This year the world had a break from bloodshed. It cannot last

Few conflicts have spilled across borders in the past 12 months. Yet the seeds of cataclysm have been sown, says Christopher Bellamy reports
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With North Korea's remarkable apology to South Korea over the incursion of one of its submarines into that country's waters, tension in one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints has been reduced, for the moment. Those countries constitute one of two such flashpoints on the Pacific rim, China and Taiwan being the other.

The past year has seen no major conflict between states, and, as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted in its latest yearbook, all 30 major conflicts under way, from Afghanistan and Algeria to Tajikistan and Turkey, were primarily internal.

The distinction between inter-state and intra-state war is never simple, however; the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi which devastated Rwanda and threatened to devastate Burundi spilled over into Zaire, for example.

Internal conflicts generate floods of refugees, who spill over international borders, which is why the UN's Chapter VII, dealing with threats to international peace and security can be invoked to respond to internal unrest.

The world's armed forces are already responding to a shift in emphasis away from international to internal conflict. The British in Ireland, Indian and Pakistani forces in Kashmir, the Israeli army fighting the Palestinian intifada, and even the Russian army, all regard internal extremists as the more immediate threat. But they all have to maintain the ability to fight big wars, the "genie in the bottle", as well. It would be premature to suggest that international conflict has ended.

The past year may prove to be an aberration. And "internal" conflicts can be just as bad, and almost as destabilising as those between states. The conflict in Chechnya, which killed an estimated 50,000 people, is a case in point.

And as Kofi Annan, a former head of United Nations peace-keeping, takes charge as UN Secretary-General, he will want to identify where the next big conflict is likely to be - whether internal or international. So do the non-governmental organisations bringing aid to conflict areas. So do the general staffs of the major military powers, who may have to intervene. So do the media.

The underlying causes of future conflict tend to preoccupy strategic thinkers more than immediate predictions of where it will be. Sam Huntington, a Harvard professor, recently formulated a theory that there would be a "clash of civilisations". Whereas the great wars of the industrial era had all been within western civilisation, now civilisations would collide like tectonic plates - Islam and Christendom, for example. So far, there has been little evidence of such a collision: the causes of conflicts appear more local and trivial. Experts also agree that other big and inter- related factors - population growth, global warming and increased competition for vital resources, notably water and oil - will influence future conflict.

This is not necessarily an academic manie de grandiose. More people will compete for fewer resources in a changed, possibly more hostile environment. Flooded or parched out of their homes, they will need somewhere to go.

Robert Kaplan, writing in 1994, took West Africa as his point of departure for a different analysis of what the world will look like."Sierra Leone," he wrote, "is a microcosm of what is occurring throughout West Africa and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central government, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war." He describes the young thugs he has encountered as a seething mass of "loose molecules" just waiting to ignite into violence, and a blurring of the distinction between war, which by definition has some political objective, and crime.

The instability and conflict in central Africa - Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi - is likely to continue through the coming year. Uganda, the conduit for arms to Tutsi forces in Rwanda and Zaire, and Tanzania, where thousands of Hutu refugees are still sheltering, could also be drawn in to any conflict.

Western powers - the US, Canada, Britain France and Spain - were poised to send troops in but breathed a sigh of relief when the Hutu refugees in Zaire began returning home and Hutu militia headed west, further into Zaire. While holding back from committing ground troops, the Western powers stepped up reconnaissance of the area. British plans for intervention in Zaire had already started life as plans for Burundi. We may yet see intervention in central Africa in 1997, especially if Zaire disintegrates.

Central Africa nearly became the British army's next war in October 1996, when a full brigade of 3,000 troops was put on stand-by. It may still be its next big operation.

Most experts regard east Asia as the driest tinder to be ignited, however. North Korea, facing increasing economic troubles, might try to divert attention by attacking the south; this year's hand-over of Hong Kong to China might go badly, leading to friction which could explode in violence by 2000; Taiwan may use China's preoccupation with Hong Kong to provoke it again, as it did this year, leading to China conducting naval manoeuvres.

With 31,000 stabilisation-force troops in place, Bosnia is unlikely to erupt in conflict again. Instead, Serbia itself may be the focus of renewed conflict in south-east Europe.

In the Taiwan dispute, the US fleet was a powerful instrument in deterring China from further action. There are strong grounds for believing that, like the colonial powers in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Allies in the two world wars, the international community is safer when its military efforts take place at sea.

Naval power could also be crucial in another flashpoint area - the Gulf. While Iraq remains under close scrutiny, and appears to be more compliant after the conclusion of the "oil for food" deal, Saudi Arabia itself is looking increasingly unstable. That is worrying for the West, still critically dependent on Gulf oil and on Saudi money for billions of pounds' worth of defence exports.

But the Gulf states and Iran enjoy easy access from the sea. That is why the last of the possible areas for major conflict could bring the realisation of the worst possible nightmare. All the factors - religious extremism, environmental degradation, disputes over oil and water, the break-up of old empires - converge in the Caucasus and central Asia and on the border of the old Soviet Union. The position of Grozny at the junction of the key oil pipelines out of central Asia was one reason why the Russians were so determined to keep it.

The other way out is through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In this much fought-over area of the world the Aral Sea is drying up, fertile land is turning to desert, oil and water are resources to be fought over, and religious extremism - exemplified by the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan - is increasingly important.

In recent discussions between Nato and the Russians, the Russians surprised Western observers by asking for help to deal with security threats to the south. The chairman of Nato's Military Committee, Klaus Naumann, said he had discussed co-operating with Russia to preserve security in the area. And when Michael Portillo, Britain's Secretary of State for Defence, visited Moscow in November, one of the Russian admirals in his audience asked for Western financial help.

An explosion in the world's heartland, far from the sea, would be very difficult for the international community to handle. And because it is relatively difficult to get to, it may not attract massive media attention in time to persuade governments to try to stop it.