Jan 19, 2024 - World

War warnings everywhere: Global risks are heating up

Illustration of a dove with a burning olive branch in its talons.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

While the U.S. has been focused on Gaza and Ukraine, several other long-simmering global threats are getting hotter.

Why it matters: The last 72 hours have seen menacing Chinese patrols near Taiwan, an exchange of fire between Iran and Pakistan, and further escalation between the U.S. military and Houthi rebels.

  • Then there's North Korea, which has been largely off Washington's radar — but where the risks appear to be growing.

Zoom in: Veteran Pyongyang-watchers are raising the alarm over ominous recent moves from Kim Jong-un, the NYT's Nicholas Kristof writes.

  • North Korea this week formally abandoned the goal of "peaceful reunification" with the South.
  • That came soon after North Korea fired more than 200 artillery shells near South Korean border islands — yet another projectile provocation from Pyongyang, but one that could potentially foreshadow a real-world attack.
  • North Korea is believed to have dozens of nuclear warheads, and has dramatically increased its missile testing since talks with the Trump administration broke down in 2019.

State of play: At least two prominent experts believe Kim is about to reach for a military option.

  • "We believe that, like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to go to war," Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker write in 38 North.
  • Yes, but: Other experts believe Kim is highly unlikely to strike — whether in his region, or at the United States — given the likelihood that doing so would mean the end of his regime.

China conducted joint air and sea patrols around Taiwan on Wednesday in the first significant military activity in the Taiwan Strait since Taiwanese voters elected Democratic Progress Party presidential candidate William Lai — whom Beijing has condemned as a "separatist through and through."

  • President Xi Jinping reiterated his promise to deliver "unification" with Taiwan in his New Year's address. Some experts and U.S. officials predict a Chinese move on Taiwan —which could provoke a superpower conflict with the U.S. — in the next few years. Others remain skeptical.

Pakistan conducted airstrikes inside Iran on Thursday in response to strikes inside Pakistan by Iran. Both sides said the rare cross-border attacks targeted militants.

  • That skirmish may well end there, but other conflicts involving Iran and its proxies are continuing to accelerate.

The latest: The U.S. conducted a fifth round of strikes on weapons and other assets belonging to the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen on Thursday.

  • The Houthis have disrupted international shipping by attacking and seizing vessels heading to or from the Suez Canal. The rebel group has said it's responding to Israel's military operation in Gaza.

Fears continue to grow that the war in Gaza will spread to Lebanon. Hezbollah militants there have far greater capabilities than Hamas.

  • The prospect of the war in Ukraine spilling onto NATO territory — oft-discussed early in the war — has also not dissipated entirely. The likelihood of reduced U.S. military aid also heightens the risk that Russia could gain an upper hand in the fighting.
  • Add the ongoing humanitarian disasters in Haiti, Sudan, the Sahel and more, and the risk of violence surrounding the 60+ elections taking place worldwide this year, and you get a pretty grim picture of the state of global security in 2024.

What to watch: Given President Biden's struggles to contain the Houthis, not to mention his own ally Benjamin Netanyahu, it's an open question as to whether the U.S. can effectively contend with that array of challenges.

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