GEOPOLITICS: by John MorrisseyNews Weekly
An emerging mega-zone of conflict
, March 15, 2014
Robert D. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a Texas-based private global intelligence firm, and a prolific writer on international relations. He recently published an analysis of international developments in Politico Magazine (January 8, 2014), entitled “From Beijing to Jerusalem: The creation of a mega-zone of conflict”.
Reading Robert Kaplan’s broad brush outline of how the world stands, the interrelationships between apparently unconnected developments in remote parts of the globe, and the implications for the future, I am reminded of the geo-political discourses which News Weekly’s founder, the late B.A. “Bob” Santamaria, used to give at the National Civic Council’s annual national conferences.
Such a vision takes a subtle understanding and a firm grasp of the past as well as of the present, together with an outlook like that of the former Chinese leader, Zhou Enlai, who in the 1970s, on being asked about the significance of the 1789 French Revolution, remarked, “It is too early to tell.” And China is a key factor in Kaplan’s thesis.
Kaplan is not prepared to make absolute predictions about the future, but is dismissive of the media’s focus on the conflict in Syria and other flashpoints about the globe, without their being aware that these are symptoms of more fundamental assertions of geographical realities and consequent historical developments.
He repeatedly dismisses the outdated Cold War frames of reference common to many political analysts. Recent events in the Middle East he sees as ongoing consequences of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, in which Harry Chauvel’s Australian Light Horse played the leading role, and the melting away of the subsequent arrangements made to fill the vacuum.
But, more so, he recalls the ancient Greeks’ term Oikoumene for what they called the “inhabited quarter” of the globe, stretching from the civilisation of Egypt’s Nile Valley to that of Central Asia, with its “tapestry of peoples, trade networks and conflicts”. This and not Europe was the subject matter for ancient historians like Herodotus.
Kaplan throws out the Cold War assumptions, which limit and distort the “work of journalists, academics and government analysts”, and invokes a “more organic and fluid geography… of interacting, catalytic instability”.
One day, he believes, [Shi’ite] Iran will break out of its interim nuclear deal to produce nuclear weapons, driving Saudi Arabia further into the arms of Pakistan, “fusing the Middle East and South Asia conflict systems” — that is, those of Iran versus Israel, and Pakistan versus India.
The United States military withdrawal from Afghanistan, he foresees, will admit a stronger Iranian influence in the western and central parts, while China will continue mining and oil exploration in the east and north. He confidently predicts Afghanistan’s collapse as a polity.
China’s long-term interest in the region reaches back to the 8th century and dovetails with its current rail and pipeline links with four neighbouring former Soviet central Asian republics. Add to this the strategic port it built at Gwadar in Pakistan, near the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and China, once it is master of the South China Sea, will be at the “strategic heart” of both South Asia and the Middle East.
Moreover, he sees Myanmar [Burma] rather than China as the nexus of this “new and fluid Eurasian geography”. It is resource-rich, dominates the Bay of Bengal, and is where China’s sphere of influence in East Asia and that of India in South Asia overlap. He calls its emergence the “geographic development of our time”, and points to the term “Indo-Pacific” as the appropriate term for this coming together of the regions in the eyes of Asia specialists.
Pakistan, he conjectures, could be reduced to Greater Punjab, with some regions aligning with India and a “Pushtunistan” breaking away on the Afghan border. Given the unravelling of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen in recent years, and Pakistan’s structural similarities in terms of ethnic groups and sectarian splits, this would not be surprising.
Kaplan is confident that some interaction will take place, whether these places fall into anarchy or roll on to development and greater cohesion as political entities. However, it does affect the type of interaction. Chaos would affect the countries around them, with their shared spread of ethnic and religious groupings, while investment in transport and other infrastructure would erase artificial divisions and lead to a “more fluid geography”.
China, of course, remains the most critical factor in Kaplan’s analysis, but not because of its continued economic rise. The reported GDP growth rate of 7.5 per cent is not to be believed, and the “ghost cities” built during a real estate boom represent a massive credit bubble, while the low-wage and competitive export-engine of economic growth is stalling.
To rebalance an economy with a soft landing for a population of 1.3 billion may be beyond the reach of the country’s political elite. This could threaten stability and the dominance of the Han people over minorities such as the Tibetans and Uigar Turks bordering Central and South Asia. Any outbreaks could fuse with the violent upheavals stretching along the Oikoumene. And Kaplan insists that events in the Middle East since 2011 have been more about the breakdown of central authority than the rise of democracy.
However, as China has spread its transport and pipelines in Central Asia, built deepwater ports as far afield as East Africa, and expanded its naval, air and missile capacity, its leaders could project ever more power abroad, while at home the economy contracts and social unrest increases.
Of sub-Saharan Africa, he paints a grim picture, in spite of Chinese investment in its mining infrastructure. Even with declining birth rates, the population is projected to reach 4.1 billions by 2100. Despite advances in agriculture, a shortage of water and a fragile environment will not sustain this growing population. It is these factors which drive the conflicts and the rise of evil regimes which are blamed for the breakdown of states across sub-Saharan Africa. Such chaos could merge with that of North Africa and ignite trouble in Mali and Niger, not to mention current conflict in the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
Kaplan concludes that advances in communication, transport and military technology, far from reducing conflict, have not negated geography but made it more claustrophobic through the shrinkage of distance. His message to the United States is to think in terms of the Afro-Asian Oikoumene on both land and the Greater Indian Ocean rimland. Only at and from the sea can the U.S. project power. Conflicts will reduce the power and significance of foreign capitals, and while the U.S.’s geographical position and resources make it secure, its capacity to affect political outcomes in the eastern hemisphere will diminish further.
He might have addressed a different message to Australia. We are an Indian Ocean country as well as a Pacific one, and are heavily dependent on China and South-East Asia. We could not be more vulnerable in terms of trade and security in the event of regional conflict, spilling over from the Afro-Asian Oikoumene. Forming the base of the Indo-Pacific region, we need leadership and public education to look beyond the old certainties of the Cold War and three-year terms of government.
John Morrissey is a Melbourne-based writer.
Robert Kaplan, “From Beijing to Jerusalem: The creation of a mega-zone of conflict”, Politico Magazine (Arlington, Virginia), January 8, 2014.