India

Modi’s in Luck Now: The importance of good luck, and Uttar Pradesh, in the political success of Narendra Modi

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With a slowing economy, a rival Congress Party forming alliances with regional parties in states like Tamil Nadu, and a separate alliance being formed between two former Chief Ministers of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, many had expected Narendra Modi to risk losing his majority government, and perhaps even his position as prime minister, following the elections held in India this month. Instead, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increased the size of its majority, winning 56 percent of seats—or 65 percent, when combined with smaller BJP-allied parties—in the lower house of India’s parliament. BJP’s rival the Congress Party, which had held the office of prime minister in 55 out of India’s 67 years prior to Modi’s being elected, won just 10 percent of seats. Congress’ alliance won 17 percent of seats, mainly thanks to voters in Tamil Nadu.

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Figure 1– Note: the All India Trinamool Congress, the leading political party in India’s most populous coastal state, West Bengal, is incorrectly included in the Mahagathbandhan (“Grand Alliance”) in the right-hand map above. That alliance, which was formed recently between the Bahajun Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), is led by two former political rivals of one another — Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati – who had consecutively been Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh from 2002 until 2017

As in the previous election in 2014, the BJP and its alliance dominated the north and west parts of India, leaving Congress’ alliance, along with several parties unaffiliated with either Congress or the BJP, to split the smaller south and east[*]. The unaffiliated BSP-SP alliance in India’s north, meanwhile, which was formed in response to the BJP sweeping Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and winning state-level elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 (for the first time since 1996), won just three percent of seats[**].

[*]More so than in 2014, however, the BJP now made inroads into the south and east, notably in West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, and Karnataka
[**]Despite receiving a sizeable chunk of India’s popular vote, because of how populous Uttar Pradesh is. This occurred to an even greater extent in the previous election: in 2014 the BSP received more than 20 million votes, the third most of any party in India, yet did not get even a single seat in parliament

Modi’s BJP was thus able to be re-elected with a majority government for the first time in its history. The only politicians who had ever previously been re-elected with a majority were India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi. By defeating Indira’s grandson Rahul in the past two elections, Modi has now joined this illustrious list.

Modi has many skills that have contributed to this political success. He is notoriously hard-working and uncorrupt, for example. Yet Modi has also been in possession of an even more important attribute thus far during his political career, the most important a politician can have: luck.

 

A Quick Analysis of Modi’s Career

Modi’s political career, first as Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014 and then as Prime Minister of India since 2014, has been based on two pillars:

  1. Economic Ability
    • Gujarat was often the most dynamic economy in India while Modi was leading it
    • India, despite slowing along with much of the world economy, has maintained a decent economic performance since 2014, and recently overtook China’s growth rate
  2. Hindu Nationalism
            Arguably, some of the most extreme examples of this include:

These two aspects of Modi’s appeal have contributed to his political success in northern India in particular, where Hindi(-Urdu) is spoken relatively widely and where, especially in inland states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, poorer populations live who may be more susceptible to BJP-style nationalism or promises of economic growth (or at least, of reduced corruption). Modi himself represents the constituency of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh. 20 percent of BJP seats are from that state.

Uttar

With more than 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is by far the most populous state not just in India, but anywhere in the world. Its neighbours too are populous: Uttar Pradesh directly borders India’s third and fifth most populous states, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. It also directly borders India’s capital city-state, Delhi. Modi, in addition to being MP for the holy city Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, has had his political career intertwine with this state in other significant ways. Notably, by way of the 2002 Gujarat Riots’ direct connection to the Ayodhya Mosque/Temple Dispute (a long, complex story that is analogous to, though in many ways different from and even more tragic than, the Middle East’s dispute over Jerusalem’s holy sites), and the continuing involvement in that dispute by BJP leaders such as Modi’s designated Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath. The BJP’s rival, the Congress Party, also has roots in Uttar Pradesh. Its city of Allahabad (now renamed Prayagraj by Yogi Adityanath’s government) was the home of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (unrelated to the Gandhi), a family that has supplied four generations of Congress’ leaders. The current scion of the family, Rahul Gandhi, is however an MP for a constituency in Kerala, in India’s far south. Rahul also contested, but lost, his family’s historic seat in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh (located just outside Lucknow, the state’s capital).

This has led to an obvious, arguably misleading debate in Western media, over whether Modi’s economic pros justify his political cons. This might or might not be a legitimate debate, but it also overlooks one of the key realities of Modi’s career: the fact that much, maybe most, of his economic success has been due to factors beyond his control. Modi has been extremely lucky in relation to factors such as global economic growth, oil and gas prices, and the utterly different economic characteristics of Gujarat (the state where Modi rose to fame) compared to India as a whole.

 

Gujarat, 2001 to 2014

Modi was Chief Minister of the state Gujarat from October 2001 until May 2014, when he became India’s prime minister. Two facts must be recognized to put Modi’s time in Gujarat into context: the exceptional status of Gujarat, and the exceptional nature of the period from 2001-2014.

The period from 2001 to 2014 was the 2000s commodity boom, the period that followed the early 2000s recession when, apart from a sharp dip during the 2008-2009 recession, energy and other commodity prices were high and global economic growth was significant, particularly in China and other developing markets but also in North America and (before the 2010s) Europe.  Brent crude oil, for example, rose from all-time lows of $9 in 1998 to $144 in 2008 and $128 in 2012. Modi came into office in Gujarat when oil prices were $20, exited office with oil at $110, then watched from his new office in New Delhi as oil prices fell to $46 in the subsequent seven months.

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The characteristics of Gujarat’s economy are similarly exceptional. Together with its next-door neighbor the city of Mumbai, the state of Gujarat is India’s leading commercial hub. This is largely a result of Gujarat’s uniquely long and naturally sheltered coastline, which has allowed it  to account for an estimated 69 percent of all cargo volume handled at India’s private ports, as well as being home to India’s busiest public port, a remarkable feat considering that Gujarat’s 60 million people are only 5 percent of India’s population.

Just as remarkable is the Gujarati diaspora, which leads in commercial activity throughout much of the Indian Ocean, particularly in eastern Africa. (The most famous Gujarati abroad was, of course, Mohandas Gandhi, who lived in South Africa for more than two decades). The diaspora thrives as far away as the US, where 20 percent or so of US-Indians are Gujaratis, and are one of America’s most successful groups.

The Gujarati diaspora has historically also been prominent in the nearby Gulf region of the Middle East. It remains active in the Gulf today, particularly in Oman and the coast of Pakistan. Gujarat itself, moreover, holds the most prominent position in India’s oil and gas industries, in terms of oil production, oil refining, oil pipelines, gas pipelines, LNG regasification, and petrochemicals.

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As such, the commodity boom and global economic growth helped Gujarat remain the fastest-growing Indian economy in the 2000s, apart from the small Himalayan states Uttarakhand and Sikkim.


