for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will swell, perhaps even distracting citizens from the country’s foundering economy, which remains plagued by high inflation. The public’s approval could encourage the president to try to cement his rule by calling for an early election. (The vote is currently set for November 2019.)

Turkey’s boldness will be on full display farther abroad, too. In northern Iraq, Turkey is likely to deepen its existing operations against Kurdish militants, risking sparking conflict with Shiite militia forces allied with Iran. The country will continue to press its claim to the eastern Mediterranean Sea as Cyprus tries to drill for oil and natural gas beneath it. For now, Ankara will be undeterred by European threats to halt talks on Turkey’s EU accession and on the expansion of their customs union if the Middle Eastern power does not stand down in the sea. Meanwhile, Turkey will actively reinforce its economic partnerships in Africa, alarming many of its Gulf Arab neighbors with their own interests to protect in the region.

The GCC: A Bloc Reformed?

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will also be making some bold moves this quarter, even if most take place within its own borders as the bloc’s members implement their visions for economic reform. The United Arab Emirates, led by Dubai, will forge ahead in adopting such key technologies as blockchain, creating new rules for cryptocurrencies and preparing for its first satellite launch.

Saudi Arabia will concentrate on tech as well, working to attract investment in data storage and to equip the kingdom’s private sector to become more competitive — in part by promising greater transparency. But in the wake of a string of anti-corruption probes that raised eyebrows late last year, it is unclear whether Riyadh will be able to balance the need for openness with its desire to control the economy and the flow of information at home. Though many young Saudis will welcome the social changes that accompany the kingdom’s economic reforms, such as the June removal of a ban on women driving, others will not. These undercurrents of dissent could someday empower the country’s religious extremists.

Meanwhile, the rifts that have long pulled the GCC’s members apart will be made clear in the bloc’s activities in Yemen and Qatar. Amid a stalemate in the Yemeni civil war, countries belonging to the intervention force led by Riyadh will pursue their own priorities: Saudi Arabia will focus on severing Houthi rebels’ access to Iranian funds and weapons, while the United Arab Emirates will try to keep Yemen’s southern secessionist movement focused on fighting the Houthis and extremist groups. All the while, the problems underpinning Qatar’s ongoing diplomatic spat with its fellow GCC members — and the blockade still in place against the tiny nation — will likely go unresolved. Nevertheless, the United States will advocate for a solution that offers all parties involved an opportunity to save face. Should the GCC take it, discord within the bloc may dissipate over the next few months, allowing its members to set aside their differences for the time being.

The Difficulties of North African Reform

Like its Gulf neighbors, Egypt will be fixing up its economy this quarter. Having sidelined his political opponents, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is poised to win another term in office when voters head to the polls on March 28. He will channel his fresh mandate into the implementation of economic reforms that the International Monetary Fund has recommended, including further subsidy cuts.

But behind the scenes of a seamless re-election, questions about the president’s legitimacy will linger. The country’s seemingly intractable insurgency will spur power struggles among the Egyptian security forces and undermine the government’s claim that only al-Sisi can protect the nation’s security — as well as the social contract between ruler and ruled that rests upon it.

In much the same way, Tunisia’s local elections will fail to live up to the expectations of its people. Many citizens hope the May races will pump new blood into the national government. Yet the municipal vote will represent only a small step toward overhauling the country’s economic and political structure, while the politicking before and after the elections will put new strain on the ruling coalition.

 

South Asia

Everything that informs geopolitics can be found in South Asia: challenging demographics, geographic diversity, and contentious, ill-defined borders. The Himalayan Mountains form the northern border of South Asia, whose two main rivers, the Indus and the Ganges, support the region’s great population centers. India is the region’s dominant country, home to the world’s fastest growing economy. But its rivalry with neighboring Pakistan, a fellow nuclear power and growing consumer market, has made South Asia one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoints. The region is also a testament to how militancy and militarism can undermine the regional integration needed to unleash higher economic growth.

(CoolR/Shutterstock.com)

Highlights

  • A deepening rivalry with China — on land, at sea and economically — will push India into closer defense cooperation with the United States.
  • More frequent militant attacks in Kashmir and increasing incidents of cross-border fire from both sides of the Line of Control will add tension to the relationship between India and Pakistan.
  • Intensifying violence in Afghanistan will further strain relations between Pakistan and the United States, prompting Islamabad to strengthen its ties with Russia, China and Iran.

