What is apparent as 2024 dawns is that global risks and uncertainties are only likely to increase, reminding us that we are living in a time of great peril. The new year can be expected to be even less safe and uncertain than the previous two years. An unfortunate aspect is that the existing order is being challenged as much by architects of the ‘rules-based international order’, as it is by persons who declare it outdated.
Geographies may be static, but the underlying structure is constantly shifting. In 2024, the velocity of these shifts will increase. From the straightforward political boundaries of Ukraine having been invaded by Russia to the maze of physical and psychological tunnels in the Israel-Hamas conflict, the year ahead will remain a chessboard of war, looming and real. Beyond the bombs and the beheadings, the new wars will also veer around political psychology. Citizens and their leaders will be expected to align their interests around two-corner boxing rings. From Russia in Ukraine to the barbarity of terror in Israel, geopolitics will further polarise existing positions. Ideological conflicts will reflect themselves in the United Nations (UN). Oil, technology, trade and religion, whose weaponisation has been accelerating during the past five years, will converge and compound in 2024.
But what will set the next 12 months apart is the fact that, even if the with-us-against-us binaries dissolve, they will not always make way for mature understandings or deeper engagements of ideas. The more the legitimisation of violence, physically or intellectually, the greater will be the retort. A world that has turned deaf and blind to individual suffering, unless packaged in the appropriate religious box and political ideology, will need stronger hearing aids and thicker lenses to engage with human distress. It will take more than just ideas to counter this. It will need new leaders backed by new aspirations. This will not happen in 2024. Despite talks, the year will be reserved for retribution.
Global geopolitics is at a pivotal moment, facing the highest number of military conflicts since the Cold War. This escalation is felt worldwide, with significant hotspots affecting international relations on every continent. Two major conflicts will further dominate the landscape: the ongoing war in Ukraine, initiated by Russia, and the Israel-Hamas clash in the Middle East. While an end to these conflicts seems distant, there are emerging signs of potential diplomatic negotiations and the first ceasefire talks in 2024. Growing international pressure, notably from the Arab countries with the support of China and Russia, advocates for a two-state solution in the Middle East. In Ukraine, Russia’s unyielding ambition for complete subjugation will continue to threaten the regional stability of the European continent. The reduction in military aid and financial support by the West for Kyiv may lead to further territorial expansion by Moscow in the next year. In the Middle East, even a potential diplomatic resolution towards a two-state solution may not alleviate the direst humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, leaving the Palestinians with the colossal task of rebuilding in the years to come.
Furthermore, the year 2023 marked a grim episode of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, with nearly 120,000 Armenians displaced due to Azerbaijan’s military actions in the ethnic Armenian enclave. However, the potential normalisation of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations in the upcoming year might offer a rare positive development in geopolitics, beneficial for global trade routes, particularly the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) via Iran and Central Asia to Russia, given that the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC) project was put on hold because of the military tensions in the Gulf region.
A heating up of the Middle East cauldron, caused by Hamas’s unprovoked assault on Israel on October 7 this year, again has the potential to light a ‘prairie fire’ in 2024. This could affect many more countries in West Asia. The situation is not helped by the West’s ‘hypocrisy’, which seeks to draw a fine distinction between the violence practiced by Hamas, and the ‘precise targeting’ of so-called Hamas troublemakers by Israel and the western alliance. The situation is already accelerating changes in the geopolitics of West Asia, where battle lines are gradually shifting: Iran-Russia-China are already extending support to nations across West Asia, thus challenging the West’s (essentially US) leadership of the global strategic commons. It could have an impact well beyond West Asia as well. In this backdrop, the West would be well advised to act with care in other regions (such as the Indo-Pacific) to avoid upsetting the existing strategic balance.
For India, 2024 holds out many possibilities. The general election is scheduled for mid-2024, and the ruling dispensation is displaying reasonable confidence about the outcome, greatly buoyed by its recent election victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. This does not, however, preclude the existence of some ‘black swans’, which may need to be attended to, especially as far as the economy is concerned.
The deeper interests, particularly of great powers such as the United States (US) and China, and emerging powers like India, will swing to serve domestic needs; values will glide on the skateboard of international relationships. Multilateral groupings such as the UN, the G21 or the BRICS will become platforms for hard bilateral conversations around borders and intrusions—physical and digital—behind curtains of soft collective alignments around peace, green and sustainability. Narrow interests will dominate such conversations.