India, 2014 to 2019

India’s economy is the opposite of Gujarat’s. It is relatively insular rather than dependent on global economic activity, the major exception to this being the large amount of oil it imports, more than any country apart from the US or China. Global economic conditions since Modi became prime minister are unlike those which existed prior to 2015, however. Oil prices have fallen to a range of $30-$70, benefiting India. Global and developing markets have slowed, which has hurt India but not nearly as much as it has hurt most other economies, in particular commodity exporters like Brazil or Russia. Indeed, India has become the fastest-growing “BRIC” economy.

There is even a possibility that India’s slowing economy has helped Modi. It may be that the slowing was not severe enough to undercut Modi’s reputation as a great economic steward, yet  was significant enough for people to want a great economic steward – Modi – to remain in charge in order to deal with it. In other words, the lucky timing that helped Modi to build up his economic reputation in Gujarat, combined with the luck which has prevented India’s recent economic slowdown from being severe like many other countries’, may have helped lead to Modi’s huge victory.

This is not a unique situation. Politicians, no matter how praiseworthy or skilled, often do not control their own fortunes. Modi remains in luck now. More troublingly, perhaps, so does Yogi Adityanath.

Modi

 

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Political Dynasties and their Discontents

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Political dynasties have always been a big part of human civilization, and today is no exception.

In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump was at least partially a reaction to the dynastic, Clinton-vs-Bush election that only last year most Americans were expecting to get.

It was, after all, Jeb Bush’s candidacy that split the Republican establishment in two, preventing it from coalescing around a politician like Marco Rubio early on and thus leaving an opening for Trump to force his way into. Hillary Clinton’s high disapproval rating, similarly, could even leave the door open for Trump to become president, however unlikely and unappealing that may be.

Canada

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Former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau wave at supporters at the University of Toronto, February 15, 2015 (William Pitcher)

North of the border, Canada has just elected Justin Trudeau as its Prime Minister, the son of Pierre Trudeau who was prime minister for fifteen years during the late 1960s, 1970s, and first half of the 1980s. One of Trudeau’s two opponents in the election had been NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, whose ancestors include the first and ninth Premiers of the province of Quebec.

Mexico

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Enrique Peña Nieto, presidential candidate for Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, waves to supporters in the city of Torreón, June 18, 2012 (Flickr)

South of the border, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto,who came to power in 2013, “is the nephew of two former governors of the State of México (the state in which Mexico City is located): on his mother’s side, Arturo Montiel, on his father’s, Alfredo del Mazo González“, according to Wikipedia.

East Asia

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping (right)

In China, the current General Secretary Xi Jinping, who is now thought to have amassed more personal power than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, is the first to come from the “princeling” class. He is the son of a prominent political figure, Xi Zhongxun, from the first generation of the Communist Party leadership. This distinguishes him from the other General Secretaries in the Communist era, including Mao Tse-Tung, whose parents were not prominent politicians and in some cases were actually quite poor.

Other top members of the current Chinese leadership are also “princelings”, most notably Yu Zhengsheng, who is the fourth-ranked politician on the 7-man Politburo Standing Committee (which is generally considered to be China’s top political body), and Wang Qishan, who is ranked sixth on the Politburo Standing Committee and may be one of the most powerful figures in China at the moment as he has been leading Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign . Wang is a princeling by marriage only: his wife is the daughter of Yao Yilin, who was a former Politburo Standing Committee member in the Communist Party.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is arguably the most powerful politician the country has seen in at least a generation as well. He too comes from a political dynasty. According to Wikipedia, “his grandfather, Kan Abe, and father, Shintaro Abe, were both politicians… Abe’s mother, Yoko Kishi,[3] is the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960. Kishi had been a member of the Tōjō Cabinet during the Second World War”.

Meanwhile the President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of South Korea’s third president, Park Chung-hee. (Update: Park has since been impeached). (And in North Korea, of course, the Kim family’s rule is now into its third generation). In Singapore, the prime minister since 2004 has been Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore’s modern founding father Lee Kuan Yew who served from 1959 all the way to 1990.

India

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Hillary Clinton, then America’s secretary of state, poses for a picture with Indian Congress Party leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi, July 19, 2009 (State Department)

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his often fanatically right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP party became in 2014 the first party in over three decades to win a majority government in a national election. Modi is not from a political dynasty himself, rather he is the reaction to the modern world’s most prominent political family of all: the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The Guardian wrote in 2007 that “the Nehru-Gandhi brand has no peer in the world — a member of the family has been in charge of India for 40 of the 60 years since independence.” The dynasty (which by the way is not related to the Gandhi) began with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-British prime minister from 1947-1964. Nehru was himself the son and nephew of significant political figures in pre-independence India. Nehru’s dynasty then continued with his only daughter Indira Gandhi (née Nehru), who was India’s prime minister from 1966-1977 and from 1980-1984, but was assassinated in 1984 by two of her own Sikh bodyguards in the wake of Operation Blue Star.

The dynasty was then followed by Indira’s sons Rajiv Gandhi, who was prime minister from 1984-1989 before being assassinated by the Tamil Tigers in 1991, and Sanjay Gandhi, who was expected to become prime minister but was instead killed in a plane crash. Rajiv’s wife Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, is the leader of India’s powerful Congress Party and the mother of Rahul Gandhi, who lost to Modi’s BJP in 2014 but still finished with more parliamentary seats and far more votes than any other candidate in the election. Sonia likely would have run for prime minister herself, but cannot because she was born in Italy.

(Sanjay’s wife Maneka Gandhi, on the other hand, has jumped ship from the historically Gandhi-dominated Congress Party and joined the BJP instead; she is currently a cabinet minister in the BJP-led government. Maneka’s son Varun has also gone over to the BJP, serving as the youngest National Secretary in the history of the party and a member of the country’s parliament. However, Maneka and Varun both remain less prominent than the Congress side of the family, which is led by Maneka’s sister-in-law Sonia and Varun’s first cousin Rahul).

Arguably, frustration with the Gandhis directly paved the way for Modi, a man who was not even allowed to enter the United States prior to becoming president because he was allegedly involved in “severe violations of religious freedom” while serving as governor of the important Indian state of Gujarat.

Philippines

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President-elect Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines speaks with his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, in Davao City, March 6, 2013 (Malacañang Photo Bureau/Ryan Lim)

You may have also heard about the election of the Philippines ridiculous new president Rodrigo Duterte last week. Rodrigo’s father Vicente was a provincial governor of Davao province and a mayor of Cebu, one of the largest cities in the country. Rodrigo’s cousin was also a mayor of Cebu, in the 1980s.