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India and China Go Head-to-Head

During the second quarter of 2018, the competition between China and India will continue to play out across South Asia. Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is helping to address South Asia’s infrastructure deficiencies in a way that India cannot match and enabling China to forge deeper partnerships with countries that New Delhi would rather keep in its back pocket. Nevertheless, India has cards it can play against China.

To counter China’s naval expansion across the Indo-Pacific region, for example, India will strengthen its security partnership with the United States. New Delhi’s interest in dominating the Indian Ocean to safeguard its trade and energy routes dovetails with Washington’s interest in containing Beijing’s maritime ambitions. In the second quarter, the two will advance their relationship, holding the first meeting of their defense and foreign secretaries in April in Washington. The meeting demonstrates India’s intention to deepen its partnership with the United States beyond naval exercises and joint air force coordination. Even so, India is unlikely to sign the two outstanding foundational agreements the United States signs with its defense partners, the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement.

Along with their bilateral cooperation, India and the United States have resurrected the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan and Australia. That framework will offer another forum through which New Delhi can challenge Beijing, this time by presenting a unified front with three of China’s other maritime rivals. Progress in the group will be slow, though. As a collective platform whose participants vary in their capabilities, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue will probably move forward in fits and starts this quarter without yielding true military coordination. But even without help from its fellow members, India has made strides in expanding its maritime access along the Indian Ocean rim and is working to arrange new agreements with Oman, Iran and the Seychelles.

On shore, New Delhi will work to improve its military readiness along the Himalayan frontier, another front line in the contest between India and China. Because warming weather eases troop mobility and roadbuilding on the Chinese side of the border, India will take steps to ensure a quick response in the event of another standoff in the region.

Spring weather also will give rise to more cross-border militant attacks in Kashmir and lead to more frequent exchanges of cross-border fire between Indian and Pakistani forces along the Line of Control, further straining relations between the archrivals. Though the governments in Islamabad and New Delhi will work to prevent their border dispute from boiling over, the odds of a major conflict between the nuclear-armed rivals would increase in the event of another large militant attack in India or a miscalculation between their militaries. A significant militant operation in India, for example, would compel Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pursue a military response, such as a cross-border surgical strike.

Breaking China’s Spell

Beyond the military aspects of its competition with China, India will continue its quest for regional influence under Modi’s “Neighborhood First” policy. Some of its efforts in this arena will focus on Nepal — a vital buffer for India’s strategic defense — during the second quarter. Khadga Prasad Oli’s return to power in Nepal in December 2017 is a cause for concern in New Delhi. Oli, after all, tried to forge closer ties with China during his last stint in office. To prevent the Nepalese government from drifting too far into Beijing’s orbit, India will reach out with a mix of diplomacy, aid and military cooperation. Oli, however, will probably cozy up to Beijing anyway, perhaps by reviving a $2.5 billion Chinese-funded dam project in north-central Nepal, to diversify the country’s foreign partnerships.

Elsewhere in its neighborhood, India will resist calls from Mohamed Nasheed, exiled former president of the Maldives, for a military intervention in his island country. Heeding his wishes would only reinforce India’s image as a hegemon throughout South Asia and push the Maldives closer to China. Instead, New Delhi will keep appealing to the United Nations to pressure current Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom to uphold a Supreme Court ruling that would enable Nasheed’s return to the country. And in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will try to assuage New Delhi’s concerns over her state’s warming relations with Beijing while also courting Chinese-backed development projects to woo voters ahead of an election later this year.

It’s the Economy

An upcoming election in India will factor into New Delhi’s stance toward China, too. Though Modi often touts the virtues of globalization, he probably will indulge in some selective protectionism as he prepares to run for re-election next year. The prime minister not only wants to create jobs but also protect existing ones against the threat of surging Chinese imports. To that end, New Delhi is considering a proposal to slap a 70 percent tariff on solar panels imported from China.

Modi, now in the final stretch of his five-year term, is still India’s most formidable politician. But mounting challenges at home — including slowing economic growth, stagnant job creation and unrest among agricultural workers — have eroded the standing of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) in opinion polls. BJP, in fact, lost some electoral ground to the Indian National Congress (INC) in balloting in Gujarat late last year. As an April vote in Karnataka approaches, Modi and the BJP are hoping for a better performance. The outcome of the election in Karnataka — one of the few states still under the INC’s control — will set the tone for the remaining state races this year in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. It will also test the INC’s ability, under new leader Rahul Gandhi, to challenge Modi and mount an effective opposition to the BJP. And, of course, the outcome of those races are important because state legislatures elect members to the upper house of Parliament, where a BJP majority would help Modi pass the measures he needs to help boost his country’s economic growth.

