2011: The Year Ahead

Europe defeated, Beijing defiant: Can we expect anything new in 2011?

By Shashank Joshi for RUSI.org

Many world leaders will be glad to see the back of 2010 - the year was the deadliest yet for the coalition in Afghanistan, Iran raced ahead with its nuclear programme, terrorism-related fatalaties in Pakistan alone neared 7,000 [1] - but the prognosis for the twelve months ahead is hardly better. An enfeebled Europe, resurgent China, Afghanistan in stasis, and emboldened Lashkar-e-Taiba indicate that the next  year will see its fair share of violence, upheaval, and discord. Looking ahead, here are some predictions, questions and laments.


Europe will slip further into irrelevance. Britain, in possession of the most powerful military on the continent (spending more on its armed forces than Russia, in absolute terms and relative to output), has eviscerated its expeditionary capacity in the most dramatic change to its defence policy since the 1967-1971 series of decisions to withdraw forces 'east of Suez'. [2] The Strategic Defence Review culminated in the axing of Harrier jump jets, the flagship HMS Ark Royal, Nimrod spy planes, and 42,000 defence-related jobs. Remarkably, no jet aircraft will be able to fly from British aircraft carriers until 2019.

But 2010 also highlighted much more serious holes in the European project itself. Ireland's banking sector has imploded, Greece has a budget crisis, Portugal is buckling under enormous private-debt burdens and Spain enjoys every one of these three afflictions. The Eurozone has proven lethargic at debt restructuring, and vulnerable to persistent squabbling about how to co-ordinate both this process and fiscal stimulus. [3] For the first time since its inception, the Euro's collapse does not seem entirely implausible - a fact only underscored by Germany's insistence to the contrary. The once-popular notion that the Euro could replace the dollar as the world's reserve currency is now laughable.

In this environment, November's Anglo-French defence accord papered over the cracks. Driven by necessity, this is not the dream of European collective security envisioned by Tony Blair and Lionel Jospin twelve years ago. Europe's problems verge on the crippling, and every ounce of political capital has already been spent on the bruising battle to conclude the disappointing Lisbon Treaty. The new European External Action Service (EEAS) will harmonise some European external policies, but not much more. Where Europe can bash out a common position, as on Iran, this will help -  but on the darker spots where it cannot, such as how to handle Russia, European institutions will be neatly sidestepped. As a major actor on the world stage, Europe has fallen from grace. [4]

NATO, in turn, has cobbled together a predictably vacuous 'strategic concept'. It has been a damage limitation exercise, demonstrating  that nothing has done as much to underscore the limits of NATO as the alliance's de facto disintegration in Afghanistan, evident in the tightfistedness of junior states in supplying trainers to Afghan security forces.


In 2010, the truism that the world's economic centre of gravity is shifting eastward was brought home to the West when China's economy eclipsed that of Japan to become the world's second-largest. [5] The People's Republic will continue to cast a quickly spreading shadow over nearly every area of concern to Britain and the US.

President Obama's fawning visit to Beijing at the end of 2009 implicitly acknowledged the bruising that the US had taken in the years of crisis, along with China's new stature. David Cameron later led a chastened trade delegation, the contrast between retrenching Britain and booming China clear to all. China's rulers responded not with humility, or with the measured reticence that has characterised its post-reform foreign policy, but with a brash swagger that all but shredded the assiduously cultivated doctrine of 'peaceful rise'.

In the summer, China surprisingly announced that its territorial claims in the South China Sea comprised a 'core interest'. It responded apoplectically when Japan arrested a Chinese trawler captain in the East China Sea and threatened to try him under Japanese law. Beijing, taking a leaf out of Russia's book in squeezing Europe with gas supplies, suspended much-needed rare earth exports, of which it produces 97 per cent of the world's supply, to Japan for two months.

On the Korean peninsula, China rather churlishly refused to identify North Korea as responsible for the sinking of a South Korean ship and, later in the year, reacted with alarming sanguinity to the shelling of the latter's territory.

This is all the more troubling because it follows years in which China and the United States had co-operated well on North Korea, terrorism, counter-narcotics, trade, investment and agricultural issues. Sino-Japanese relations had also improved greatly after their Koizumi-era lows. China did indeed appear to be evolving into what Washington, rather patronisingly, called a 'responsible stakeholder'. Now, American, Japanese, South Korean, Indian and others' perceptions of Chinese intent have markedly darkened.

Japan, shocked by its vulnerability to Chinese pressure, immediately sought to diversify its rare earth imports. By mid-summer, it had already announced an expansion of its submarine program, and in December its military chiefs unveiled a new strategy that would see a shift away from Russia-oriented heavy armour and artillery towards China-oriented mobile units, capable of responding quickly to maritime incidents in the future. [6]

South Korea - a country which has traditionally looked at Tokyo with deep wariness (for obvious historical reasons) - has upped defence co-operation with Japan, and both nations have sought to renew their close links with the US military. Southeast Asian nations are flocking to New Delhi, and India, in turn, is convinced that it is being punished by China for drawing closer to Washington over the last five years. What is without doubt is that China is bringing containment, something of which it speaks with fear and anger, upon itself.

