2016 in Geopolitical Review

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama waits backstage before participating in a panel discussion in Atlanta, Georgia, March 29 (White House/Pete Souza)

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who liked 2016. Just about every safe assumption about the future was challenged. To top the year off, the United States even abstained from a veto on the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlements, rewriting at the last moment the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv. It has been a roller coaster, but what has it all meant? Read more “2016 in Geopolitical Review”

Why Taiwan Could (Still) Start World War III

Guam
A B-52 Stratofortress bomber leads a formation of American and Japanese fighter jets in a flight over Guam, February 21, 2011 (USAF/Angelita M. Lawrence)

Surely you know already the tripwire: Taiwan is a de facto country but a de jure province of mainland China. The people’s republic wants to bring it back under mainland China’s rule while the people of Taiwan want exactly the opposite.

Moreover, Taiwan’s military security is guaranteed by the United States via the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which stipulates the United States must respond militarily to a communist invasion.

So if the PRC tries to bring Taiwan back into the fold by military force, the United States must retaliate. Conventional battles turn to nuclear battles and then we all die in the irradiated glow of our own monstrous weapons. Read more “Why Taiwan Could (Still) Start World War III”

In Era of Trump, Australia Looks to China for Leadership on Trade

Yoshihiko Noda Barack Obama Wen Jiabao
President Barack Obama, flanked by Prime Ministers Yoshihiko Noda of Japan and Wen Jiabao of China, attends the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 20, 2012 (State Department/William Ng)

Australia isn’t waiting for Donald Trump to assume office in January before recalibrating its foreign relations.

The island nation — America’s most reliable ally in the Pacific — has thrown its support behind Chinese trade initiatives now that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) appears dead.

Steven Ciobo, Australia’s trade minister, told the Financial Times he would work to conclude new trade pacts with other countries in the region, including China’s proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific.

“Any move that reduces barriers to trade and helps us facilitate trade, facilitate exports and drive economic growth and employment is a step in the right direction,” Ciobo said.

But there is a strategic component to this as well. Read more “In Era of Trump, Australia Looks to China for Leadership on Trade”

Predictability versus Chaos: Where China and Russia Diverge

Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China meet on the sidelines of a summit in Benaulim, India, October 15 (Kremlin)

China and Russia have often been bundled together as representing the single most serious challenge to the West. Without doubt these two states share a number of views on world politics and also have a host of similar interests. But it is where they differ that is more telling about their relationship with the West and the international order in general.

An interesting pattern has been unfolding for the past couple of months. Russia has been betting on growing chaos in the West. It cheered both Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory. Russian support for populist forces in Europe can be traced back to the establishment of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in Paris in 2008.

China, in turn, has been much more cautious. It chose predictability, favoring the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union and tilting toward Hillary Clinton as a slightly better option, even though there were voices in the Chinese debate favoring Trump.

If both China and Russia are dissatisfied with the West, why these stark differences? Read more “Predictability versus Chaos: Where China and Russia Diverge”

American Leadership in Pacific at Stake If Trump Cancels Trade Pact

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Park Geun-hye of South Korea walk in the garden of the Blue House in Seoul, April 25, 2014
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Park Geun-hye of South Korea walk in the garden of the Blue House in Seoul, April 25, 2014 (White House/Pete Souza)

One of the first victims of Donald Trump’s election victory in the United States could be the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a comprehensive trade agreement that the outgoing president, Barack Obama, had hoped to enact in the waning days of his administration.

Many Republicans in the Senate, and quite a few Democrats, support free trade in principle and understand the strategic value of the pact.

But they may balk at ratifying the treaty now that Trump, who campaigned explicitly on an anti-trade platform, is two months away from the presidency. Read more “American Leadership in Pacific at Stake If Trump Cancels Trade Pact”

Duterte Wants to Ditch America for China and Russia. Can They Bite?

