In my Economist days, I had a very fine colleague who dismissed contemptuously anyone who suggested — as someone invariably did — that we should publish a piece just before Christmas on how special, pivotal or momentous a particular year had been. He was right, for calendar years are artificial constructs and something important tended to happen during each and every one, so getting into the habit of writing “why 1998/2008/2018 was a significant year” risked quickly becoming self-ridiculing. This is a judgement that needs to be used sparingly, if it is to have any meaning. On that sparing basis, it does seem worthwhile, as 2022 comes to a close, to point out some especially special, yes pivotal, certainly momentous, developments this year. For this year was one that drew some strikingly clear lines, ones that do feel as if they will be historically noteworthy.
It will be no surprise that the first of those clear lines arises from Russia’s war on Ukraine. The invasion that began on 24 February was the first straightforward effort in decades, arguably since China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950, by a big country to try to annex a smaller neighbour and thereby add substantially to its territory. It violated a shelf-full of international treaties, starting with the United Nations Charter of which Russia (as the USSR) was a founding signatory in 1945, through the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 under which newly independent Ukraine (along with Belarus and Kazakhstan) surrendered its nuclear arsenal to Russia in return for security guarantees (signed by Russia, the UK and the US) and the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. Most critically, however, this formed a massive test both of Russia’s military and geopolitical strength, and of the resolve of Ukraine itself and of the West that Ukraine had for nearly two decades plainly been seeking to join.
How those tests eventually turn out remains to be seen, although as midwinter approaches the momentum remains strongly on the side of Ukraine and its allies in the West. The line that the war in Ukraine has drawn is, however, already clear: Russia’s attempted conquest of a country that had been independent and sovereign since 1991 created a cause that as the days and weeks went by became more and more clearly existential and fundamental, for Ukraine, for the United States, for Britain and for Europe. While no one can know at this stage how and when this war can end, it is already clear that this is a war that neither Ukraine nor its Western allies can afford to lose. For if the cause is lost, so is the West and all the values it espouses. These moments with a genuine, substantially unifying cause are rare and therefore significant when they happen. This is very like the fight against Hitler. There really was then, and is now, no possibility or coherent argument for a negotiation. This is not a technical matter. It is a fundamental dispute about the way international affairs should and will be conducted, about law and rules, about sovereignty.
Right from the outset, doubts have floated around about for how long Western resolve to continue this conflict and continue supporting Ukraine would last. Plenty of serious commentators in an allied country such as Japan that is remote from the conflict have taken the view that Russian resolve will inevitably outlast Western resolve. The mistake in this view is one of failing to understand or perceive the nature of Western interests in this conflict, and the way in which as 2022 has grown older so the sense of the war in Ukraine as an existential cause has grown or, at least, become firmly established. Western resolve is likely to remain strong because there really is no alternative. European, American and, I hope, Japanese politicians are not going to see advantage in wavering. That is what makes the events of 2022 of historic importance. The war on Ukraine is not going to be susceptible to some sort of territorial negotiation. It has become too fundamental for that. The issues, of international rules and values, are non-negotiable. They either survive, thanks to a Russian failure in Ukraine, or they die.
The second clear line that 2022 has drawn concerns China. Love China or loathe it, a very persistent view before this year was that the cadres ruling China had a long-term view that the democratic West struggled to match, and that their technocratic expertise (untrammelled by the vagaries of media, political debate and other distractions) was somehow inexorably superior. This was pretty similar to the view held about Japanese bureaucrats in the late 1980s. These mysterious oriental countries were somehow run by super-men (for all were men). The collapse of Japan’s stock- and property markets and of its banking system from 1990 onwards killed that myth about Japan, though views in America in particular took several years to be changed. What has happened in 2022 in China is similar: the myth of the far-sighted, effortlessly brilliant Chinese technocratic leadership has been destroyed, hopefully forever. The self-inflicted trap of the zero-covid policy has done what in Japan was achieved by the financial markets, and like Japan the damage goes far wider than just this particular policy. The new Chinese emperor, Xi Jinping, has been shown to have no clothes. However long he stays in power, his myth has been broken, both inside China and around the world.
More practically, all sorts of assumptions about the future of China and therefore of the world have been called into question. When will China overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy? That was a pre-covid parlour game, and the answer always was soon. Now the proper answer is that we don’t know, but that we should give the possibility of “never” an equal weight to any potential forecast date for this overtaking, as the weakness of many sectors of the Chinese economy is now interacting with an unfavourable, Japanese-style demographic trend of an ageing and shrinking population to make projections of future growth highly uncertain. 2022 has destroyed, possibly permanently, the idea of China as demonstrating an alternative governance or economic model. It has shown China and its political and economic systems to be at least as flawed and fragile as any Western model, but arguably more so thanks to the demonstrated rigidity of its decision-making processes.
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The third clear line drawn by 2022 follows both from Ukraine and from China. It is that this year has clarified, for a much wider set of people and countries than before, that the most fundamental strategic task for the coming decades is going to be the deterrence of China from taking military actions — notably involving the invasion or blockading of Taiwan — that have the potential of causing World War Three. This was the obvious echo of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which came barely 20 days after Russia and China published a “joint declaration” of their strategic partnership against a perceived Western domination of world affairs. Deterrence plainly failed in the case of Russia and Ukraine, which perhaps should not surprise us given Russia’s previous military actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine over Crimea and the Donbass in 2014. As a result, how best to deter China from taking an action vis-a-vis Taiwan similar to that made by Russia concerning Ukraine has become the number one preoccupation of governments in East and South-East Asia, alongside the equally important question of how to deter the US from taking actions vis-a-vis Taiwan that could act as a catalyst or pretext for a Chinese invasion.
Deterrence may take many forms, and it will be combined with engagement. Virtually no country in East or South-East Asia wants to be forced into a “China camp” or a “Western camp”, including the US’s long-term alliance partners of South Korea and Japan. But pretty much everyone now sees the urgency both of preventing such choices being forced on them and of raising the costs of any breach of the Taiwan status quo sufficiently as to deter one. No other so-called “flashpoint” anywhere in the world stands a greater chance of bringing about a nuclear apocalypse than Taiwan. 2022 moved this, in effect, from the column marked “theoretical risks” to the one marked “real and present dangers”. Debating whether or not China has a superior claim over Taiwan than the total non-claim that Russia had over Ukraine is beside the point, which is to avoid World War Three.
As we look back at this year, we may well conclude that it featured other big changes: perhaps the real turning point away from energy-based on fossil fuels; perhaps the reshaping of globalisation thanks to supply risks and politically-induced decoupling; perhaps a move back into an era of inflation and of shortages; perhaps the acceptance in the European Union of the necessity of making collective decisions in the face of enormous external threats, even though having 27 member states makes that permanently difficult; perhaps, fingers crossed, the decline and fall of the populist-narcissist-authoritarian Trumpian/Johnsonian law- and constitution-breaking streak in American and British politics. All these however are possibilities rather than clarities, contingent on what happens in 2023 and beyond. The three lines that 2022 has drawn look far more permanent.
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