Allies on the Outs

Pakistan, meanwhile, is in the final stretch of its own election season, and it’s been a strange one. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the country’s leading political figure and the powerful army’s most outspoken critic, is on trial on corruption charges. Ever since his ouster in July 2017, Sharif has portrayed himself as the victim of a military-judicial conspiracy. But whatever the court’s verdict, the army will retain control over Pakistan’s foreign policy — a reality that bodes ill for the country’s relationship with the United States.

In fact, while India’s relationship with Washington will improve during the year’s second quarter, Pakistani-U.S. relations will continue to deteriorate. The White House extended the suspension of $1.9 billion in aid to Pakistan as punishment for Islamabad’s reluctance to take action against Taliban and Haqqani network leaders operating on its soil. The Taliban, meanwhile, will launch their annual spring offensive across Afghanistan as Washington sends 1,000 more troops into the conflict, along with increased air power to back them. As violence there intensifies, U.S.-Pakistani relations will probably come under even greater strain. The growing animosity between the two allies will push Islamabad to strengthen its ties with regional partners such as Russia, China and Iran. Moscow, in turn, will continue using the war in Afghanistan to gain leverage against the United States, providing low-level support to the Taliban while also offering to host peace talks.

 

Eurasia

Eurasia is the world’s most expansive region. It connects the East to the West, forming a land bridge that borders Europe, the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and South Asia. Forming the borders of this massive tract of land are the Northern European Plain, the Carpathian Mountains, the Southern Caucasus Mountains, the Tien Shan Mountains and Siberia. At the heart of Eurasia is Russia, a country that throughout history has tried, to varying degrees of success, to extend its influence to Eurasia’s farthest reaches — a strategy meant to insulate it from outside powers. But this strategy necessarily creates conflict throughout Russia’s borderlands, putting Eurasia a near constant state of instability.

(YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Highlights

  • As the standoff between Russia and the West drags on, the United States will expand limited sanctions against Moscow, which, in turn, will seek increased investment from partners in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific to cushion the blow.
  • The Kremlin will pursue social and economic reforms at home to try to revive the Russian economy and curb protests, while a political reshuffle and restructuring of the security services will shake up the balance of power in Moscow.
  • Diplomatic discussions between Russia and the West over a U.N. peacekeeping mission to eastern Ukraine will intensify this quarter, but probably will not yield a deployment.
  • The countries of Central Asia will increasingly coordinate with one another — as well as with Russia and China — to combat militancy and terrorism in the region.

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Moscow Looks to the East

In the second quarter of this year, Russia’s shifting foreign policy will be the center of attention in Eurasia. The standoff between Moscow and the West shows no signs of abating, and in response, Russia is becoming increasingly active in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. The trend, a marked change in Russian foreign policy, will continue in the coming months, as Russia tries to further insulate itself from the West.

The United States will present the biggest challenge for Moscow this quarter. Arms control treaties between the two powers will continue to deteriorate despite efforts to prevent the collapse of the current bilateral framework through diplomatic negotiations. Each side will accuse the other of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; the barrage of allegations could lead Russia to intensify its buildup of arms in Europe’s borderlands and lead the United States to impose stronger military sanctions on Moscow. At the same time, Washington is all but guaranteed to expand its economic and political sanctions against Russia in the next few months to follow up the “Kremlin Report.” The document, released in January, highlighted more than 200 individuals as potential targets for additional sanctions. Barring a major development in the U.S. investigations into Russia’s electoral meddling, however, Washington probably will limit the new measures to specific individuals and sectors. Consequently, the measures won’t do much to hurt the Russian economy.

Negotiations to dispatch a United Nations peacekeeping force to eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, will pick up steam this quarter. After the March 18 Russian presidential election wraps up, the Kremlin will have more room to compromise over the conflict in Ukraine and will strike a more conciliatory tone with Washington to try to avoid more sanctions. But because Moscow won’t agree to cede its strategic position in eastern Ukraine, any agreement the two sides reach over a U.N. deployment in Donbas will be modest in scope and gradual in implementation.

