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World’s security threats in 2019

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Russian designs on Ukraine, tension in South China Sea and conflicts in Yemen and Syria could rattle the world order

This year may offer no shortage of strategic surprises.

Here are some of the key areas to watch in 2019.

A new 'big three' meeting?

With all the attention in Washington on the government shutdown and disputes over border funding, US President Donald Trump has said little more on his December tweet that seemed to advocate a three-way conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

Such a meeting, he suggested, might offer the opportunity to stem a major global arms race.

What is worrying is that any such meeting might yield a "grand bargain" in which Mr Trump listens to his most isolationist instincts and agrees to a US military pullback.

The first real indicator as to whether a Trump-Putin-Xi summit might happen will likely come this month, when US and Chinese trade teams meet in an attempt to de-escalate a growing dispute on tariffs.

Europe - particularly Ukraine

European states have been particularly dismayed by Secretary of Defence James Mattis' resignation, and are now worried Mr Trump may double-down on his rhetoric that Europe has done too little for its own defence.

That should not stop US forces from continuing to be heavily involved in Nato exercises, however - at least unless Mr Trump orders them not to.

The most likely venue for escalating conflict, however, remains Ukraine.

Having enclosed the seized Crimean peninsula with a fence and taken control of the entrance to the Azov Sea with a bridge, some suspect Moscow may attempt another limited land grab, perhaps towards the Ukrainian coastal port of Mariupol.

Whether that comes or not, increased posturing by Nato and Russian forces alike in the nearby Black Sea feels inevitable, especially ahead of Ukrainian elections on March 31.

South China Sea

While much of the meat of China's confrontations with the West comes from the trade dispute and associated issues such as the detention of a Huawei executive in Canada, Beijing's ambitions may play out most visibly in the South China Sea.

Despite a United Nations court ruling dismissing its maritime claims, Beijing will continue to build military bases across the South China Sea, while US warships and regional allies will continue to challenge them with so-called freedom of navigation operations.

A particular flashpoint might be the Scarborough Shoal, claimed by both Beijing and the Philippines.

China has yet to build a permanent outpost on the rocky outcrops - though its forces maintain a persistent presence.

Filipino fishermen have complained of harassment.

Yemen and Syria

In Syria, the US withdrawal will likely be followed by a dramatic increase in Turkish and Syrian military action and a major land grab against Kurdish forces, formerly allied to Washington.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia must decide whether to largely abide with a Western-backed peace process aimed at stopping a war that now threatens millions with starvation, or push on regardless and face yet more international condemnation.

The outcome of both conflicts will tell us much about a Middle East now dominated by a struggle between several medium-power countries - Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in particular.

North Korea

After the unexpected diplomatic breakthroughs last year, the coming year may be much more challenging when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

There is still no solid date set for a further meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim Jong Un, and Pyongyang seems unlikely to acquiesce to US demands for complete nuclear disarmament.

Much depends on how US-China dynamics play out.

If Washington and Beijing can de-escalate their trade war, Chinese pressure may keep the Korean peninsula calm.

But if US-Chinese tensions ratchet higher, a return to North Korean weapons tests could yet spark US military action and a wider regional war.

The writer is Reuters global affairs columnist.

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