Analysis: Post-America Conflict From Beijing to JerusalemPosted: January 13, 2014
Robert D. Kaplan writes: As the events of the past week demonstrate, the Middle East has still not found a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Melting away before our eyes is the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which the British and French carved out spheres of influence in the Levant, leading to the creation of Syria and Iraq. A terrorist Sunnistan has now emerged between the Lebanese city of Tripoli and the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, while a messy child’s finger-painting of different tribalized sovereignties defines Sunni and Shia areas of control between the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and the Iranian plateau. This happens even as a sprawling and fractious Kurdistan sinks tenuous roots atop the corpses of Baathist regimes. But Middle Eastern chaos is but prologue to the drama sweeping much of the temperate zone of Afro-Asia all the way to China. Indeed, so much else is going on beyond the Levant that the media overlooks: not necessarily violent, but increasingly and intensely interrelated. Understanding it all requires not a knowledge of Washington policy alternatives, but of classical geography.
The ancient Greeks had a term for what they considered the “inhabited quarter” of the globe: the Oikoumene, the temperate zone of the Afro-Asian landmass stretching from North Africa to the confines of western China. Marshall Hodgson, the great historian of the Middle East at the University of Chicago who died in 1968, defined the Oikoumene as more-or-less “Nile-to-Oxus,” a term both grand and suggestive, linking as it did the river valley civilization of Egypt with that of Central Asia, and connoting the intricate tapestry of peoples, trade networks and conflicts from one end of Afro-Asia to another. Nile-to-Oxus perfectly sums up a vast zone of quasi-anarchy that we now can no longer deny. For the Cold War divisions of area studies—which both circumscribe and distort the work of academics, journalists and government analysts—are finally yielding to a more organic and fluid geography: not the geography of globalization in which people desert their cultures for the sake of cosmopolitan values and identities; but the geography of interacting, catalytic instability.
Every place will soon affect every other place—and in an obvious geographical sense. For example, whatever the media fanfare, the interim nuclear deal with Iran essentially secures Tehran’s status as a nuclear power nation much like Japan already is, with a scientific, technological and intellectual base that will one day have the breakout capacity to produce weapons if it ever decides to thwart the West. In that case, Saudi Arabia, less trustful than ever of the United States, will need to make quiet arrangements with its close ally Pakistan for a credible deterrent, thereby fusing the Middle East and South Asia conflict systems—the one dominated by Israel-versus-Iran with the one dominated by Pakistan-versus-India.
At the same time, following the withdrawal of tens of thousands of U. S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014, Iran will fortify its zone of influence in the western and central parts of that country, even as China continues to invest billions to mine copper and explore for oil in its east and north. China is not new to the Greater Middle East: under the 8th-century Tang emperors, Chinese armies threaded their way as far as Khorasan in northeastern Iran. And Beijing is now building a rail and pipeline network connecting western China with four former Soviet Central Asian republics that abut Afghanistan and Iran. The Chinese-built port at Gwadar in Pakistani Baluchistan, near to the entrance of the Persian Gulf, could eventually bring China into the strategic heart of both South Asia and the Middle East. In fact, one of the reasons why China is so intent upon dominating the South China Sea is that it provides Beijing, via the Strait of Malacca, with access to the Indian Ocean and the Islamic world.
Even more so than China, Myanmar manifests this new and fluid Eurasian geography. Dominating the Bay of Bengal in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is where the spheres of influence of both China in East Asia and India in South Asia overlap, with a webwork of new ports, gas pipelines and roads that will connect northeastern India with southern China. The political opening of Myanmar—with its abundance of hydrocarbons, strategic metals and hydropower—has in recent years begun to transform the geographic nomenclature used by Asia specialists from the narrow “East Asia” to the vaster and more comprehensive “Indo-Pacific.” This is the signal geopolitical development of our time: the expansion of connective tissue between South Asia, East Asia, the Greater Middle East and Central Asia. The spread of “Indo-Pacific” is an expression of how at least two of those regions are already being thought of as one. In history it is often the quiet changes that are the most significant…
Robert D. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm, and the author of 15 books, including, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, to be published in March by Random House.
- Tomorrow arrived yesterday (opinion.inquirer.net)
- Central Asian Fortune in Chinese Hands? (thediplomat.com)
- Russia And China Headed For Inevitable Geopolitical Clash – Analysis (eurasiareview.com)
- VLCC slimming center (fashionsalonsnbeauty.wordpress.com)
- Asian’s wish for 2014 (gordony11.wordpress.com)
- Kerry arrives in Manila to strengthen U.S. ties with old ally (reuters.com)
- India in a tough neighbourhood (thehindu.com)
- India’s Central Asian Diplomacy Can Find Common Ground With China – Analysis (eurasiareview.com)