As Russia and the United States lock horns over these issues, Moscow will work to strengthen its economic relationships with other countries instead. The annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum in May will provide an ideal venue for drumming up foreign business. French President Emmanuel Macron will attend the summit, a first for a French leader since the Ukraine conflict erupted in 2014. Macron’s trip — which probably will include a stop in Moscow for his first official visit to Russia — could herald a resurgence of French business and investment in the country. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, too, will visit Moscow on his travels to the forum, which he will attend with a cadre of Japanese investors and businesspeople. Japan’s leaders will set aside Tokyo’s enduring dispute with Moscow over control of the Kuril Islands and focus on bolstering their bilateral ties, mainly through investments, to try to check Russia’s budding alignment with China, which itself will send a large delegation to the economic forum. Sizable delegations from Saudi Arabia and Qatar will also attend. Negotiations on a host of projects with those states are underway. Among those projects is an expansion of the Power of Siberia natural gas pipeline to China.

Russia’s Internal Struggle

Russia will have no shortage of pressing domestic issues this quarter. Large but manageable street protests will pop up across the country even after the presidential election, as Russians air their dissatisfaction over corruption and economic trouble. In Russia’s population centers, authorities will try to contain the unrest primarily by cracking down on protests and offering concessions.

Another strategy the Kremlin may use to stifle the protests in the long run is to co-opt opposition leaders by offering them advisory or other posts in the government. Figures such as Alexei Navalny, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken and dogged critics, are unlikely to fall for this ploy. Moscow may have better luck, however, using the tactic to keep opposition parties like Yabloko and the Communist Party — which stand to gain ground in future local and legislative elections — under its thumb.

In the meantime, the Russian government will work on rolling out social and economic reforms to address some of the public’s concerns. The Kremlin has expedited plans to raise the minimum wage this quarter, moving the initiative’s start date from May to March. But making good on the promise will require subsidizing regional and state-run business budgets through the rest of the year. Between pledges like this one, efforts to prop up struggling banks and the upcoming soccer World Cup, which Russia will host in June and July, the Kremlin’s finances will be tight this quarter. Still, Moscow will try to move forward with fiscal reforms and infrastructure improvements that will benefit the country down the road. In addition, it will consider launching a campaign against corruption, an issue galvanizing Russians across party lines.

The prospective anti-corruption effort, in fact, may serve as the pretext for a reshuffle in the Russian government and security services this year. To ensure the continuing longevity of his nearly 20-year rule, Putin is turning his attentions to political and security reforms. These initiatives could include changes in the makeup and division of powers among various clans and security services. The Federal Security Service and National Guard, for example, will firm up their respective investigative authorities this year, a process that will shift the balance of power between them. As the Kremlin rolls out these changes, Russia’s political elite — primarily government officials, oligarchs and members of Putin’s inner circle — will be all the more on edge waiting for the United States to slap them with sanctions. Putin’s administration will do what it can, though, to shield the country’s wealthiest and most influential from financial harm in a bid to maintain their loyalty.

Dissent Brews in Ukraine and Azerbaijan

Like Russia, Ukraine will face an array of domestic political challenges in the second quarter. The government in Kiev is slated to adopt legislation to establish an independent anti-corruption court in the country by May. After repeatedly putting off the bill, which could put key government officials in the line of fire, the administration can no longer avoid enacting the measure, lest its inaction provoke protests or jeopardize the International Monetary Fund’s financial assistance. (Regardless, the bill won’t take effect until sometime after this quarter.)

Leaders in Azerbaijan, too, are facing a rocky few months. In April, the country will hold presidential elections, which longtime President Ilham Aliyev decided in February to move up by six months. Aliyev will almost certainly emerge from the next vote victorious, but protests could break out in the run-up to and aftermath of the election in response to unpopular economic measures, such as a possible currency devaluation. Either way, Azerbaijan will stay on the same foreign policy course, juggling its relationships with Russia, Turkey and Iran while also working to pressure and isolate neighboring Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Political Strides and Struggles in Central Asia

The quarter will be no less trying for the governments of Central Asia. The five countries that make up the region will contend with political, economic and security problems in the coming months, thanks to domestic dissent, the residual effects of low energy prices and the threat of militant attacks. In Turkmenistan in particular, a frail economy could bring more intense food shortages, subsidy reductions and price hikes on staple goods such as flour and gasoline. The country’s socio-economic factors, like those of its neighbors, will spark demonstrations that will test, but not necessarily threaten, the national government.

Notwithstanding their struggles, states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will make some important political strides this quarter. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev will move forward with his gradual succession process. In anticipation of his eventual departure from office, Nazarbayev will delegate more powers to members of his Cabinet and family while also strengthening state institutions like the National Security Committee. Across the southern border in Uzbekistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev will redouble his efforts at economic and security reforms, having consolidated his power in the first quarter of the year. Mirziyoyev will forge ahead with the measures to encourage investment and tourism in his country — an initiative that is also driving him to mend fences with neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over issues such as border demarcation and water management.