The Duterte’s are hardly alone in their political dynasticism: according to Public Radio International, “in the Philippines, elections in 2016 will be dominated by dynasties. About two-thirds of the outgoing Congress are heirs of political families. The outgoing president is the son of Corazon Aquino, who led the uprising against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos after Marcos had her husband whacked for being a prominent political opponent. But the Marcos clan is back in the picture, with Ferdinand’s wife, son, daughter and nephew all running for different offices. Also running is the grandson of another president.”

Thailand

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Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra addresses the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, September 9, 2013 (UN/Jean-Marc Ferré)

In Thailand too there has been a political reaction against a political family, that of Thaksin Shinawatra (who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before being exiled by a military coup) and his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra (who was prime minister from 2011 to 2014 before being removed by decree of the Constitutional Court during the Thai political crisis in 2013-2014). According to Wikipedia, the father of Thaksin and Yingluck “was a member of parliament for Chiang Mai. [The Shinawatras are] a descendant of a former monarch of Chiang Mai through her grandmother, Princess Chanthip na Chiangmai (Great-great-granddaughter of King Thammalangka of Chiang Mai).”

Europe

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Prime Ministers Matteo Renzi of Italy and Mariano Rajoy of Spain speak during a European Council meeting in Brussels, June 25, 2015 (La Moncloa)

Europe, at least in contrast to Asia, does not have many political dynasties at the moment. This is, perhaps, in part because European political history was reset to a certain degree following the fall of the Soviet Union. Europe’s leading politicians, including Merkel, Putin, and Erdogan, do not come from political dynasties. Neither does Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (though his ancestors were extremely wealthy) or France’s President Francois Hollande. Italian Prime Minister Mattio Renzi’s was a municipal councillor, admittedly, but that does not really count. (Angela Merkel’s grandfather was, similarly, a local politician in Danzig). Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy’s family was fairly prominent, on the other hand.

That said, Europe is far from dynasty-free. According to the Economist, “in Europe family power is one reason why politics seems like a closed shop. Fifty-seven of the 650 members of the recently dissolved British Parliament are related to current or former MPs. François Hollande, France’s president, has four children with Ségolène Royal, who ran for the presidency in 2007. Three generations of Le Pens are squabbling over their insurgent party, the Front National (see article). Belgium’s prime minister is the son of a former foreign minister and European commissioner. The names Papandreou and Karamanlis still count for something in Greece.”

Syria and Egypt 

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Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family in the 1990s (Wikimedia Commons)

The Arab world remains full of political dynasties and reactions against dynasties, in contrast. In Syria both of these factors can be seen at the same time, as the civil war threatens to unseat Bashar al Assad, son of thirty-year ruler Hafez al Assad. (Bashar’s brother Bassel was initially supposed to take over from his father, but died in a car accident in 1994). In Egypt, meanwhile,the military government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in some ways a response to the presumed attempt by an elderly Hosni Mubarak (diagnosed with stomach cancer in the same year he was deposed) to pass on power to his son Gamal, who had not served in the Egyptian military as Hosni Mubarak and previous rulers Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdul Nasser had done.

Saudi Arabia 

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Prince Muhammad bin Nayef speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh while Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir looks on, January 27, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

In Saudi Arabia, which is by far the largest Arab economy, a half-shift from one Saudi political dynasty to another may just be getting under way. Thus far in the history of the modern Saudi state (beginning around 1930), the country has been ruled either by founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud or else by one of his 45 or so sons, six of whom have become king, most recently King Salman who took the throne in January of 2015.

Last year, however, Salman removed his half-brother Muqrin (another son of Abdulaziz) from the office of Crown Prince, replacing Muqrin with their nephew Mohammad bin Nayef,  who would become the first king in the next generation of Saudi royals if ever takes over. He might never take over, though: many people now believe that is Salman’s own son Mohammad bin Salman, who is the Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, who is the likeliest to become the next king when Salman (who is 80 years old) steps down or passes away, even though Deputy Crown Prince is formally a lower-ranking position than Crown Prince – and even though Mohammad bin Salman is only 30 years old, which would be an extremely young age for a modern Saudi king.

If Mohammad bin Salman does become king over another prince like Mohammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia could in effect be moving from a dynasty of Abdulaziz to a dynasty of Salman. There are now fears that the political situation in the country could become quite messy if the other branches of the huge Saudi royal family try to avoid becoming sidelined from power as a result.

Iran

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Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaks as parliament speaker Ali Larijani, Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani and the chief of the supreme leader’s office, Mohammad Golpayegani, attend a ceremony in Tehran, October 3, 2015 (Reuters)

Across the Gulf, in Iran, dynasties are not too big a factor within the current religious government. Recently the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini even was blocked from participating in elections. One big exception to this, however, is the powerful Larijani family, made up of five brothers in key positions in the government. It includes Ali Larijani, who is the Speaker of the parliament and a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and Sadeq Larijania, Iran’s Chief Justice.

Israel

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Labor party leader Isaac Herzog (left) and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (right)

A number of leaders in Israel hail from political families as well. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who has now spent more time as prime minister (from 1996-1999 and now again since 2009) than any politician in Israel’s history apart from Israel’s founding  prime minister David Ben Gurion (who Netanyahu will soon overtake), is the son of Benzion Netanyahu. Benzion was a professor of history at Cornell University, an influential Zionist activist and magazine editor, and personal secretary to one of Israel’s most prominent founding fathers, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Bibi is also the younger brother of Yonatan Netanyahu, who was the unit commander of and only person to be killed during the famous Operation Entebbe raid in 1976, when 100 or so Israeli commandos rescued 102 hostages of a Palestinian airplane hijacking (compared to 3 hostages killed) from where they were being held in Idi Amin-era Uganda more than 3000 km south of Israel, and returned them safely to their homes in Israel and France.

Israel’s Labour Party leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, meanwhile, who won more than twice as many votes as any other Jewish party apart from Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the most recent elections of 2015, is, according to Wikipedia, “the son of General Chaim Herzog, who was the Sixth President of Israel from 1983 to 1993, and the grandson of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1922 to 1935 and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1936 to 1959″.

The next largest Jewish political party after Labour and Likud is the Yesh Atid Party, led by Yair Lapid. Lapid is a former news anchor who is the son of Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, a former government minister, parliamentary leader of the opposition as recently as 2005, and radio and television personality.

Brazil 

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Brazilian Social Democracy Party leader Aécio Neves answers questions from reporters, May 28, 2015 (Agência Senado/Pedro França)

Leaving the Middle East, Brazils’ Aecio Neves, who in late 2014 very narrowly lost a presidential election to Dilma Rousseff (who may now be on the verge of being impeached herself), is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, who would have been President of Brazil in 1985 if he had not passed away before taking office. Roussef and her influential predecessor Lula da Silva are not from prominent political families, however.

