Imagining 2030: Changing Geopolitics


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Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of National Security Studies at the US Naval War College. He is also a member of  PS21’s International Advisory Group.  

Expectations that the processes of globalization were knitting the nations of the world into a more coherent and stable international community were dashed by a series of shocks in the late 2010s and the 2020s. Fragile “just in time” supply chains for raw materials and finished goods experienced major disruptions due to a resurgence of terrorist activity and piracy which targeted vulnerable points of infrastructure and key “choke points” in the global commons. New pandemics and migrant flows caused many countries to restore barriers to free movement or to attempt to cut out or quarantine parts of the world from the international economic system. At the same time, the lowering of costs for producing energy from non-traditional sources as well as continued improvements in 3-D printing helped to push economies away from dependence on long-distance sources of supply. Faced with growing costs, the United States during this time backed away from its commitment to maintain the openness of the global commons, starting with the sea-lanes, in favor of prioritizing those areas which were seen as direct importance to American security.  These trends have pushed major countries to find ways to consolidate their economic needs, whenever possible, within more contiguous and defensible regional blocs.

The American partial withdrawal from the world was compounded by the partial dissolution of the expanded European Union. A British exit from the EU (mitigated, however, by the readmission of the constituent parts of the former United Kingdom into European institutions), the collapse of the common currency and the end of the Schengen zone propelled the EU to de-evolve into a largely free trade institution, while smaller cores within the EU voluntarily chose to continue with greater integration. A series of new blocs within Europe was compounded by the process of consolidation on the territory of the former Soviet Union, where an expanded Russian Federation which has integrated ethnic Russian areas outside its 1991 borders has also created a larger Eurasian Federation encompasses the non-Russian states. This new Russian entity survives because of its role in balancing European needs—with Russia guaranteeing supply of raw materials to the European economic core—with the interests of the greater Chinese bloc. By 2030, China has peacefully reunified with Taiwan, and the Korean peninsula has been reunited under the leader of the Seoul government, in return for accepting neutral status. The United States has retreated to being an offshore balancer in the Asia-Pacific region, maintaining alliances with the Philippines and Japan, while ASEAN—in partnership with India and Australia—has achieved a degree of balance with China. Latin America has consolidated into an expanded North American bloc which has absorbed the Caribbean and Central America, with South America functioning as a common market and defense zone. The Middle East and Africa are convulsed by the after-effects of state collapse as the old colonial boundaries have been swept away and new entities seek to emerge based on ethnic and religious criteria—while also bearing the brunt of shifts in the climate that have made life much more difficult in the temperate zones of the world.

The U.S. decision to redefine its interests in an economic and security zone that focuses on the Western Hemisphere, the Atlantic coasts of Western Europe and northwestern Africa, and the outer islands of the Western Pacific reopens competitions for influence in other parts of the world. It has also fueled the growth in military spending as other countries can no longer rely on earlier security guarantees that were provided by Washington. As in the Cold War, the continued reliance on nuclear deterrence by the major powers and their blocs—including the acquisition of nuclear capabilities by other rising powers as well as the refurbishment of nuclear arsenals by existing holders (heralding the complete failure of the agenda outlined by President Barack Obama in Prague in 2009 to move towards a nuclear-free world) imposes a rough discipline on world affairs, limiting the extent to which conflicts can spread. Clashes along the frontiers, in parts of the maritime and space domains, and in the “unsettled” parts of the world, however, are common and contribute to a sense of insecurity.

With new barriers in place to secure the different blocs of the world from attack (and the threats posed by migration and disease), the old permeable global system can no longer survive intact. This, however, gives a new importance to so-called “keystone” states—defined as those countries “located at the seams of the global system and serve as critical mediators between different major powers, acting as gateways between different blocs of states, regional associations, and civilizational groupings.” ( These countries become focal points for that portion of world trade which remains indispensable and increasingly are seen as important neutrals separating different major powers and reducing points of direct clash between them. The policies of engagement and non-alignment trail-blazed by countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in the early 2000s have been embraced by emerging keystone powers like a united Korea, a reformulated Ukraine, a reunified Cyprus and a stabilized Afghanistan—which have positioned themselves as the interconnectors between different blocs and also as essential steam valves to vent pressure from flaring into major conflict.

