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Geopolitics in 21st century

With China asserting its dominance, geopolitics today is giving way to geoeconomics.

Geopolitics in 21st century

From Aristotle (384-322 BC) to Montesquieu (AD 1689- 1745), geopolitical arguments about the political effects of geographic phenomenon such as climate, topography, natural boundaries, arable land and access to sea have occupied significant space in western political thought. The modern age of geopolitics began little over a century ago with the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan of the US Navy and Sir Halford Mackinder, the British geographer.

Mahan's historical analysis of the rise of the British Empire was the starting point for geopolitical debate. He argued in 1894 that the control of sea routes was a decisive factor of political influence due to the superior mobility of oceanic sailing vessels. He claimed that Britain, as the supreme maritime power of the 19th century, would eventually control trade and colonial possessions. With the advent of the railroad, Halford Mackinder countered Mahan and argued that land power would trump sea power. Through his "heartland" theory, written in 1904, that focused on vast interior regions of Eurasia made accessible by railroads, Mackinder stated that any state that was able to control the heartland would control world politics and thus pose a threat to the Empire. Mahan and Mackinder both looked at the same geographical reality but their conclusions differed due to the varied weights that each assigned to the significance of advancing technology.

All geopolitical scholars after Mackinder assumed that the Earth was the most basic influence on state behaviour because of its permanence and unchanging geographical characters. It was presumed that the limits set by geography would also ceil political decision making and international relations. These predictions did not come true. Technological development rendered naval power obsolete. The emergence of aeroplanes reduced the role of both naval and land power in favour of air superiority. For these reasons, geopolitical thinking did not cause much excitement among the strategic scholars of the West. It remained in a state of neglect. But the possibility that the Nazi desire for territory or lebensraum and imperial Japanese aggression was being influenced by this mysterious new science called geopolitik inspired the scholars to revisit Mackinder's philosophy.

The post-Cold War world was fundamentally different from the years between 1945 and 1991. The world became unipolar with the United States dominating the international scene. The first Gulf War codenamed Operation Desert Shield and later Operation Desert Storm was waged by a coalition force of 35 nations led by the United States between Aug 1990 and Mar 1991 against Iraq in response to Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait. It was the largest military alliance since World War II. The Gulf War established the geopolitical and geostrategic supremacy of the US. For the military intervention in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, the USA had to move men and equipment thousands of miles by ship from North America to the Persian Gulf, from one continent to another. The harsh geographical realities imposed by two oceans limited logistics planning. Advancement in technology enabled overcoming geographical barriers. That was one of the most important lessons of the first Gulf War.

With the end of the Cold War, ethnic conflicts became one of the major threats to international peace and security. Creation of ethnically homogeneous geographic areas was the primary objective of these conflicts. Conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Darfur, the West Bank and Gaza strip were among the deadliest examples from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These conflicts were often accompanied by gross human rights violation such as genocide, crimes against humanity, state failure and refugee inflows. Violent ethnic conflicts lead to tremendous human suffering and, in some cases, destabilisation of entire regions. Reputed academics like Samuel P Huntington and Robert D Kaplan predicted a proliferation of conflicts fueled by civilisational clashes, tribalism, resource scarcity and overpopulation. The causes, courses and consequences of these conflicts revealed significant interplay and combination of cultural, social, political, economic and military factors. Geography could not explain the actions. Geopolitics, thus, was integrated with the multidisciplinary study of international relations.

In the recent years, classical state-centric geopolitics has re-emerged. With the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, Russia is considered to have breached the Budapest Memorandum on security assurance. Under the terms of this treaty, signed in 1994, Ukraine obtained assurances of territorial integrity from signatory powers – the Russian Federation, the United States and the United Kingdom – in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal and signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although the invasion of eastern Ukraine was justified in terms of ethnic solidarity with Russians living there, it had the ominous warning that Russia was seeking a territorial link to Crimea via eastern Ukraine. Since annexation, the Russian government increased its military presence in the region.

For many years, China remained committed to pursuing economic growth to the exclusion of engaging in great power politics. Later, it started asserting territorial control over its maritime domain after strengthening its navy. China is now both a land and a maritime power. It has the military and economic wherewithal to pose a naval threat in the western Pacific and beyond. China has asserted jurisdiction over the East China Sea and the South China Sea. China is reported to be considering building a canal across Thailand that would shorten shipping distance from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea thereby bypassing the Malacca Strait and other traditional maritime chokepoints. China is building its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Russia and China are geopolitically active and trying to shift the balance of influence towards them in an area of military importance in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The foregoing examples of ethnic conflicts across the large swathe of the world and power ambitions of Russia and China bring out a clear picture of modern-day geopolitics. First, geopolitics is relevant to a conflict situation. Where there is no conflict or no potential for conflict, geopolitics has little to say. Peace only is the antidote to geopolitics. Second, states have to live with a perpetual existential crisis that occasionally may result in conflict. Accordingly, states should harness their geopolitical opportunities to their advantage and exploit geopolitical vulnerabilities of their adversaries. States should not become victims of their geopolitical situation but build their security apparatus to counteract adverse situations. This is an ongoing process. Third, geopolitics is based on the assumption that geography defines limits and opportunities in international relations. Technology and ideas have now reached a stage in which geographical barriers are no longer unassailable. Geography is no longer a deterrent. Fourth, geopolitics will not become obscure and obsolete as competition and conflict will perpetually remain. To overcome these hurdles, national strategy, political system and military institutions should respond with the dynamics of change and meet any challenge that may threaten the security and integrity of the country.

In the 21st century, geopolitics has become old-fashioned. By contrast, geo-economics is a relatively new term even though it has limited academic acceptability, so far. It is a post-Cold War strategic notion that economic competition has now eclipsed military confrontation at the centre of inter-state relations. According to US foreign policy experts, geoeconomics is "reassertion of state authority not in the name of strategy and security but rather to protect vital economic interests by geoeconomic defences, geoeconomic offensives, geoeconomic diplomacy and geoeconomic intelligence". In today's world, China is the best example of geoeconomic supremacy under state capitalism.

China has been seeking to reorient the international economy through infrastructure and construction projects. With regard to the sheer movement of commodities, China is planning to build a Eurasia-wide infrastructure of railways, roadways and pipelines by modernising the ancient Silk Road that stretched from China through Central Asia and beyond to the Levant and Europe. China's maritime infrastructure construction strategy known as "String of Pearls" will create revitalised and new port facilities across the Indian Ocean littoral that would provide China with access to raw materials shipped by oceanic trade routes and railways. Mackinder, about a hundred years ago, visualised a world economy based on long-distance land-based transport away from maritime. China's geoeconomic strategy is moving towards that direction. Post-Cold War geopolitics has revived classical geopolitics to a significant extent. The return and revisit of classical geopolitics in the distinctive garb of geo-economics is the realistic picture of the world situation in the 21st century.

(The writer is a former central civil servant who retired from the Ministry of Defence. The views expressed are strictly personal)

H Khasnobis

H Khasnobis

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