Five Major Diplomatic Disputes That Could Spell More Trouble in 2022

From the AUKUS fracas to China’s bullying tactics in Europe, here are some of the top diplomatic spats from the past year that could haunt us in the next.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets Chinese President Xi Jinping.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets Chinese President Xi Jinping.
U.S. President Joe Biden gestures as he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit at the White House in Washington on Nov. 15. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

2021

It happens every year. Feuds between countries over this or that issue can have significant geopolitical implications, complete with all the fixings of a diplomatic spat like trade embargoes, recalled ambassadors, angry saber-rattling, or (worst of all) passive-aggressive foreign ministry statements.

This year proved to be no exception, including a diplomatic feud that illustrates China’s growing rise (and blunt use of “wolf warrior diplomacy” to try and stifle detractors abroad) as a small Baltic nation stands up to China over its policy on Taiwan. There was more China-related drama in the Asia-Pacific, this time between Washington and some of its closest Western allies over a submarine deal that threw Paris into a tizzy.

Then, there’s the long diplomatic war of attrition that is the United Kingdom’s exit from Europe, as Brexit negotiations among Brussels, London, and neighboring Ireland falter over Northern Ireland’s border arrangements in a way that could upend a decades-old peace agreement. In the Middle East, a new dispute between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia prompted Riyadh to pull sorely needed economic assistance and halt trade with Beirut. In East Africa, a long-simmering dispute among Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over Ethiopia’s construction of a dam on the Nile River could exacerbate tensions in a region already mired in crisis, especially as Egypt’s ambassador urged Washington to intervene.

It happens every year. Feuds between countries over this or that issue can have significant geopolitical implications, complete with all the fixings of a diplomatic spat like trade embargoes, recalled ambassadors, angry saber-rattling, or (worst of all) passive-aggressive foreign ministry statements.

This year proved to be no exception, including a diplomatic feud that illustrates China’s growing rise (and blunt use of “wolf warrior diplomacy” to try and stifle detractors abroad) as a small Baltic nation stands up to China over its policy on Taiwan. There was more China-related drama in the Asia-Pacific, this time between Washington and some of its closest Western allies over a submarine deal that threw Paris into a tizzy.

Then, there’s the long diplomatic war of attrition that is the United Kingdom’s exit from Europe, as Brexit negotiations among Brussels, London, and neighboring Ireland falter over Northern Ireland’s border arrangements in a way that could upend a decades-old peace agreement. In the Middle East, a new dispute between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia prompted Riyadh to pull sorely needed economic assistance and halt trade with Beirut. In East Africa, a long-simmering dispute among Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over Ethiopia’s construction of a dam on the Nile River could exacerbate tensions in a region already mired in crisis, especially as Egypt’s ambassador urged Washington to intervene.

Here’s some of the top diplomatic spats we’ve seen in the past year, as told through the eyes of the former prime ministers, foreign ministers, experts, and envoys who are in the thick of it. These stories won’t be the last you hear of them; many of these disputes are likely to reverberate into 2022.


1. China Has Only Itself to Blame for AUKUS

by Charles Edel, Sept. 24

The United States and United Kingdom crafted a new security pact with Australia this year (known as AUKUS) to counter China, allowing Australia to construct nuclear submarines for the first time. One slight hitch: No one bothered to tell France about it. Australia abruptly canceled a major multibillion-dollar contract with France for nonnuclear submarines, and Paris was incensed. It led to a major rift between Western allies; France recalled its ambassador from Washington, as well as Canberra, for the first time ever and fired off a series of sharp rebukes at Washington, London, and Canberra. Then there was angry backlash from Beijing at a time when U.S.-China relations were already spiraling. Writing for Foreign Policy, Charles Edel, a senior fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, argued China has only itself to blame, and AUKUS is a smart—but only partial step—to beef up U.S. and allied posturing in the Indo-Pacific to confront Beijing.


2. Pressured by China, Lithuania Won’t Back Down Over Taiwan

by Robbie Gramer, Sept. 7

Lithuania sparked a new diplomatic row this year with China over its stance on Taiwan, the independent, democratically governed island Beijing considers a part of its territory. Earlier this year, Lithuania agreed to exchange diplomatic offices with Taiwan and allowed it to use the name ‘Taiwan’ in its Lithuania office—a big red line for Beijing. (Many other countries that have exchanged diplomatic offices with Taiwan use the capital, Taipei, in the office’s name instead of “Taiwan” to avoid China’s ire.) In response, China recalled its ambassador from Vilnius, halted rail freight to Lithuania, and restricted permits for Lithuanian exports to China. Despite all these warning shots, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told Foreign Policy earlier this year that his country won’t back down, and Beijing’s hardball tactics could simply backfire. “Sometimes it’s quite the opposite—the pressure increases resilience rather than breaks the country,” Landsbergis said. He also warned that his country could be a “canary in the coal mine” for how China pressures smaller countries that don’t bend to its will.


3. Only Washington Can Save the Renaissance Dam Negotiations Now

by Motaz Zahran, April 29

As if there wasn’t enough strife and conflict in East Africa already, there’s still the long-simmering dispute among Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over a massive dam project on the Nile River that has inflamed regional tensions and has no end in sight. U.S. and African Union efforts to broker an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile have all run aground. But Egypt’s ambassador to Washington, Motaz Zahran, argued in Foreign Policy that his country needs the United States to help mediate the dispute and secure his country’s water rights. “The Biden administration, which is currently mulling over the best policy for managing this situation, must act now. At stake is the future of the Nile, a lifeline for millions of Egyptians and Sudanese,” Zahran writes.


4. Lebanon Is Europe’s Most Urgent Challenge

by Faysal Itani and Azeem Ibrahim, Oct. 15

Lebanon is teetering on the brink of economic collapse; now, a fresh diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia, started by a government ministers comments on Riyadhs role in the war in Yemen, in underway. The latest drama is bad news for Lebanon’s fragile economy—and for Europe. Middle East policy experts Faysal Itani and Azeem Ibrahim warned that a financial collapse in Lebanon would fuel a new political and refugee crisis at Europe’s gates. There are millions of refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries who have fled war and strife to land in Lebanon, many of whom already live in abject poverty. “This is already a recipe for mass migration—but if the security situation degenerates, flight is inevitable. With few havens left in the region, the most sensible route will be to head to Europe,” Itani and Ibrahim write.


5. Brexit Fallout Could ‘Collapse’ the Good Friday Agreement

by Robbie Gramer and Amy MacKinnon, Sept. 24

It seems like all the legal and political drama surrounding the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union will never end. The latest diplomatic war of attrition focuses on post-Brexit border arrangements with Northern Ireland. If London and Brussels can’t sort out their differences, some U.S. and European policymakers fear it could upend a 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. “The real threat here is the collapse of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, which would be very, very problematic,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told Foreign Policy this fall.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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