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines attends a ceremony at a military cemetery in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 10
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines attends a ceremony at a military cemetery in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 10 (PPD/King Rodriguez)

Betteridge’s law of headlines states that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered no. And so it is with this one, with a strong caveat: at least not now.

Since election in May, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ “gotta make some murder to stop some murder” president, has grabbed up headlines by getting so tough on crime, crime is shot in the streets and by insulting the American president. Now, and most geopolitically significantly, Mr Duterte has threatened to bring his country into alliances with China and Russia.

As much of a boon as this would be to the Chinese and Russians, neither can replace the Americans. At least, not right now. Read more “Duterte Wants to Ditch America for China and Russia. Can They Bite?”

Why Is Central Asia Dumping Russia for China?

Russian president Vladimir Putin listens to his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, during a meeting in Moscow, April 26
Russian president Vladimir Putin listens to his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, during a meeting in Moscow, April 26 (Kremlin)

Central Asia has long been stuck between a rock and hard place in terms of its geopolitical environment. Landlocked, with China to the east and Russia to the north and west, Central Asian leaders have had to balance their alliances with the powers that surrounded them.

In pre-Soviet times, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek leaders would utilize relationships to gain wealth for their countries. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union it became more about security, making sure the newly-formed states were not overrun by the bigger boys. To this end, Central Asian states entered into regional cooperative organizations with China and Russia like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the hopes of controlling the influence each power exerted on the five nation states.

25 years on, this struggle to balance relations has failed and China is now poised to make a spectacular economic conquest of Central Asian markets.

In 2015, China became Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner with $3 billion worth of trade and Kazakhstan’s largest investor with 33 deals delivering $23.6 billion to the nation.

China has also focused heavily on Turkmenistan’s energy sector, where it has been purchasing some 30 billion cubic meters of gas a year since 2009 while providing substantial military aid. China also took over in Kyrgyzstan last month as the builder and partner in two hydropower projects. Read more “Why Is Central Asia Dumping Russia for China?”

Panama Papers Prove the Perils of One-Party Rule

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin looks out a window in Budapest, Hungary, February 17, 2015 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Alliteration is fun, but it can also be, on occasion, accurate.

This post is addressing the one-party fanboys out there: the article commenters who wave the Russian flag over the smoldering schools of Syria, the folks who sing the praises of the Gulf Arab royals who manage their ever so tall towers and the political contrarians who believe the corruption of Western multiparty democracy is the gold standard of hypocrisy.

It’s important to frame such a post right: under no circumstances should anyone ever claim that Western democracy is corruption-free. But from the perspective of systems, when one seeks to reduce corruption, it has a far better track record than those that peddle one-party rule. Read more “Panama Papers Prove the Perils of One-Party Rule”

Leaders Seek to Uphold Rules-Based Order in Asia

American president Barack Obama talks with advisors at the White House in Washington DC, December 5, 2015
American president Barack Obama talks with advisors at the White House in Washington DC, December 5, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

Leaders from Southeast Asia and the United States reaffirmed their commitment to a rules-based order in the region on the day it was revealed that China had moved missile systems to one of its contested islands in the South China Sea.

America’s Fox News reports that the Chinese military has stationed two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers as well as a radar system on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Island chain.

The island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. Read more “Leaders Seek to Uphold Rules-Based Order in Asia”

2015 in Geopolitical Review

World leaders speak at the G7 summit in Bavaria, Germany, June 11
World leaders speak at the G7 summit in Bavaria, Germany, June 11 (Bundesregierung)

Geopolitics is about trends. Individual events add up to patterns; patterns melt into inertia; inertia gains social gravity; inevitably, maps are redrawn, regimes fall and through the litany of news reports we wonder how it all came about.

So while it is beyond cliché to do a yearly review, for geopolitics, it’s also extremely useful. What were the trends in 2015 and where might they go in 2016 and beyond? Let’s get super. Read more “2015 in Geopolitical Review”