Intrigue’s 2023 in Review

1. Superpower relations

The curious case of the Chinese spy balloon

It’s not like US-China relations were good before Billings, Montana native Chase Doak spotted a 200-foot-tall object drifting in the sky one sunny February morning… but his discovery certainly made them worse.

China first denied it was a balloon meant for spying but somewhat undermined those denials by getting mad when a US fighter jet spectacularly shot it out of the sky. The whole event at least made for some good memes.

Outside the US relationship, it was a tough year for China: now-former foreign minister Qin Gang disappeared, as did now-former defence minister Li Shangfu. Both are rumoured to have committed serious crimes – in Qin’s case, there’s speculation he had been compromised by a Western intelligence agency.

In September, the US doubled down on its efforts to deny China crucial advanced semiconductors, tightening the ban it put in place in 2022. But China then scored a propaganda win when Huawei released its Mate 60 Pro, a phone that at least some people think shows China has found a way around the US ban.

Thankfully, by November, Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping kissed and made up at the APEC meeting in San Francisco.

In 2024, China needs to focus on its domestic economic challenges, so will probably try to avoid provoking the Americans. With that said, the Chinese Communist Party isn’t known for its ability to turn the other cheek, it’s still water-cannoning US allies in the South China Sea, and it’ll still end up a campaign issue in the hugely contentious US election.

So while we keep talking about the US and China trying to ‘put a floor’ under their relationship, 2023 has been a reminder that they can always dig deeper.

2. Territorial disputes

Nice knowin’ ya, borders

Borders seem simple enough, right? You draw a line in the sand – or snow, or Himalayas, or sea, or liquid hot magma. What’s on this side is mine, and what’s over there is yours. But in 2023, there were a few places where it wasn’t quite so simple.

Some borders – like the unofficial Taiwan Strait median line – look a lot weaker now that Chinese jets are roaring across every 2.5 days on average.

Other borders are now gone (like Nagorno-Karabakh), closed (Finland’s frontier with Russia), damaged (Israel’s border with Gaza), imaginary (Venezuela’s claims on Guyana), or still trying to will themselves into existence via independence movements (for example Catalans in Spain, Sikhs in Punjab, West Papuans in Indonesia, or Shans in Myanmar).

And still, other borders seem to be evolving, like the Europeans seeking third-country migration deals, or Mexico and the US investing in advanced border tech, or China using rail infrastructure to integrate with neighbours like Laos.

If Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year was our warning that borders were under pressure, 2023 has been the confirmation. And as our world continues to fray, the list of borders that might crumble, harden, evolve, or emerge will just get longer.

3. AI & Tech

The pace of change is exhausting, said governments everywhere

You don’t need us to remind you that 2023 was the year of AI. Nor do world leaders, who were forced to add ChatGPT to the long list of things they don’t understand but are reliably informed they must worry about.

While machine learning and the large-language models (LLMs) that power AI have been around for decades (like autocorrect in your texts), governments are only now starting to publicly think through the transformative – and potentially devastating – impact on our world.

Think undetectable deep-fakes in election campaigns, AI-written malicious codes that bypass cyber defences, and ‘algorithmic warfare’ on the battleground (a report on Thursday suggests Israel is already using AI to target Hamas).

As usual, the EU is ‘leading’ the way on tech regulation – it looks all but certain now to pass the EU AI Act early next year. And as usual, Europe’s own tech industry is leading the criticism in response, calling the act “potentially disastrous”.

So yeah, the AI revolution is just beginning, which means the regulation counter-revolution – plus some game-changing opportunities – are not too far behind.

4. Elections

Out with the old, in with the popular

In 2023, voters across the world sent their elected representatives a message: “we don’t like you very much, and we definitely don’t like the direction we’re heading”. Out of 10 elections in OECD countries (and one OECD-applicant country), opposition parties won the most votes in seven of them.

In Argentina (the OECD applicant country in question), voters were so disillusioned by 140% inflation that they voted for a man with five cloned dogs, each named after free market economists. Woof.

There are plenty of ways to explain this trend – overwhelmed government in-trays, splintered and polarised informational ecosystems, high inflation, and the enduring appeal of populism.

Of the survivors, Turkish President Erdogan’s victory was the most surprising; Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ the most resounding; and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’ the most impressive. She managed to pitch a platform of continuity – that is, strident support for Ukraine – to an electorate that was suffering 15% inflation at the time they went to the polls.

Oh, and speaking of the decline of incumbency advantage, did we mention there will be more elections in 2024 than in any other year in history, including in little places like India, the United States, the EU, and the UK? Have your popcorn at the ready.

5. Climate change

A record year (both good and bad)

On 1 September, the world’s biggest wind turbine (which sits in the ocean off the coast of China and has a wingspan of 252 metres) produced a record 384.1 megawatt hours (MWh) in a single day thanks to typhoon-strength winds.

In normal speak, that’s enough energy to power ~170,000 homes, 38 million LEDs, or a 2.2 million km trip in an electric car!

Here’s some more good news for you:

  • A Swedish startup claims to have developed a sodium-ion battery that doesn’t rely on expensive and mining-intensive rare-earth minerals.
  • The International Energy Agency is predicting that investments in renewable energy will reach a new global peak.
  • And we’ve never had as much solar energy capacity as we do today.

2023 also saw the UAE host COP28. Surely holding the world’s most important climate conference in a petrostate is like holding a nutrition conference at KFC, right?

And yet, the COP28 joint agreement contained the first-ever reference to transitioning away from fossil fuels; many hailed it as a success. We think it’s a timely reminder that having all stakeholders in the room is often the most productive path to progress.

However, we can’t wrap 2023 without mentioning that scientists say it’s been the hottest year on record, with global mean temperatures between Jan and Nov coming in 1.46°C above the pre-industrial levels.

That sweaty thought notwithstanding, noted scientist Lesley Ann Hughes gave us some good vibes to close out the year: “I’m optimistic about the future. I’ve come to the conclusion that hope has to be a strategy”.


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