4 insecurities the world will have to face in coming years

Four global insecurities, which are interacting with one another, pose a challenge in coming years, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Thursday.

First, the era of extraordinarily low inflation and low interest rates is over.

Higher energy and food prices, while accentuated by the Ukraine war, predate it. The world has been under-investing in both renewable and fossil fuel-based energy, and people will have to live with higher energy prices for some years to come.

And as the world undergoes a period of stagflation and slow growth or recession, central banks, too, will take some time to tame the inflation beast.

Second, the deterioration of the global commons is proceeding faster than actions to mitigate them. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and the global water crisis interlock with one another.

Already, many tipping points are being crossed. The melting of the Arctic permafrost is releasing massive quantities of methane, which will lead to warmer surface temperatures on land and in oceans, and accelerate the melt in major ice sheets.

"The tipping points are themselves tipping over other tipping points, like dominoes," he said.

Third, there is a potential rollback in progress in large parts of the developing world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, some of which were already in debt distress before the Covid-19 pandemic and Ukraine crisis.

The situation is now worse, said Mr Tharman, because of rising interest rates globally led by the United States Federal Reserve and a strengthening US dollar. This compounds debt difficulties, particularly for countries that borrow in US dollar.

These countries are also the ones most affected by extreme weather events. There is a very real prospect - for the first time in decades - of famine occurring once again in the Horn of Africa.

The pandemic also set back education most dramatically in the developing world. Many children emerged from the pandemic without basic literacy abilities, or what the World Bank calls "learning poverty". This constitutes permanent scarring in a whole generation, particularly girls and women.

Fourth, there is geopolitical insecurity in which Ukraine has been a "watershed" whose ramifications extend beyond its borders, and could even be catastrophic.

"We are back to a world of conflict, and within that world, the China-US relationship - which is now the most important bilateral relationship - is at its weakest point in decades. It is the end of a unipolar world, but we are not yet in a multi-polar equilibrium. We are still in disarray, and it will take us some years to reach a stable multi-polar world."

Mr Tharman said a new strategic relationship between the US and China is needed, that is shaped by their overarching common interests - in addressing climate change, ensuring pandemic security and financial stability, and in preserving peace.

This requires some rules of the game to avoid harmful competition and preserve resilience in supply chains, as well as to preserve self-sufficiency in certain sectors which are core to national security.

But fundamentally, he said, it requires interdependence - because a world with China as part of the global market system, and integrated with the US economy, is a much safer world.

"It doesn't assure us of peace - it would be naive to think that economic interdependence assures us of peace. But it makes conflict far less likely than a bifurcated world (of) bifurcated technologies, markets, payment systems and data," he said.

"That will be a very, very troubling world prone to escalating conflict. The US-China relationship needs to find a new equilibrium."

Grace Ho

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2022, with the headline 4 insecurities the world will have to face in coming years. Subscribe