Geography dictates geopolitics

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Even the average reader can see that there are conflicts all over the world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put the whole of Europe on war footing. The conflicts in the Middle East are not contemporary. This area has known conflicts since the dawn of civilization. The struggle between the Jews and the non-Jews in the Middle East predates even the birth of the Muslim religion. The tribal conflicts in Africa started before colonial time and have persisted even now when the colonial era has supposedly ended.

In Asia, the subcontinent of India has seen invasions coming from the west from the time of Alexander the Great to the recent crisis with its neighbors. There is the myth that China has never invaded neighboring countries. The reality is very different. As late as 1979, China attempted to invade Vietnam. This was surprising as the two countries are ideologically compatible since both are communist countries.

Also, China has attempted to invade Japan twice. Only a super typhoon which destroyed the Chinese fleet saved the island empire of Japan. By the way, this is the origin of the so-called divine wind. The term “kamikaze” was coined in honor of the 1281 typhoon, as “it was perceived to be a gift from the gods, supposedly granted after a retired emperor went on a pilgrimage and prayed for divine intervention.”

Historically, the largest land empire was the territory subjugated by Genghis Khan which stretched from China all the way to eastern Europe. Today, these geographic areas like Afghanistan, Iran (Persia), Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the countries of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan) continue to be areas of conflict.

There are many reasons that have been advanced by academicians and theorists as to the root causes for this conflict. There are those who attribute it to globalization and colonial expansion. However, I believe that the root cause for these historical conflicts is geopolitics dictated by geography.

There are authors who have examined the importance of geography in shaping history. Geography is often overlooked in geopolitical thought and planning. For those who are truly interested in understanding the critical impact of geography on the behavior of geopolitics, there are a few books that are valuable references to this phenomenon.

The book “The Revenge of Geography” by Robert D. Kaplan is a basic primer. In this book, the author traces the history of the world’s hot spots by examining their climates, topographies and proximities to other embattled lands. He then applies the lessons learned to the present crisis in Europe, Russia, China, the Indian subcontinent, Turkey, Iran and the Arab Middle East.

The book presents a holistic interpretation of the next cycle of conflict that is bound to arise in Eurasia. This is a glimpse into the future that can be understood only in the context of temperature, land allotment and other physical certainties and boundaries. This is also a brilliant rebuttal to thinkers who suggest globalism and globalization will overcome geography as the main driving force of geopolitics.

Another book is “The Prisoners of Geography” by Tim Marshall. It shows how geography shapes not just history but also destiny. Basically, the book contains ten maps that explain everything about the world. The author uses ten maps to explain the political strategies of world powers. Marshall is also the author of the book “Why Nations Fail.”

All leaders of nations are constrained by geography. Their choices are limited by mountains, rivers and seas. For example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was understandable because there are no geographical barriers like mountains and seas between Russia and Ukraine.

The ten maps that Marshall examines are Russia, China, United States, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America and the Arctic.

Marshall explains the geopolitical strategies of the nations in these key parts of the globe. For example, why will America never be invaded? How is China’s future curbed by its geography? Why will Europe never be united?

According to Marshall, the answers to these questions are all geographical and explained at great length in the book. It is the unavoidable physical realities that shape the fate of nations.

For Filipinos, the book “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia” by Bill Hayton is especially relevant. He explains that China’s rise has upset the global balance of power and that the first place to feel the strain is Beijing’s so-called backyard, the South China Sea. In the book, Hayton examines the high stakes involved for China, Taiwan, the United States, Vietnam, the Philippines and the rest of Asia.

He also reviews the impact on India, Russia and the wider world while critiquing various claims and positions and outlining what the future may hold for this region of international rivalry.

To understand the impact of geography, imagine if instead of facing the South China Sea, the Philippines was located in the South Pacific with New Zealand as its nearest neighbor. I cannot imagine that New Zealand would ever attempt to seize territory that belongs to the Philippines. This country would also not be on a major international sea route that controls a substantial share of the world’s marine cargo.

These three books have a similar message that it is geography that dictates geopolitical strategies.

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