Over the next year, three questions will be crucial.

First, will China succeed in its necessary economic reforms? It is imperative for Beijing to upgrade to higher value-added manufacturing and services, to shift the growth burden towards the domestic - rather than export - market and, importantly, to ensure that growth diffuses into the interior rather than remaining a coastal phenomenon.

This may seem tangential to international security, but 20 million workers are estimated to have lost their jobs in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Popular demonstrations - what the official statistics call 'mass incidents' - have risen from 8,700 in 1993, to 40,000 in 2000, to 74,000 in 2004.  [7] An economically-driven loss of legitimacy is amongst the Chinese Communist Party's worst nightmares. Stagnation would not only hit local economies - like Japan - hard, but nationalism and diversionary rhetoric would further shred what little regional trust is left.

Second, how will the upcoming transfer of power in 2011 be managed? If President Hu Jintao tries to cling on to his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (as his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, did), a mild power struggle could follow. This would inject greater unpredictability into an already opaque decision-making system. Moreover, the balance of civil-military relations in China is in flux; the composition of the Politburo and other key power centres will shape the armed forces' autonomy. Any expansion would risk increasing the possibility of standoffs and crises, particularly in the disputed waters where naval activities are hard for civilians to monitor.

Third, and most importantly, how will the US and its allies balance their enormous reliance on China as a regional economic hub with its newfound swagger? As Hilary Clinton famously asked Kevin Rudd, 'How do you deal toughly with your banker?' [8] As yet, no one in Washington has formulated an answer.

South Asia

In South Asia, regional tension has been a predictable constant, one that has remained at an ugly equilibrium since the Mumbai attacks of 2008. But 2011 is likely to accentuate some pernicious trends. First, the scale of Pakistan's turmoil is ill-understood in the West. In 2010 more civilians are likely to have been killed in terrorist violence in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, an outright warzone. The catastrophic floods may have caused up to $43bn of damage -  a third of Pakistan's GDP.

The floods also burnished the reputation of the charitable fronts for militant groups, such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD), a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and eroded the already pathetic reputation of the enfeebled civilian government. The human cost aside, the obliteration of Pakistani infrastructure and discrediting of state capacity are likely to furnish ideal conditions for the flourishing of violent groups directed not only at Afghanistan and India, but also at Pakistan itself. 2011 will see at least as severe levels of violence.

LeT, described in the Spring as 'the new Al-Qa'ida' and responsible for the Mumbai attacks, receives copious finance from Saudi sources and continues to enjoy the patronage of Pakistan's military. [9] Its interests are global, and it will almost certainly strike a Western target within years, if not in 2011. But western intelligence agencies continue to see the group as peripheral, an irritant to India rather than a major transcontinental threat. This is a grave mistake, driven by short-term pressures to focus on Pakistan's protection of Afghan-centric militants, such as the so-called Quetta Shura Taliban, and the need to keep Islamabad onside as long as the war in Afghanistan continues.

India, meanwhile, has suffered a torrid year in parts of Kashmir, where it has been largely unable to blame Pakistan for the discontent. Yet Washington and European capitals have responded with the facile idea that a 'settlement' on Kashmir would 'fix' the problem, end Pakistani sponsorship of militants, and cease nuclear competition. This is a pipedream, underpinned by a simplistic reading of Pakistan's security establishment, and a failure to understand India's focus to the east, on China, rather than to the failing state to its west.

Above all, no overt peace process will budge until India sees 'deliverables' - concrete Pakistani action against terrorists. This has not been forthcoming, and the US - slightly sheepishly - has not deemed it prudent to force the matter. A spectacular backchannel may be whirring away, as was the case between 2004 and 2007, but there is no indication that Pakistan's powerful army chief General Kayani is as inclined as General Musharraf was towards a solution that would strip his organisation of much of its raison d'ĂȘtre. [10]


And Afghanistan? The past year has seen increasingly desperate efforts to begin 'negotiations', a catch-all term including both re-integration of junior Taliban fighters and reconciliation with the broader Taliban and affiliated movements. This came to a head in tragi-comic fashion in November, when British intelligence was fooled into introducing to Hamid Karzai a Pakistani shopkeeper masquerading as key Taliban commander Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, who consequently pocketed up to half a million dollars. Although this will inflict no lasting damage, it epitomizes the tribulations of what has been the coalition's deadliest year in Afghanistan yet.

