This year HCSS launched The Socio-Political Instability Survey, inviting over 500 think tankers from around the world to give their views on the short-term likelihood and location of volatility and conflict globally using multiple-choice questions. The survey also delved into three ‘hot-topics’ using open-ended questions formulated by our Strategic Analysts. For this version of the survey the topics included the China-Taiwan conflict and world trade, western dependencies on critical minerals and the impact of climate change on Africa. The results of the open-ended questions were gained through a process of quantitative and qualitative discourse analysis, with specified themes or coding categories determined by the authors.
The survey was completed throughout the month of May 2023 and is the first of a series of surveys, to be completed three times a year. The survey results will contribute to the Socio-Political Instability Monitor.
This ‘Observer’ outlines the results of the first Socio-Political Instability Survey and provides analysis. In this survey, socio-political instability in the extreme is the probability of conflict fatalities, specifically, the incidence of armed conflict that leads to fatalities. This includes drivers of volatility, be that economic, diplomatic, environmental, demographic or armed that could lead to conflict fatalities.
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The first edition of the Observer highlights Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a significant factor in shaping expert perceptions of global socio-political instability in the short term. Russia is a major source of instability, both internally and through military and political involvement in various locations. The instability in Sudan underscores the potential for volatile situations, whether due to environmental or armed conflicts, to escalate and spread across fragile neighbouring states in Middle and Eastern Africa, making them potential sources of future socio-political instability. While China is a dominant global player, experts downplay its disruptive power in the short term compared to Russia. Many experts emphasise China’s inter-dependencies with the west and uncertainties surrounding its next moves regarding Taiwan and Ukraine.
Socio-political instability: feeling the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
According to the experts surveyed, Sudan (42%) and Ukraine (33%) were predicted to have the most short-term socio-political instability. In April 2023, Sudan experienced fighting between rival generals in Khartoum, drawing international attention. Ukraine is an active conflict zone and a Ukrainian counteroffensive was expected in May. Additionally, 9% of experts believed Russia would face socio-political instability. With over a year past since the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military has failed to meet expectations whilst its economy has continued to suffer as a result. Tensions between the Wagner group and Russian defence establishment further escalated in May 2023, leading to a mutiny in June.
Eastern Europe (40%) and Middle Africa (25%) were predicted to have the most short-term socio-political instability. This result maps onto the countries expected to have the most Socio-Political Instability, with Ukraine and Russia as key sources of conflict in Eastern Europe. Sudan represented an unstable situation in Eastern Africa (12%). Middle Africa, incorporating the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C) and Rwanda, was also expected to face instability according to 25% of experts surveyed. For example, On May 9th, the D.R.C experienced severe flooding and landslides, adding to ongoing conflict and tensions with Rwanda, due to paramilitary activity.
63% of respondents believed that Russia would have the greatest impact on global socio-political instability, considering the prominence of the Ukraine war and perhaps Russian armed activity in Africa. Meanwhile, 24% of respondents thought that China would have the most impact, likely reflecting China’s significance in the global order and potential involvement in the Ukraine conflict and a potential conflict over Taiwan.
A future China-Taiwan conflict: trade disruption and division
Experts predict that China-Taiwan tensions will primarily impact supply chains and trade routes (28%) in the medium term. Scarcities in raw materials and semiconductors (12%) are likely to arise, given their reliance on Taiwan, South Korea, China, and the U.S. This would adversely affect the East Asian economy. Furthermore, tensions between China and the West are expected (11%) and 8% felt this would cause division, with European companies expected to limit relations with China. Experts are divided (6%) on whether this will result in “de-risking“, reducing ties, or “de-coupling”, cutting ties, with China, reflecting official disagreements over loosening ties with the west’s largest trading partner. However, only 5% of respondents anticipate a trade war escalating into military action.
Critical minerals, autocratic states and the dependency dilemma
The majority of respondents (70%) predict that western dependencies on critical minerals (critical raw materials and rare earths) will likely be used as a bargaining chip for political advantage by autocratizing states that produce critical minerals, such as China, Russia, D.R.C and Zimbabwe. For example, to tolerate future conflict, human rights or environmental abuses. Of these 14% feel that dependencies will be exploited for financial advantage, perhaps through price raising or export restrictions. 5% draw parallels with Russia’s weaponization of metals and gas, following the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. However, 7% feel there will be no influence because China is dependent on the west too or because the west will find alternative sources of critical minerals. In fact, 9% of experts predict that mining and production in alternative or friendly states will be expanded, for example in South America or in Europe itself.
The impact of climate change in Africa: scarcities and migration
Experts predict that the main climate security challenge facing Africa will be food and water scarcities caused by drought or famine (27%). Soil degradation, and extreme weather events, as seen in 2023 in the D.R.C and Sudan, were highlighted. These factors will also contribute to migration and displacement (20%), particularly from rural to urban areas and out of Africa. Displacement itself is expected to cause instability, with 6% emphasising population growth and urbanisation, and 5% noting the loss of human capital (brain drain) in African countries. Experts predict (16%) that fragile or corrupt governments will struggle to respond to the climate crisis, potentially leading to armed conflict. The role of paramilitaries in African politics, the decline in international solidarity (2% foreign aid), and increased foreign influence (3%) from countries like Russia and China are also significant factors that need to be managed.
68 experts from universities, think tanks and research institutes completed this version of the survey. 34% of respondents were from the Netherlands, 7% from the U.S.A, 5% from Austria and Belgium and 4% from Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden. Most of the respondents were Europe-based perhaps accounting for the importance placed on the war in Ukraine. We endeavour to expand participation in future surveys.
Authors and contributors:
Alessandra Barrow, Linde Arentze, Diederik Dekkers and Henrik Kathmann