Peru

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Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori campaigns for the 2011 election, December 7, 2010 (Flickr/Keiko Fujimori)

In Peru, the country is in the midst of a presidential election, which is a two-round system that began in April and will end on June 5.  Its leading candidate is former First Lady Keiko Fujimori, a daughter of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Alberto exiled himself to Japan following corruption and human rights violation scandals at the end of his ten yeas in power in 2000, but was later arrested in Chile in 2005 and is now serving a prison sentence back in Peru.

Argentina

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President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina speaks in José Amalfitani Stadium, Buenos Aires, April 27, 2012 (Presidency of Argentina)

Argentina, finally, has just recently ended sixteen consecutive years of being presided over by a Kirchner, first by Nestor Kirchner from 2003 to 2007 and then by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner from 2007 until the end of 2015. The Kirchners were Peronists, a political movement of sorts that has dominated modern Argentine politics, which is named for another power couple, Juan Peron (president from 1946 – 1955) and his second wife Eva Peron, who was a significant political figure in her own right and nearly became Vice President. (Juan’s third wife Isabel Martinez de Peron, meanwhile, was President of Argentina from 1974 to 1976). The incoming Argentine president Mauricio Macri, who is replacing the Kirchners, does not come from a political dynasty, however. His father was just a humble business tycoon.

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The Geopolitics of Cheap Energy

Oil prices have fallen again: they are now at $29 a barrel for West Texas Intermediate crude and a similar price for Brent, their lowest since 2003. Natural gas, coal, and other commodity prices have also been dropping of late, in most cases. So: what will be the geopolitical consequences of cheap energy in general and of cheap oil in particular, all other things being theoretically held equal?

One consequence of cheap energy is the weakening, possibly, of four potential great powers: Russia, Brazil, China, and Mexico. While the media has understood the Russian and Brazilian half of this list – their economies are both estimated to have shrunk by 1-3 percent druring 2015, after all, which is difficult to miss – it has largely failed to register the Chinese and Mexican half. This is because it views China as being a leading oil, energy, and natural resource importer rather than as a resource exporter like Russia or Brazil, and because it views Mexico as merely a source of drugs, migrants, resorts, and cheap goods rather than as a potential great power.

China

China may be the world’s largest energy importer, but it is has also become its second largest energy producer, and as such only relies on energy imports for an estimated 15% of its total energy consumption, in contrast to 94% in Japan, 83% in South Korea, 33% in India, 40% in Thailand, and 43% in the Philippines. In 2014 imports of oil were equal in value to just around 2.4 % of China’s GDP, according to the Wall Street Journal, compared to 3.6% in Japan, 6.9% in Korea, 5.3% in India, 5.4% in Thailand, 4% in the Philippines, and 3.3% in Indonesia.

South Korea and Japan also imported more than two and four times more liquified natural gas, respectively – the prices of which tend to track oil prices more closely than conventional natural gas prices do – than China did. China’s LNG imports barely even surpassed India’s or Taiwan’s. China’s imports of natural gas in general, meanwhile, were less than half as large as Japan’s and only around 20% percent greater than South Korea’s.

China, furthermore, tends to import energy from the most commercially uncompetitive, politically fragile, or American-hated oil-exporting states, such as Venezuela, Iran, Russia, Iraq, Angola, and other African states like Congo and South Sudan. In contrast, Japan and South Korea get their crude from places that will, perhaps, be better at weathering today’s low prices, namely from Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, China gets much of its natural gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Myanmar, whereas Japan imports gas from Australia and Qatar and South Korea imports gas from Qatar and Indonesia.

China’s top source for imports of high-grade anthracite coal, and its third largest source for imports of coal in general, is North Korea. China has, in addition, invested capital all over the world in areas hurt by falling energy and other commodity prices, including in South America, Africa, Central Asia, Canada, and the South Pacific.

Another mistake the media makes is looking at China as if it were a country, rather than what it really is: both a country and a continent. Continents have internal, deeply-rooted regional divisions, and China is no exception. Its main divide is between areas south of the Yangtze River, which tend to be mountainous, sub-tropical, and dependent upon importing fossil fuels, and areas north of the Yangtze, which tend to be flat, more temperate, and rich in fossil fuels.

Northern China, stretching over 1000 km from Beijing southward to Shanghai on the Yangtze, is the country’s political heartland. It is densely populated and home to most of China’s natively Mandarin-speaking, ethnically-Han citizens. When compared to southern China, the north has historically been somewhat insulated from foreigners like the Europeans, Americans, and even Japanese. Beijing’s nearest port is roughly 5000 km away from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca; Hong Kong, in contrast, is only around 2500 km from Singapore and Malacca. Beijing is rougly 2600 km from Tokyo by ship, whereas Shanghai is just 1900 km from Tokyo and Taipei is just 2100 km from Tokyo.

Japan’s Ryukyu island chain and the Kuroshio ocean currents historically allowed for easy transport from Japan to Taiwan and the rest of China’s southeastern coast; the Japanese controlled Taiwan for more than three and a half decades before they first ventured into other areas of China in a serious way during the 1930s. Even today, Japan accounts for a larger share of Taiwan’s imports of goods than do either China or the United States.

Southern China has often depended on foreign trade, since much of its population lives in areas that are sandwiched narrowly between Pacific harbours on one side and coastal subtropical mountain ranges on the other. In northern and central China, in contrast, most people live in interior areas rather than directly the along the Pacific coast. These people in the interior generally did not engage in as much foreign trade, as in the past moving goods between the interior and coast was often limited by the fact that northern China’s chief river, the Huang-he, was generally unnavigable and prone to flooding northern China’s flat river plains, destroying or damaging roads and bridges in the process.

In southern and central China, by comparison, even people living far inland could engage with the coast by way of the commercially navigable Yangtze and Pearl Rivers, which meet the Pacific at the points where Shanghai and Hong Kong are located.

Northern China, however, was most directly exposed to the land-based Mongol and Manchu invaders who ruled over the Chinese for most of the past half-millenium or so prior to the overthrow of the Manchu Qing Emperor in 1912. Today the north continues to retain the political capital, Beijing, and a disproportionally large majority of Chinese leaders were born in north China — including Beijing-born Xi Jinping and Shandong-born Wang Qishan (a former mayor of Beijing) — in spite of the fact that most Chinese political revolutionaries, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Chang Kai-Shek, Sun Yat Sen, Zhu De, Ye Jianying, Hong Xiuquan, and famed writer Lu Xun, hailed from southern or south-central China.

Today, out of China’s seven Standing Comittee top leaders, only seventh-ranked Zhang Gaoli was born in southern China, whereas five of the seven were born in northern China and one, Premier Li Keqiang, was born in central China. Zhang Gaoli may in fact be the first person born outside of northern or central China in thirty years to have made it to the Standing Committee. He is also the only person currently in the 25-member Politburo born outside of northern or central China. Among the 11-man Central Military Commission, meanwhile, seven were born in northern China, while two were born in north-central China and two in south-central China. Out of the 205 active members of the Party Central Committee, fewer than 15 were born south of central China.