Similarly, Central Asian states will work together more closely this quarter to contain militancy and terrorism, with support from Russia and China, which will boost their security presence in the region. Together, these countries will fortify military bases and conduct more joint exercises, counterterrorism training and diplomatic consultations under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

 

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is a study in diversity. Covering an area that spans the entire width of the continent beginning at the Sahara Desert and ending at the southernmost tip of South Africa, the region is home to countless cultures, languages, religions, plants, animals and natural resources. It’s no surprise that it captured the imagination of Europe’s earliest explorers — and that it continues to capture the imagination of current world powers eager to exploit it. And yet despite the region’s diversity, Sub-Saharan African countries have common challenges — transnational terrorism, rapid population growth, endemic poverty and corruption — that prevent them from capitalizing on their economic potential. The coming years will be critical for the region, especially as its political institutions mature in a rapidly globalizing world.

  • Covering an area that spans the entire width of the continent beginning at the Sahara Desert and ending at the southernmost tip of South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa is home to countless cultures, languages, religions, plants, animals and natural resources.

(Radek Borovka/Shutterstock.com)

Highlights

  • In southern Africa, new leaders will try to chart a fresh course for their countries with ambitious reforms and appeals for foreign investment.
  • President Joseph Kabila will continue to cling to power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as he imposes new levies and royalties on his country’s lucrative mining sector.
  • As militant groups in the Sahel region gain skills and recruits, the Group of Five Sahel Force and France’s Operation Barkhane will face additional hurdles in their fight against insurgency and extremism.

Sub-Saharan Africa globe

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Southern Africa Grapples With Political Change

Much of the attention in sub-Saharan Africa this quarter will be focused on the region’s southern states. Leadership transitions in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola will continue to take those countries in new directions.

In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa — who entered office after his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, stepped down Feb.14 under pressure from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) — will try to steer the government on a new course. Ramaphosa will try to use the power of the presidency to halt the ANC’s drift into corruption and ineffectiveness. He will also try to jump-start South Africa’s flagging economy, an endeavor that will require fostering more policy certainty in important sectors such as mining. At the same time, Ramaphosa and the ANC will strive to maintain the populist policies necessary to appeal to the ruling party’s voter base ahead of the next presidential election in 2019. That means finding a way to expropriate land, for example, without jeopardizing food security or spooking investors.

Achieving these two priorities will be difficult for the new administration. Nevertheless, Ramaphosa’s rise in the ANC will breathe new life into the party and stall its decline in popularity, if only temporarily. After gaining ground with voters over the past few years, South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, will come under fire in the second quarter over the water shortage in Cape Town. The city’s water supply will remain strained at least until the rainy season begins in April or May, giving the ANC political ammunition to use against the Democratic Alliance, which has been in power in Cape Town for over a decade.

Cape Town Water Supply

The opposition in Zimbabwe, meanwhile, will face its own share of challenges in the second quarter. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has secured his place at the head of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), having taken over his country’s top office in November 2017 after longtime President Robert Mugabe resigned under the threat of a coup. In the next few months, Mnangagwa will try to lay the groundwork for a ZANU-PF victory in elections scheduled for August. Winning is, of course, a priority for the ruling party, but so is maintaining the appearance of a fair election. Western countries, after all, will be watching the contest and will base their support for Mnangagwa on whether he and the ruling party keep the elections aboveboard. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change, however, may not pose much of a threat this time around, since the Feb. 14 death of leader Morgan Tsvangirai has left the party reeling. Even so, Mnangagwa probably will do what he must to ensure ZANU-PF’s continued dominance, despite his public calls to make Zimbabwe more democratic.

In Angola, too, a new leader is asserting his power. Joao Lourenco, who won the presidency in late 2017 following Jose Eduardo dos Santos’ retirement after nearly 40 years in office, already has removed his predecessor’s children from their posts at the head of Angola’s crucial state oil company and as chief of its sovereign wealth fund. Next, he will turn his attention to improving the oil-rich country’s financial straits by trying to diversify the Angolan economy. Brazil will help the cause by resuming funding for construction, energy and hydroelectric projects in Angola, a fellow Portuguese-speaking state. The reopened credit lines are just what Lourenco needs to demonstrate that he is pushing his country forward, and he will continue the conversation with his Brazilian counterpart, Michel Temer, during a visit in May to Brazil.