These interests could be simple, such as sourcing energy from countries that are at war, or they could be more layered, such as market depth of, foreign investment from, and technological intrusions by China. Values-based consistency died in 2022, debasing itself into empty virtue-signalling—the shaming of India by Europe around Russian gas, for instance. Even democracy as a form of Government or free speech as a tool of democracy will be further reduced into serving shallow political interests, as Canada showed in 2023 by hyphenating itself with Pakistan by supporting Khalistani terrorism against India on its soil while using the cover of free speech rhetoric. All this while the world’s biggest adversary—China—and its authoritarian allies continue to weaponise democracy against democracies.
Additionally, the possibility of China and Russia opening a third front in the Indo-Pacific region to challenge American influence and credibility, especially before the United States (US) presidential election, is high. Russia will continue to supply North Korea with rocket and satellite technology in exchange for ammunition for its war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, China intensifies the military tensions in the South and East China Seas, complicating the geopolitical situation. This complex backdrop suggests a Cold War 2.0 scenario involving the US, China, and Russia, with minimal risk of direct military confrontation. The geopolitical context will significantly impact the political economy, technological landscape, and the evolution of global norms, rules, and standards, further reshaping global partnerships and alliances in 2024.
Against this backdrop, India emerges as a potential major beneficiary in this geopolitical scenario, strategically positioned between the conflicting interests of the US, China, and Russia. Following the 2024 elections, India’s focus on domestic and regional stability is likely to intensify. Amidst the disruption of global supply chains and the US-China mutual decoupling, India is set to become a prime destination for redirected global capital, new technological investments, and enhanced global and regional partnerships. The predictability and stability of India’s political leadership, along with increased engagement from the West and within frameworks like BRICS and G20, will solidify its position, though it may face risks from terrorism and climate-related events in the upcoming year.
Conversely, Europe stands as one of the primary geopolitical casualties in the current transformation of international relations, notably characterised by the bifurcation of the global system. The year 2022 marked the onset of the most tumultuous period for Europe, a trend projected to exacerbate in the coming year due to overlapping demographic, structural, and systemic challenges. Furthermore, Europe is poised to experience heightened political polarisation during the 2024 election cycle, potentially leading to expected surges in both right- and left-wing populism, alongside significant reshuffles within the European institutions. This period signals a definitive end to the era of dominant traditional and centrist parties, which have historically represented a large segment of the middle class. Compounding these political upheavals, Europe will face a deteriorating economic situation because of the deteriorating security situation as well as complicated relations with China. This decline coincides with the emergence of a new ‘Iron Curtain’ in 2024, stretching from the Scandinavian countries through the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, to the Black Sea and Turkey, marking a significant geopolitical shift.
The compounding of geopolitical tensions is not the problem of Governments alone. They trickle down and impact everyone. There is hardly a corporate boardroom today where—directly or indirectly—geopolitics and its financial tributary, sanctions, is not on the agenda. Here, the constantly disrupting geography of alignments will become a starting base—a new normal. But engaging with these alignments will be tougher. It is fine for strategic analysts to demand a decoupling from China. But exiting geography involves mega investments, a workforce that has spent years training on the job, a related ecosystem of knowledge inputs, and a market that absorbs the products and creates profits and valuations; companies exiting geographies is not as easy a task as taking a flight. It needs a longer-term analysis that balances the interests of shareholders and employees, today and tomorrow.
In this landscape, ‘middle powers’ or ‘swing states’ are set to gain increased geopolitical relevance, buoyed by their strategic locations, technological prowess, or access to critical raw materials and rare earths. Many of these influential states are located in the Global South, with countries like Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil, and Türkiyé poised to elevate their presence on the global stage. As we look toward the future, it’s evident that 2024 will further lay the foundation for a new world order, shaped by five major geopolitical trends. These include the ongoing bifurcation of the global system and the irreversible decoupling between the US and China, which are set to disrupt the global economy, trade, and critical supply chain chokepoints. Key areas to watch include the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, the Black Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the Panama and Suez Canals. Additionally, the fluid geopolitical alignments of middle powers oscillating between America and China, without firmly taking sides, will continue to erode the coherence of global organisations and networks. The relationships between major Asian powers, particularly China and India, will gain greater geopolitical and geoeconomic significance. While some tensions may arise in 2024, both nations are expected to strive to manage their relationship to ensure regional stability. Last but not least, a major development is the emergence of the ‘DragonBear‘ modus vivendi, a strategic coordination between China and Russia in global geopolitics, juxtaposed against the US’ strategic pivot towards the Indo-Pacific, further diminishing Europe’s geopolitical importance.