Indeed, the southern half of China, stetching from islands in Taiwan, Hainan, Hong Kong,  Xiamen, and Macau in the east to the plateaus of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet in the west, is politically peripheral. It is home to a majority of China’s 120 million or so non-Han citizens (most of whom are not Tibetan or Uyghur, though those two groups recieve almost all of the West’s attention), China’s 200-400 million speakers of languages other than Mandarin, China’s tens of millions of speakers of dialects of Mandarin that are relatively dissimilar to the Beijing-based standardized version of Mandarin, most of China’s 50-100 million recent adopters of Christianity, and most of China’s millions of family members of the enormous worldwide Chinese diaspora.

Southern China is physically closer to Southeast Asia (a region with a huge Chinese minority population) and most of the populous areas of Japan, and further away from sparsely populated Mongolia or Siberia, than northern China is. The south’s Fujian province, in particular, is linguistically and economically close to Taiwan, while the south’s Guangdong province is close to Hong Kong. A large share of China’s GDP comes from the coastal areas of China from around Shanghai south to Guangdong, particularly if you include Taiwan as part of the country. Guangdong alone accounts for an estimated 10% of mainland China’s GDP and over 25% of its exports. This creates a somewhat unbalanced dynamic: China’s political periphery is also its economic centre.

As it happens, northern China produces almost all of China’s fossil fuels (particulary in and around Shanxi province, 300 km or so inland from Beijing, where a large share of China’s coal is mined and which has seen the biggest political shakeup of any province from Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign thus far), whereas southern and central China, especially if you include the neighbouring economy of Taiwan as being part of China, account for most of China’s imports of energy. Taiwan, in fact, may be more dependent on oil imports than any other significant economy in the world. Falling energy prices may weaken the Chinese political heartland relative to its periphery, in that case. Whether or not this will generate any political instability going forward remains to be seen.

If (a big if) energy prices remain low for a sustained period, then the question of China’s future dependence on imported energy also becomes relevant, as does the question of the future dependence on imported energy of China’s most important neighbours. In that case, how dependent on energy imports will countries like China, Japan, and India be in a decade or two from now?

While it is impossible to know what the future will be like, it is not difficult to imagine that China will remain less dependent on energy imports than India and/or Japan during the years or decades ahead, as a result of India’s still-emerging economy and Japan’s still-roboticizing economy.

China is not likely to be a major adopter of energy-intensive robots, in per capita terms, because China has a far larger cheap labour force than any country in the world apart from India. Japan, in contrast, will likely help lead the robot revolution, as its labour force is expensive and aging rapidly. This could make Japan even more dependent on importing energy, as machines that are both highly mobile and capable of sophisticated computation require an enormous amount of energy to run — and indeed, one of their main advantages over human labour is that they can and frequently will be tasked to run 24-7,  without even taking any time off for holidays or sick days.

China is not certain to increase its energy imports nearly as much as less-developed economies like India, meanwhile, as the Chinese inudstrial sector is facing challenges as a result of its past generation of energy-intensive growth. China faces rising labour costs in its cities, a pollution problem, crowded transportation infrastructure, a US that is concerned with Chinese industrial power, and countries throughout the world afraid of China’s world-leading carbon emissions. In addition, China is located much further away from the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea oil and gas fields than the Indians and other South Asians are, and so might have difficulty accessing them in a pinch.

China may also have to face industrial competition from resource-rich or capital-rich economies such as Australia, Norway, Canada, Qatar, Texas, and maybe even Hong Kong, which will perhaps be able to use energy-intensive robots of various kinds to build up their manufacturing sectors in spite of their small labour forces. This could make China’s industrial growth rate slip, which in turn might reduce China’s resource imports and thus prevent China from becoming the leading beneficiary of low energy and commodity prices.

Such a shift will be especially likely if the United States or European economies decide to enact tariffs on goods coming from places that generate power by using coal in inefficient ways, a prospect that has become increasingly likely as a result of America’s triple-alliance between environmentalists opposed to coal consumption, shale gas producers competing with coal, and energy companies trying to pioneer more expensive but cleaner ways of consuming coal. China may then have to focus on growing its service sectors instead of its energy-intensive industrial sectors.

Japan, lastly, might benefit from Russia’s energy-related woes more than China will. This is not only because the Chinese have to a certain extent often looked to Russia as an ally against the West, but also because the areas of Russia that China is close to are mostly irrelevant to China: they are landlocked, Siberian, and for the most part located far from China’s population centres. Pacific Russia, in contrast, located next to the Sea of Japan on the East Asian side of Russia’s Pacific mountain ranges, has a far more liveable climate than the continental Siberian interior, is home to a number of useful medium-sized port cities, and accounts for much of the oil and nearly all of the Russian natural gas exports to Asia — led by energy-rich Sakhalin Island, which is just 40 km away from Japan and was partly owned and inhabited by the Japanese prior to the Second World War.

Russia may, in fact, be somewhat better prepared to fight another border war with China like it did in 1969, which might not be too different than the many other wars Russia has fought around its own borders both prior to and since then, than it would be to face off against Japan again within its far-eastern, mountainous, archipelagic and peninsular Pacific region, as it did in 1905 and then during World War Two. Of course this does not mean Japan will attack Russia — though it has certainly toyed with the idea of making more forceful moves in the Southern Kuril Islands, which both countries claim as their own. Even the unspoken possibility of conflict, however, may help grant the Japanese leverage over Russia in negotiations relating to commercial or political issues.

Mexico 

Mexico is much more than just America’s messy basement. It has the world’s 11th largest population,14th largest GDP, and, because it is in the New World, its population is in many ways much more internally unified than those of most other large countries are. It also has important ties to the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, to the Latin-based world in general, and to the 35 million or so Mexicans in the United States in particular, most of whom live in states adjacent to the Mexican border. Mexico is the clear potential leader in the Spanish-speaking world: its population is bigger than those of Colombia, Argentina, and Venezuela combined, and its economy is about to surpass Spain’s. If you include illegal transactions, Mexico already has the largest economy in the Spanish world by far. Along with (or perhaps instead of) Portuguese-speaking Brazil, Mexico could potentially help Latin America to become one of the most prominent regions in the world during the decades ahead.

Mexico may not be a major beneficiary of low energy prices, for three general reasons. First, it is a net oil-exporting economy: oil exports accounted for an estimated 2.7% of Mexico’s GDP in 2014, and Mexico had been hoping to increase its oil and gas production since its president enacted widely-touted reforms in the country’s energy sector that year. Mexico is also often a relatively high-cost oil producer, and so may be forced to cede market share to more price-competitive producers in other countries.