Dismissive comments made by U.S. statesmen in the 2010s that we lived in the world of the 21st century—a world that was to be characterized by the triumph of a Western liberal order writ large, not the power politics era of the 19th, have given way to recognition that the current period increasingly resembles the post-Napoleonic order in Europe—applied on a global scale. Smaller states exist within the shadow of major powers, or must group themselves together into confederations to benefit from economies of scale, or find status as neutral powers whose position is upheld by the major actors who reap the benefits of stable keystones in place. As with Europe in the 19th century, great power rivalries can flare into conflict, or can be mitigated through compromises. Whether those balances can be maintained throughout the 2030s will depend on whether the great powers are reasonably satisfied with the compromises they have been forced to make (for Western powers, backing away from promoting universal human rights, for the Eurasian powers, accepting limits on their ambitions) and whether the mix of populist-authoritarian governments which define most of the politics of the world’s nations can continue to satisfy the demands and wishes of their populaces.

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Imagining 2030: Social Media In China

Alibaba_Binjiang_ParkA printer-friendly version is available here.

Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.

Martina Fuchs is CCTV NEWS Senior Business Reporter based in Beijing and a Global Fellow at the PS21 Project for the Study of the 21st Century.

    “Red alert: Hazardous smogpocalypse engulfs Beijing”. Angel investor Peng Bo reads the latest Alibaba News Inc. headlines on his Chinese smartphone Gionee in New York City. Just like Huawei and Xiaomi, the Shenzhenbased mobile phone maker has outpaced Apple and Samsung and is rapidly conquering the wireless world well beyond Asia. 

It’s anno 2030. The world’s biggest economy China has overtaken the United States a few years ago. The dominance of Western media organizations, such as Reuters, Bloomberg, Associated Press, Agence France-Press, and the likes, has been broken by the country’s first private global news agency: Alibaba News Inc.

While Xinhua News remains the official press agency of the People’s Republic, subordinate to the central government, the Alibaba empire is now unstoppably gaining market share.

Chinese English media outlets, such as China Central Television (CCTV NEWS), the People’s Daily, China Radio International (CRI), have set up satellite bureaus around the world diffusing news in dozens of foreign languages.

But behind the scenes, China’s three Internet kingdoms – search engine Baidu, e-commerce giant Alibaba and social media powerhouse Tencent – are now running the media show.

Peng Bo remembers “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” he had read at high school, one of the most famous and important novels in classic Chinese literature, which describes wars among three power blocs to replace the dwindling Han Dynasty some 1,800 years ago. “Maybe it is rewriting history?” he asks himself.

Peng Bo rubs his eyes. He still vividly recalls the acquisition of the 112-year-old English language newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP) by Alibaba Group in 2015, back then when he was an intern at the Beijing headquarters of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), still today in 2030 the world’s biggest bank by assets, Alibaba has since stepped up its global shopping spree, investing heavily in a diversified portfolio of media and content companies. After launching DisneyLife in 2015, a service connecting customers, physical products and digital entertainment, it acquired majority stakes in Warner Bros., Walt Disney, and Universal Pictures. It also bought Facebook.

Facebook? Yes. There are no longer Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to jump the “Great Firewall of China”. Access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites has been unblocked and users can freely surf the web. Peng Bo can still hardly believe his eyes. He already counts 4,839 friends. Most of his family members and schoolmates back in China are now on Facebook.

At the same time, thousands and thousands of micro blogging platforms are mushrooming, on the brink of getting out of control.

Censorship has ballooned.

An army of hundreds of thousands of censors, employed by both the Communist Party of China and private companies, is monitoring the media and Internet space around the clock to censor blog posts and other content. Peng Bo is staying away from making political comments to avoid unnecessary trouble.