Optimists insist that the counterinsurgency strategy introduced by the US at the end of 2009 is yet to bear fruit. Counterinsurgency does, indeed, take time, as security spreads outwards from small spots where troops are concentrated. Moreover, the coalition is contending with the legacy of eight years in which the war was treated as souped-up peacekeeping, and starved of resources and attention by the conflict in Iraq.

But the town of Marjah may be a troubling microcosm for the war's wider trajectory. In February 2010, Major General Nick Carter insisted that 'in three months' time or thereabouts, we should have a pretty fair idea about whether we have been successful.' [11] Only after ten months, in December, could the battle be declared 'essentially over' - as late as September, complex guerrilla attacks on troops were daily occurrences and civilian life was far from normal.

President Obama is almost certain to resist domestic pressure to conduct a serious withdrawal in the summer of next year, as was initially promised. US troops will remain in force for five years.

At root, Obama and his advisers are not satisfied that a resurgence of the Taliban would not topple Karzai's venal and ineffective government, which in turn would furnish more extremist groups allied with Al-Qa'ida, such as the Haqqani Network, with breathing space. Fighting will continue in 2011, and it will be fierce even as the next year draws to a close.

But what is most worrying is complacency amongst some officials. Mark Sedwill - NATO's top diplomat in Afghanistan - claimed in the autumn that children were safer growing up in Afghan cities than in London, New York or Glasgow. This remarkably Kabul-centric observation was met with open derision, but it reflects the desperate struggle between NATO and the Taliban for the narrative of an unloved war.

The Road Ahead

What, then, will be the narrative of 2011? Above all, the picture that emerges is of the 'weary titan' - staggering, as Joseph Chamberlain observed of Britain, 'under the too vast orb of his fate.'

Washington will look on with dismay as 100,000 American troops labour in service of a hollow and corrupt narco-state whose security remains precarious and borderlands remain riddled with overlapping layers of local and global terrorists. Across those borders, to the east, lies a militarised nuclear-weapons power with a virtually unbroken history of state-sponsored terrorism. This crumbling state, Pakistan, is in the process of being handed fresh nuclear reactors by an Asian giant whose naval strength and bullying tactics have shaken up the longstanding faith in regional growth around a Chinese pivot. To the west lies a nuclear aspirant, Iran, which has spent the year thumbing its nose at its critics, largely with success.

Europe looks upon this process from afar, mired in debt and shrunken in influence, gradually sending home its ineffectual contributions to the Afghan debacle. Others, like Turkey, India and Brazil, bide their time, engaging carefully with the US but shunning the 'responsible stakeholder' straitjacket that Washington would delight in foisting upon them.

In 2004, Karl Rove famously insisted that 'we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.' [12] We now know that Rove spoke at the inflection point of the 'unipolar moment'. 2010 has vindicated the lessons of the years since. Creating reality is hard to do, because reality resists. Futurologists may fear the black swans that jerk the international system from its orderly trajectory, but the real troubles of 2011 will be those that can be traced in an unbroken line from the previous year. The violence of emerging terrorist groups, the remarkable vigour of the Afghan insurgency, the nuclear ambitions of state sponsors of terrorism, and the ominously shifting balance of power in Asia - when the last American soldier leaves Iraq on 31 December 2011, it will still be these questions that keep those in the corridors of power awake.

Shashank Joshi is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Government, Harvard University. shashankjoshi.wordpress.com

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] South Asia Terrorism Portal, 'Fatalities in terrorist violence in Pakistan 2003-2010', updated 5 December 2010,    accessed 14 December 2010

[2] Trevor Taylor, 'What's New? UK Defence Policy Before and After the SDSR', RUSI Journal (December 2010)

[3] Barry Eichengreen, Europe's Inevitable Haircut, Project Syndicate, 9 December 2010, < http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/eichengreen25/English> accessed 14 December 2010

[4] Sophie C. Brune et al., Restructuring Europe's Armed Forces in Times of Austerity, RUSI report, 3 December 2010

[5] Financial Times, 'Chinese economy eclipses Japan's', 16 August 2010

[6] New York Times, 'Japan Plans Military Shift to Focus More on China',12 December 2010

[7] William Overholt, 'China in the Global Financial Crisis', The Washington Quarterly (January 2010), p28

[8] The Guardian, 'US Embassy Cables: Hilary Clinton ponders US relationship with its Chinese 'banker'', 4 December 2010 accessed 14 December 2010

[9] Ashley J. Tellis, 'Bad Company - Lashkar e-Tayyiba and the Growing Ambition of Islamist Militancy in Pakistan, Testimony to the US Congress', 11 March 2010, accessed 14 December 2010

[10] Steve Coll, 'The Back Channel',, accessed 14 December 2010

[11] BBC News, 'Afghanistan: Marjah battle not won yet', 24 June 2010, accessed 14 December 2010

[12] Ron Suskind, 'Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush', The New York Times Magazine, 17 October 2004


Explore our related content