Second, Mexico has ties – both existing ties and potential future ties – to other countries in Latin America, a region that is highly economically dependent on exports of energy and other natural resources. Most of the South American economy is already in or flirting closely with recession as a result of the commodity crash, which on the whole is probably not a good thing for Mexico.

Third, Mexico has ties to the southwestern United States, in the areas of America that were part of Mexico prior to the 1830s-1850s, most notably California and Texas where around 25 million Hispanic-Americans live today. Like Mexico itself, this part of the US is dependent on energy exports, led by Texas (a major producer of oil, gas, coal, wind power, solar power, and refined petroleum products: Texas produces approximately one-fifth of US energy and one-third of US crude oil) but also including the surrounding energy-producing states of Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Louisiana, Arkansas and the federally-administered oil-and-gas producing waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nearly all of the states with a high share of Mexican-Americans are either energy-exporting states or else, in the case of California, New York, Florida, and Arizona, have the lowest per capita energy consumption of any states apart from tiny  Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Connecticut.

Even California’s energy imports do not balance out Texas’s energy exports, because California is itself the US’s third largest oil-producing state, tenth largest energy-producing state, and has the fourth lowest per capita energy consumption; its energy imports are not as large as one might expect given the enormous size of the Californian economy. They might even shrink in the future, if the Monterrey basin shale resources are developed. California is also the largest agricultural producer in the United States (Texas is fourth), a big sector that can be hit by falling commodity prices as well.

Mexico has admittedly been benefiting from cheap gas prices brought on by Texas’s shale boom.  Mexican imports of US gas have nearly tripled since 2009, which has benefited the industrial sector in northern and north-central Mexico. This gas import growth might slow going forward, however, as America’s LNG export facilities may soon be coming online, LNG import facilities in both Europe and China are expected to be opened soon, and the Panama Canal expansion which will be finised this year may allow LNG ships to traverse the canal from Texas to Asia for the first time. As LNG allows US gas to be sold worldwide, Mexico’s import growth of US gas might slow down. In any event, Mexico is the 19th largest natural gas producer in the world, so even with increasing imports from the US it will not soon become a significant net importer of natural gas.

In the future, meanwhile, somewhat similar to China, Mexico’s industrial growth may not be as strong as most people expect, which could cause it to become less dependent on energy and other commodity imports relative to other countries. Mexico is currently a major industrial economy, the result of its large and cheap labour force and proximity to US consumers. As labour and other prices in northern and to a lesser extent central Mexico are becoming more expensive due to economic growth in these areas, however, Mexico’s industrial growth rate may slow. This is because central and especially southern Mexico are separated from the US by vast areas of mountainous deserts or jungles, making the north-south roads and pipelines through Mexico expensive to build, use, and maintain, as well as potentially vulnerable to groups like the drug cartels, indigenous peoples, or local governments. Southern Mexico resembles Central America more than it resembles northern Mexico.

Mexico may increasingly also have to face industrial competition from Cuba, which is the only other sizeable Hispanic country close to the United States; from Venezuela, if it too can finally mend fences with America and leverage its energy resources to industrialize; or from Canada and the US, if they try to use robots and other technologies to re-industrialize. If, finally, domestic politics lead the US to try to make the Mexican border more of a barrier, Mexico might have to industrialize less and stick more to the many other sectors of the diverse Mexican economy, which are less resource-intensive.

Europe 

There is a fourfold division in Europe, where energy and commodity imports are concerned. First is between mainland Europe, which is a major importer of energy and oil, and the regions surrounding mainland Europe (namely Scandinavia, the North Sea, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, North Africa, western Africa, and the Americas), which are energy and commodity producers. Even the United States has now become such a big energy producer that its energy imports account for only around 15% of its overall energy consumption, a very low share in comparison to an estimated 62% in Germany, 71% in Spain, 77% in Italy, 46% in France, and 43% in Britain.

Second is between countries which use the Euro as their currency – Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Slovakia, etc. – which tend to be significant importers of oil or other commodites, and countries that do not use the Euro – Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, Denmark, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, etc. – which tend to produce a decent amount of oil, energy, or other commodities — or else, like Switzerland, have economies that are not energy-intensive and so may not benefit as much from cheap energy. (Switzerland, the 20th largest economy in the world, also relies on imports for just 52% of its energy, according to the World Bank, which is a lower share than in all but four of the 19 countries within the Eurozone). Admitedly there are a few exceptions to this rule: most notably Turkey, which imports a lot of energy but does not use the Euro, and Estonia and to a lesser extent the Netherlands, which produce a decent amount of energy domestically yet do use the Euro. Still, even the Netherlands is a major net importer of crude oil.

The third division is between countries that are in the European Union and European countries that are not in the European Union. This division is similar to the Eurozone one, except that states like Britain, Denmark, Poland, Romania, and Sweden — all of which are mid-sized energy or commodity producers – are in the European Union but do not use the Euro, which leave the continent’s major commodity and enegy producers of Norway, Russia, and Ukraine as more prominent outsiders. Turkey, meanwhile, is, unlike Russia, Switzerland, Norway, or Ukraine, a member of the quite important European Customs Union, though like them it is not part of the EU.

Finally, and in some ways most pertinently, there is a division between northern Europe and southern Europe. The further north you go, the less dependent the Europeans are on energy imports. Scandinavia and Russia are the furthest north: they are major energy and commodity producers. (Even the three Baltic states, which are generally assumed to be among the smaller countries in Europe, actually own far more land per capita – and especially forested land, which is crucial for feeding Europe’s sizeable wood-fuel industry – than any European countries to the south of them do).

These are followed by countries like Britain, the Netherlands, Romania, Ireland, the German economies, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Belgium, and northern France, which have economies that are also not too dependent on energy imports. (Like Switzerland, both Ireland and northern France have economies that are not at all energy-intensive, when compared to others).

In southern Europe, finally, there are the economies of Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, France-sans-Paris, Turkey, Cyprus, and Malta, which are highly dependent on imports of oil, natural gas, and energy in general. (While nearby Algeria remains a large energy-exporting state and Libya has energy-export potential, Morocco, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan are highly dependent on energy imports and Egypt and Tunisia are both more or less energy neutral). Perhaps not incidentally, most of southern Europe has experienced an economic depression during the past eight years.

The biggest exception within southern Europe, meanwhile, is Italy, which produces more oil than France, Greece, Turkey, and Spain combined, slightly more oil than even Germany produces. This may in fact partly help to explain why Italy has been suffering a great deal of late, whereas the Spanish, Portuguese, and possibly even Greek economies might finally be on the mend. Even Italy is the world’s third largest gas importer, however, so as with Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and Greece, the Italians depend on imports from abroad to supply more than 70% of the energy they consume.