Euromonitor estimates that China counts a total population of 1.4 billion in 2030, an increase of 4.7% from 2012, mainly due to the end of the one-child policy 15 years ago. Falling birth rates and increasing life expectancy mean that the population continues to age rapidly.

The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) reports that the country now counts more than 800 million Internet users – more than twice the population of the entire United States. Most of them use handsets to go online as the world’s biggest smartphone market continues its shift towards mobile.

With the rise of new Chinese e-commerce platforms, social networks, search engines, and app stores, new players are carrying Chinese names, causing uncountable tongue-twisters among Americans and Europeans, but also motivating the young generation to follow in Mark Zuckerberg’s footsteps to learn Mandarin.

As the Internet has slowly killed off traditional TV, online advertising surpassed TV ad-spend a short time ago. Advertisement revenues are almost exclusively coming from e-commerce.

Big data is growing from big to bigger. Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are leading the way, launching more high-tech innovations in cloud computing and artificial intelligence than ever before, changing our lives more irreversibly.

For example, Baidu is using big data to track and project patterns in disease outbreaks, which help medical laboratories make vaccines and hospitals schedule staff. Tencent meanwhile looks at social data to identify trendsetters among groups of friends, and sharply target marketing and spending strategies.

Peng Bo spots the opportunity. He sources capital from the U.S. to invest in media start-ups in Beijing’s Zhongguancun technology hub in Haidian District, which has become China’s version of the Silicon Valley. Across the area, incubator cells are grooming a growing class of tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, catapulting the media sector into a new era.

Instead of Google, Chinese as well as non-Chinese people around the world today rely on Baidu, and a growing number of Mandarin learners and speakers perform searches in Chinese characters and Pinyin.

News products and services will also be connected through open source business models and the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT, pushed massively by China’s central government, has boosted China’s economic growth by US $1.8 trillion by 2030, research from Accenture finds.

To raise further the global competitiveness of the domestic market, the superpower has prolonged its initiative “Made in China 2025” in its 15th Five-Year Plan, focusing on promoting key sectors such as railways, nuclear power, and most recently also the media industry.

Tencent’s app WeChat (called “Weixin” in Chinese) dominates mobile messaging around the world and boasts over 600 million active users, offering visual and audio tools in different local languages. Peng Bo’s American friends have all jumped on the bandwagon.

News is shared on China’s most popular social platforms, including WeChat, Weibo, Qzone, QQ and RenRen. But it’s not a free lunch anymore. You are now charged for buying articles and news content via e-commerce, using the Chinese yuan as the new global currency. Tencent’s WeChat, Alibaba’s Alipay, and Baidu are at the forefront with digital wallets that let consumers buy the news via Chinese mobile phones and tablets.

Users can nowadays even buy homes, get married, and book their holiday trip to the moon via WeChat transfers.

Peng Bo checks the Air Quality Index (AQI) app on his Aliwatch as he prepares for his upcoming business trip to Beijing. The ancient “bicycle capital”, has long vanished, but the smog is hanging around for longer. The sales of 3M N95 face masks have doubled in China since 2016.

He ponders whether he should also start crowdsourcing for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop high-speed transportation system, the passenger-filled capsules which may soon be riding along Beijing’s skyline.

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Imagining 2030: A Walk Through Heathrow



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Introducing the first piece in our Imagining 2030 series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time. 

Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent. He is currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21).

“You know, they said when we left the EU it would kill all this,” grumbled the taxi driver as we edged our way around the seven-lane M25 towards London Heathrow. “It bloody hasn’t. It’s still a bloody nightmare.”

I did feel a stab of sympathy for him, and not just for the traffic. As he picked me up from my hotel, he was at pains to point out that while he was driving a hybrid biofuel/battery car now, he had qualified as a “proper London taxi driver” barely 15 years earlier. Uber had seen to that.

