Jan. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Could the world in 2012 surprise us more than it did in 2011? Certainly, after Japan’s earthquake, the Middle East’s upheavals and Osama bin Laden’s death, the bar on shockers will be high.
The known unknowns for 2012 already form a daunting list: the fate of the euro zone; the war in Afghanistan and the “peace” in Iraq; turmoil in Syria, Egypt and across the Middle East; Iran’s nuclear-weapons program; Pakistan’s chronic instability; Kim Jong Un’s succession and China’s soft landing, to name a few. But on the periphery of the media’s vision are other places where attention is likely to be rewarded, and neglect punished. Herewith five hotspots that offer challenges and opportunities over the coming year:
The Arctic: This is not so much a hotspot as a cold spot, but it’s getting warmer. And as the planet’s northern icecap melts, it is becoming a cockpit of international competition. Tussles over newly accessible oil, other resources and suddenly navigable waterways may bring out the testiness even in such perennially agreeable countries as Denmark and Canada.
Arctic states other than the U.S. are preparing their claims as signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which determines who has the right to benefit from the riches of any ocean. Die-hard conservatives in Congress have blocked U.S. approval of the law, falsely claiming that it would constrain the military -- arguments that the military, among others, rejects. A push by President Barack Obama, could probably win approval for the law in the Senate, thereby helping to safeguard the U.S. stake in the Arctic race and its role in keeping the peace there.
Mexico: More than one presidential election is happening in North America this year. In July, Mexicans face what mega-writer Carlos Fuentes has called “the most decisive” election in their history. Leading the polls is Enrique Pena Nieto from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until voters tired of its corrupt and undemocratic ways.
Now, Pena Nieto offers the prospect of not only an end to the drug wars that have killed as many as 40,000 Mexicans over the past five years, but also economic reforms that could, for example, allow private investment in its oil industry. Behind the lurid headlines of cartel killings, Mexico has quietly become the ninth-biggest maker of cars and may soon displace Canada as the second-biggest source of U.S. imports. A new relationship between two wary neighbors? Maybe, if the U.S. can curb the southward flow of guns and work with Mexico to come up with sensible and humane border policies.
Libya: During the country’s tumultuous civil war, an unknown number of small arms, explosives and shoulder-fired missiles went missing from official stockpiles. The U.S. has devised a program with the transitional government to retrieve and disable the most dangerous of the weapons, but some may have slipped into the wrong hands already and others may still.
Israeli officials have said that Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have purchased thousands of anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades from Libyan merchants. Officials in Algeria, Egypt, Niger and Tunisia have expressed similar worries. Purloined Libyan weapons and weakened security along the country’s long borders may prove especially beneficial to al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate in North Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Your Smartphone: Or whatever device connects you to the Internet, where by one measure (an Open Security Foundation database), the number of hacking incidents rose 37 percent last year. One attack on SK Communications Co., which operates South Korea’s third-largest Internet portal, scooped up the personal information of 35 million customers.
Look for more high-profile hacks this year, and don’t fall victim to one. The first and best line of defense against this threat is personal and corporate vigilance. Led by the U.S., governments are beginning to make cooperation on cybersecurity a higher diplomatic priority. Initiatives such as the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, though, will be effective only if they are underpinned by robust public-private partnerships.
Myanmar: By any measure, the country once known as Burma had a tumultuous 2011. The recently installed civilian leader, President Thein Sein, allowed the regime’s most prominent opponent, Aung San Suu Kyi, to re-enter electoral politics; set free more than 6,300 prisoners; took steps to liberalize the economy; and suspended the construction of a Chinese-financed dam on the Irrawaddy River after protests over its likely social and environmental effects. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was right to insist, during a timely and historic visit to Myanmar in December, that longstanding sanctions against the junta can be lifted only if the government builds upon this progress.
No country in Southeast Asia has greater potential for drastic advancement. And, given Myanmar’s abundant resources and strategic location, such progress would have enormous consequences. The country had a brief moment in the media sun last year. The best way to ensure that the Thein Sein regime’s incipient reforms are more than just token gestures is to keep it in the spotlight in 2012.
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