Turkey

Turkey is in the most interesting position of all when it comes to energy and geopolitics. It, along with its nearest European neighbour Greece, is a significant net energy importer; Turkey has a relatively energy-intensive economy and energy imports account for three-quarters of its energy consumption, while in Greece energy imports account for 60% of energy consumption. Oil imports in Turkey and Greece were estimated to be equal in value to 3.2% and 4.5% percent of GDP in 2014, respectively, both figures quite a bit higher than in most other countries within Europe.

Surrounding Turkey and Greece, however, is a ring of leading energy-producing regions: the Middle East, Russia, Ukraine, the Caspian Sea-Central Asia region, and North Africa. Even Turkey’s closest Western neighbours of note, namely Italy, Romania, and Austria, are not necessarily going to benefit much from cheap oil or cheap energy. Italy produces nearly three times as much oil as Turkey does, Romania produces nearly twice as much oil as Turkey and depends on energy imports for just 22% of its energy consumption, and Austria has the lowest oil-imports-as-a-percent-of-GDP of any country in the Eurozone. Even Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt have made major new energy discoveries of late, of natural gas within the Eastern Mediterranean.

In past years, Turkey has already seen many of its neighbours fall to shambles to one extent or another — first the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Algeria, and the Caucuses in the 1990s, now Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Greece, Georgia, and Libya, among others. Further troubles in the regions surrounding Turkey, then, perhaps brought on by the falling price of energy, could create a serious power vaccum for the Turks to consider filling.

Turkey’s close-to-home rivals the Kurds, meanwhile, are also potential losers in a cheap energy environment. They produce a lot of oil in Iraqi Kurdistan, abut a number of hydropower facilities located within Turkey’s mountainous Kurdish regions where the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers form, and possess ties in some cases to energy-rich Iran (as a result of the Kurdish population in Iran as well as the fact that Persians tend to be ethno-linguistically closer to most Kurdish groups than most Kurds are to either Turks or Arabs) or to energy-rich Iraq (as a result of the sizeable Kurdish population that lives in Iraq).

India 

India, like China, is both a major energy producer, the seventh largest in the world, and a major energy consumer, the third largest in the world. In India, however, oil imports were equal to 5.3% of GDP in 2014, compared to just 2.4% in China, while energy imports accounted for 33% of Indian energy consumption, compared to just 15% for China. And whereas in China the areas that benefit the most from cheap energy are located outside of the Chinese political heartland, in India the country’s political core territories — which are centred around India’s largest state by far, namely Uttar Pradesh (population 200 million), as well as parts of its neighbouring states like Bihar (India’s third largest state), Madhya Pradesh (5th largest), Rajasthan (7th largest), and Delhi (India’s capital city, population 17 million) — may benefit among the most in India from falling oil and energy prices.

Some of the other areas within India, on the other hand, such as parts of both Western India (which produces 75% of the oil from onshore fields in India, and which has close economic ties to the nearby energy-rich Persian Gulf) and Eastern India (which is where most of India’s coal and other commodities are produced or exported), might not benefit in the same way*.

[*when I say “benefit”, I mean it in the geopolitical sense of the term, not in the ethical sense. From an ethical point view, for example, the fall in energy and commodity prices is arguably great news for many of the people in Eastern India who were being exploited because of their coal and mineral wealth. Obviously, things like this are usually far more complicated in reality than can be captured in any single essay].

India’s geopolitical dream is of a prosperous, peaceful Indian Ocean basin in which it, by virtue of its size, diversity, and central location, would be far and away the most prominent and powerful country. In order to accomplish this India must have better relations with Pakistan, a country that has been backed by the United States as well as by fellow Muslim states like Saudi Arabia. With the Saudis and other Sunni Muslim countries hurt by cheap oil and energy prices, and with India’s traditional allies against Pakistan, namely the Russians and Iranians, hurt by cheap energy too, both India and Pakistan might perhaps be forced to rely more heavily on the Americans. If, then, the Americans decide to prioritize India-Pakistan peace-making as a way to maintain stability in South Asia and help to contain forces like China, Russia, and pan-Islamism, there may be some cause to be hopeful. Don’t be too sure though: there are plenty of reasons why India, Pakistan, and the United States might each find it difficult to pursue Indian-Pakistani or Hindu-Muslim reconciliation.

Within the wider Indian Ocean region, stretching 6000 km from Madagascar to Indonesia and 6000 km from Sri Lanka to Kerguelen, there is also some scope for careful optimism. In East Africa, from around Ethiopia south through the Great Lakes, most economies are not dependent on energy exports in the way that western African countries like Angola, Nigeria, Algeria, Congo, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea are. Even South Africa, the world’s sixth largest coal exporter, is not nearly as dependent on energy exports as Nigeria, Angola, or Algeria are, and is a net importer of crude oil. Oman and Yemen, similarly, the two Arab countries with coastlines directly along the Indian Ocean, are not nearly as dependent on energy exports as other Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait are. They, especially Yemen, may also be leading importers of food.

In the eastern Indian Ocean, the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and especially Java (combined population: 195 million) tend to be energy-importing areas, in contrast to Indonesia’s Pacific islands like Kalimantan and, 3500 km to the east of the Indian Ocean, West Papua, which account for most of Indonesia’s energy production as Sumatra’s aging oil fields are declining. In Indonesia’s neighbour Malaysia, similarly, most oil production comes from around the Pacific island of Borneo, an island Malaysia shares with Indonesia and Brunei, rather than from the Malay Peninsula on the edge of the Indian Ocean where most of Malaysia’s population lives. Singapore, moreover, which is located roughly in between western Malaysia and western Indonesia, is the world’s 13th or 14th largest oil importer (it is roughly tied with Thailand, which is also located along the outer edge of the Indian Ocean); in spite of its small size Singapore now imports nearly twice as much crude oil as Indonesia and Malaysia combined export to the world.

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East Asia, Europe, India, North America

The 10 Largest “Relative” Trade Networks

If you follow the financial news media, you will frequently hear of countries’ largest trade partners being either the United States, the European Union, or China. As a result, it can often seem like the US, EU, and China are at the centre of massive global networks of international trade. In a certain sense, of course, they are: the combined external merchandise trade of the US, EU, and China is equal to an estimated 11 trillion dollars a year. And yet, relative to the enormous size of their GDPs, the US, EU, and to a lesser degree China do not actually trade very much compared to most other countries.

North America and Europe are in fact relatively insular in their international commercial relations. The US and the EU, for instance, trade an amount of goods estimated at around 25 percent of their GDPs; by comparison, Germany trades an amount equal to an estimated 70 percent of its GDP, South Korea trades an amount equal to roughly 80 percent of its GDP, and the Netherlands trades an amount equal to roughly 150 percent of its GDP. Even China, which is generally viewed as a highly trade-dependent economy, trades an amount that is equal to only an estimated 45 percent of its GDP, which is lower than most of the countries in the world.