Now, it looked as though he was to be demolished by technology once again. On our way to the airport, we had already passed several of the new GoogleDrive driverless minivans. For now, several items of legislation last updated at the start of the Johnson premiership banned such vehicles from carrying passengers. But not for much longer, I suspected. The AmazonVan was already replacing delivery drivers, after all.

We turned off the Heathrow spur towards Terminal Seven. It really would be the last, the government pledged — the only other options available were building on Windsor Great Park. An aging King Charles would never let that pass — and while there were no shortage of even diehard loyalists hoping for an abdication, that hardly seemed likely.

A small group of protesters had gathered on one of the flyovers. It was, I realised from the nearest one to the ever expanding Heathrow Immigration Detention Centre. One of the largest in northern Europe outside Calais, it had just been roundly criticised by yet another inspectors report.

Not that illegal immigrants tended to come in through Heathrow these days, of course — the punitive sanctions applied to our lines who carried anyone caught without the correct papers meant it was now harder to get on an airliner than it was to cross even one of the southern European borders. The reason fatiguing the facility so close to the war, officials said, was meant to make it easier to deport.

Ironic, I thought — deportation numbers were actually falling even as migration, both legal and illegal, continued to skyrocket. Exactly who was supposed to be allowed into the country was now so complex that no one really knew who, if anyone, could be legally kicked out either.

Unlike much of the rest of Heathrow, Terminal Seven was still shiny and new. I bade farewell to my driver — still curmudgeonly grumbling about the state of the world.

No need to check in any more, of course — my smart phone was detected by the terminals systems as soon as I crossed the threshold. My bags disappeared down a luggage chute that looked as though its design had changed little since the 20th century.

Security was, luckily, similarly quick. I passed through the channel labelled “UK, EU and Scottish” — the political boundaries might have changed, but the additional bureaucratic hurdles for citizens had somehow miraculously avoided becoming more complex. A quick retinal scan, a quick thermal scan and the usual site relief not to have been taken aside for the full rectal treatment. Most of the last major terror attacks on the West might have involved rectally inserted explosives but again, common sense seems to have prevailed and losing the occasional airliner seemed a reasonable price to pay for not having to check absolutely everybody.

Airports and sports bars are almost the only place you see large television’s these days, let alone showing continuously broadcast news. A BBC anchor appeared to be talking about the upcoming US presidential election. Still two years to go — all the attention, perhaps unsurprisingly, remained on Chelsea Clinton following her sensational second marriage into the Trump dynasty. Second up was a visit by the Scottish Premier to Beijing, hard on the heels of her inaugural visit to Moscow.

When I first passed through Heathrow as a child, I remember being struck by the number of newspapers and magazines left abandoned on chairs in the waiting area. Nothing like that now, of course — everyone was on a Tablet or Amazon Glass. Still lots of paperback books, though — and a bumper branch of Virgin Waterstones doing heavy business. People, it seemed, still wanted to browse physical books even if they then downloaded the digital version for the flight itself.

Even 30 years ago, I remember Heathrow had the widest ethnic mix I had ever seen. I remember Bangladeshi women in headscarves, Nigerians in traditional costume, American tourists looking like American tourists. Now it’s even more — and while I don’t know that the world in general is more democratic imbalance, certainly striking how many more of the very rich are not Anglo-Saxon.

Still, I figured the 21st century had not actually been so unkind to middle-class Brits. Sure, we now all have to live in Birmingham and commute because the price of housing in London was so high but it was still remarkable how many other parts of the world were happy to hire us to do all kinds of things they should have been able to do themselves. Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, New York, even Moscow and Beijing all looked to London as a financial centre even if the British government itself hadn’t been so globally irrelevant since the Middle Ages. For better or worse, I sometimes told myself, this was the world we have built. And sure, while it was still periodically brutally violent and at other times just depressingly dull, it wasn’t really so terrible, was it.

On the BBC news channel, the presenter had switched to talking about US and Chinese warships facing off in the Sea of Japan.

It was all going to be okay, surely.


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