The Congolese Government Digs In Its Heels

Just north of Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo will grapple with a different challenge in its own political transition. President Joseph Kabila — now in his 18th year in power — has continuously postponed the end of his tenure in office over the past two years. His administration will stick with the strategy in the coming quarter, suppressing dissent to his rule while keeping up the appearance that it is trying to move forward with the transfer of power. Though the government in Kinshasa will tout its alleged success registering voters for the next election, scheduled for December, the financial and logistical obstacles that stand in the way of the vote loom as large as ever. The president’s fractious alliance, moreover, has yet to name a successor to run in the race, and it’s doubtful one will emerge by July, as the coalition claims. Otherwise, Kabila may appoint a weak successor to act as a puppet ruler while he continues to pull the strings, as a recent restructuring in the ruling party suggests he will. Either way, odds are that the results of the election will be severely flawed — if the contest goes forward as planned.

In the meantime, the Congolese government will take on a bigger role in the vital mining sector. Parliament passed new levies and royalties on minerals in January, and Kabila has announced his intention to sign them. The new measures could have global repercussions, since the country is a leading source of copper and cobalt, essential minerals for electronics manufacturing and battery production. Forced negotiations or international arbitration with the government stemming from the legislation will signal increased uncertainty in a sector that so far has largely escaped the political upheaval in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Nigeria: Obstacles to Prosperity

Nigeria’s critical oil sector, by contrast, could have another quiet quarter. The militant groups of the oil-rich Niger Delta region have so far refrained from staging any attacks on energy infrastructure this year, though outfits such as the Niger Delta Avengers have expressed their dissatisfaction with government peace talks. Nigeria’s government will try to maintain the uneasy calm in the region, with help from falling inflation and austerity measures that will give it more resources to devote to appeasing Niger Delta militants. Yet the threat of attacks will continue to hang over the country’s oil industry.

Besides militancy in the Niger Delta, the government in Abuja will have other issues to worry about in the months ahead. The next presidential election in 2019 fast approaches, and all signs indicate that President Muhammadu Buhari will run for a second term. Winning re-election promises to be a steep task, though, given the lingering concerns over Buhari’s health and skepticism over his handling of Nigeria’s financial troubles. Yet Buhari may still be the strongest candidate in the ruling All Progressives Congress, possessing enough clout to unify the party and secure the support of its powerful northern factions. Doubts about the president’s fitness and competence may cause more ambitious politicians to defect from the All Progressives Congress to the opposition People’s Democratic Party, which has nominated a candidate from northern Nigeria, Buhari’s home turf, to try to split his support base.

Security in the Sahel

Militant Violence in the Sahel

Nearby in the Sahel region, security will continue to be the primary focus. The next few months will test the mettle of the Group of Five Sahel Force, a joint security effort among Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Though seven of the force’s battalions are supposed to be up and running by the end of March, operational problems will limit their effect on the region’s degrading security. Violent extremist organizations in the Sahel have cultivated the expertise necessary to execute more sophisticated attacks on Malian and international forces through their ties to the Islamic State and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The transnational militant groups, in turn, are redoubling their recruitment efforts in the region. As militancy spreads in the Sahel, it will put more strain on Operation Barkhane, France’s anti-insurgency campaign in the area, and on Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s race for re-election. In an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the country’s polls and institutions, extremist groups probably will ramp up their attacks as the election, set for July, approaches.

Ethiopia Minds Its Dam Business

East Africa also will be a battleground, albeit a figurative one, in the second quarter. Various countries in the Arab Gulf and beyond are vying for influence in the Horn of Africa and deepening their ties to its states. But the region’s most prominent project this quarter is a local initiative: Ethiopia’s multibillion-dollar Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will be the largest hydroelectric dam in sub-Saharan Africa. Tentatively scheduled for completion by the end of this year, the dam will be a major boon for Ethiopia, helping to alleviate its electricity shortage while also drawing the eye of foreign investors such as China. The government in Addis Ababa hopes that the increased funding could subsidize future projects to connect the landlocked country’s 100 million citizens to the Red Sea.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

While the dam represents a major achievement for Ethiopia — and good news for Sudan, which stands to benefit — for Egypt, it’s an unwelcome development. The North African state, downstream from the dam, has feared the project’s effects on its water supply since Addis Ababa first announced the venture in 2011. The dam also highlights just how much influence Egypt has lost over its upstream neighbors. With these issues in mind, Cairo will continue to resist the project in the second quarter and beyond. Its efforts, however, will be in vain. Egypt lacks the leverage to bend Ethiopia to its will and, in fact, will have to return to the negotiating table with Addis Ababa in time.

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