Keeping track of China, the region
Sino-Indian relations will remain stalemated during much of 2024, with neither side displaying any accommodation of each other’s view point. China remains convinced that India is already a part of the US-dominated anti-China alliance (however misplaced this perception might be), which is acting as a major impediment to any improvement in relations. A direct confrontation between India and China, however, appears unlikely during 2024. Even if China’s economy continues to decline, and the West harps on this fact as an index of diminution of China’s influence across the region and beyond, there is a slender possibility of China embarking upon some ‘adventurist actions’ in the Sino-Indian border regions. Mao’s unprovoked aggression against India in 1962 in the wake of the failure of his Great Leap Forward Movement in 1958 is, however, something that the Indian establishment needs to keep in mind at all times.
India’s external relations in some other areas also merit attention in 2024. For instance, if the Russia-China axis becomes even stronger as 2024 progresses, with a concomitant weakening of Russia-India ties, it will have a direct impact on India’s relations with, and accessibility to, Central Asia. India will need to avoid such a situation.
In its immediate neighbourhood again, India may face an uncertain situation in 2024. Relations with Afghanistan, which have been virtually non-existent for some time, will remain much the same. Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives have recently come under pressure from China, and this has the potential of reducing their dependence on India.
In West Asia, with the possible exception of the United Arab Emirates, India’s influence appears to be diminishing. As more West Asian countries break free from the clutches of the West, and tend to gravitate towards China and Russia, India’s position in the region will become even more tenuous.
The new era of Cold War 2.0 between America and the ‘DragonBear’ is anticipated to be far more unpredictable, unstable, and volatile due to the extensive interconnectedness of the current global system. Like the interwar period, the contemporary era could be seen as a brief respite between the first and second Cold Wars. The current period mirrors the first period of the post-World War II era in its transformative nature. Despite the uncertainties, there are optimistic projections for 2024: no World War III or direct military confrontation between the US, China, and Russia; rather low risk of a military attack by China on Taiwan; and no use of nuclear weapons by Russia against Ukraine.
The internal situation will require very careful watching. The atmosphere is certain to be highly surcharged, with both the ruling and Opposition forces preparing for a ‘no holds barred’ electoral battle. A ‘veneer’ of calm masks the intensity of feelings that exist. What is also evident is the extent to which factors such as caste loyalties are dominating the landscape today. What is not evident on the surface is the extent to which social engineering and social fragmentation are being utilised to divide social groups; how electoral autocracy is tending to overwhelm all other factors; and how little or no debate is taking place on key issues of common concern. Artificial Intelligence can be expected to play a larger and key role this time in enhancing the power dynamics of certain groups.
Notwithstanding the outcome of the general election, all signs, hence, point to a turbulent period ahead. Parliament, already in disarray, will continue to function in this manner during the whole of 2024. The stand-off in the wake of the recent breach of security in Parliament is a good index of the prevailing mood, and there are few signs that this will change.
The nation may, hence, be approaching an inflexion point in 2024. A test case will be how the nation deals with the situation deriving from the recent Supreme Court of India judgment upholding the power of the President of India to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution, together with the reasoning that Article 370 was a transitional provision ‘due to war like conditions that prevailed in parts of the country’. It could well open a Pandora’s box of contentious issues, providing additional ammunition for conflict.
The year 2024 will see the demand for new expertise in the form of a geopolitical department in large companies. The word ‘risk’ will have an increasing bearing on not just people, products or policy; it will embrace international developments and their offshoots. Things will get more complex and more uncertain before settling down. Effectively, 2024 will usher in a trickier and edgier world, where tensions will begin between states, but whose impact will be felt the strongest on companies, workers, and citizens.
In this fragmented global landscape, the Global System must adopt a balanced approach in international relations, championed by a coalition of middle powers and rising geopolitical stars like India. Failing to do so could result in fractured societies, polarised geopolitics, and fragmented economic and trade ties. Lenin’s words, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen,” resonate profoundly nowadays. The year 2024 is poised to be a period of significant transformation, characterised by further extensive changes on both domestic and international fronts.