In other words, the economies of the US, EU, and China only seem so trade-oriented because their massive economic size makes them the largest trade partners of a large majority of the world’s countries.  This confusion stems from the fact that the media tends to view the size of international trade values in absolute terms only, rather than by looking at the size of those trade values relative to some other relevant factor, such as the size of the GDP’s of the countries involved in the trade. By looking only at absolute trade values, the huge economies of the US, EU, and China end up getting almost all of the public attention, even though their “relative” trade with most other countries actually tends to be relatively insignificant.

In this article, therefore, we have tried to quantify the international trade networks of the world’s major economies in relative terms; specifically, by dividing the absolute value of their trade by the size of their trade partners’ respective GDP sizes. We already did this with Ukraine and Canada in previous articles, and found some interesting results in both cases. In this article, we will try to make similar graphs for the trade networks of China, the United States, Germany, Japan, Britain, Brazil, Russia, India, Australia, and Turkey.

Before we begin, however, it is important to note that measuring trade values is not always a simple process. There are a number of reasons why the following graphs should be viewed with a grain of salt. For example, the data they were made with may be inaccurate in some cases (the absolute trade values in  data was taken from the MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity; the GDP data was taken from the World Bank). It also only includes trade in goods, ignoring trade in services, international investment flows, illegal smuggling, or tourism.

Arguably, the data can also be misleading in some instances, because it over-emphasizes trade hubs like Singapore, Hong Kong, Belgium, and the Netherlands (and, as a result, perhaps under-emphasizes the trade of countries that are closely commercially integrated with these trade hubs, such as Germany or China). It also treats Hong Kong as an independent economy rather than as part of China, which it probably should not do. Finally, since the Observatory of Economic Complexity only gives data for countries’ top 20 absolute trade partners, in most cases these graphs will still ignore some small countries. For example, the Bahamas probably has a huge relative trade relationship with the US, but it was still too small in absolute terms to be included.

All that being said, I think these graphs might be interesting and instructive. So, here they are:

China – Exports: $2.1 trillion, Imports:$1.4 trillion

China's Absolute Export PartnersIn the graph above we see China’s “absolute” export patterns – in other words, the type of trade patterns we would normally hear about in the media. The US buys an estimated 19 percent of China’s exports, Hong Kong buys an estimated 11 percent of China’s exports, Japan buys 8 percent, and so on. In the graph below, however, we see China’s “relative” export patterns, which tell a very different story:

China's relative exportsAs you can see, in relative terms (i.e. relative to GDP size), Hong Kong buys way more of China’s exports than any other economy does. (And of course, as we said earlier, Hong Kong should actually probably be considered part of China). Singapore and Malaysia, both of which are partially Chinese-inhabited, are next after Hong Kong, followed by Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea. The US, meanwhile, which had a strong lead in China’s “absolute trade” export patterns, scores very low in this relative trade graph.

China relative and absolute importsHere we see China’s import patterns, both relative and absolute.  The US, though it supplies China with an estimated 8 percent of its overall imports, scores at the very bottom of China’s relative imports list, far behind every other country apart from France. Hong Kong again scores number one in terms of relative trade, but its dominance on relative imports is not nearly as high as it was with exports (this is because most of China’s imports from Hong Kong’s are of services, rather than goods, and the data here does not include services). Taiwan, conversely, is much higher on this imports graph than on the exports graph above. Angola, which was not even on the exports list, scores extremely high in terms of relative imports, because of the oil it supplies China with. Other resource suppliers like Chile, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Australia also have higher scores on this relative imports list.

USA – Exports: $1.3 trillion, Imports: $1.8 trillion

us relative and absolute exportsHere we see that Mexico is higher than Canada in relative terms, even though Canada is higher in absolute terms. We see that Hong Kong is very high in relative terms, more than 7 times higher than China is (though perhaps most of the US’s exports to Hong Kong are really going to China anyway), as is Singapore. Latin American countries like Chile and Colombia score high in relative terms, as do Belgium, the Netherlands (though both may be trade hubs for US exports to other European countries), and Switzerland. US allies South Korea and Taiwan also score high in relative terms. Major economies like Britain, Germany, France, Japan, China, India, and Italy all score very low in relative terms.

us relative and absolute importsFor US imports, Mexico actually scores almost twice as high as Canada in relative terms (and this does not even include massive narcotics imports from Mexico). Ireland and Vietnam both score very high (higher even than Canada), followed by Colombia, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. China scores much higher here than it did in terms of US exports. Nigeria also scores highly, since it sells oil to the US. For the US’s absolute imports, four countries dominate: China, Mexico, Canada, and Japan.

Germany – Exports: 1.32 trillion, Imports: $1.09 trillion

Germany relative and absolute exportsIt is interesting to note that France, which buys more of Germany’s exports than any other country does in absolute terms, scores far lower in relative terms than most of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Given that most Eastern European countries are still developing, the fact that their relative imports from Germany are so high could be especially significant. Also notable is how tiny the relative exports of Germany to countries like China, the US, and Japan are. Germany is in general the most export-dependent of any economy we will look at in this article.

Germany relative and absolute importsIn terms of Germany’s relative imports, the Czech Republic and Hungary are again at the top of the list, this time joined by Slovakia. Britain scores lower on this list than it did in the exports list. Norway, which sells oil and gas to Germany, scores much higher. Russia, which also sells oil and gas to Germany, does not score higher, however (though it may be that much of this oil flows through the Netherlands, and is counted as a German import from the Netherlands instead of from Russia). The US scores extremely low.

Japan – Exports: $794 billion, Imports: $793 billion

japan relative and avsolute exportsjapan relative and absolute imports

Britain – Exports: $434 billion, Imports: $615 billion

Britain relative and absolute exportsbritain relative and absolute imports

India – exports: $275 billion, imports: $ 448 billion

india relative and absolute exportsIndia relative and absolute imports

Brazil – exports $247 billion, imports $223 billion

brazil relative and absolute exportsbrazil relative and absolute imports

Russia – exports $470 billion, imports $324 billion

russia relative and absolute exportsrussia relative and absolute imports

Apart from the countries we have looked at so far, France and Italy are the two largest economies in the world in terms of nominal GDP, according to the World Bank. However, since we have already looked at two European countries (namely, Germany and Britain), I made graphs for Australia and Turkey instead. Australia and Turkey are listed as the world’s 12th and 17th largest economies in terms of nominal GDP.

Australia – exports: $249 billion, imports: $240 billion

Australia relative and absolute exports Australia relative and absolute imports

Turkey – exports: $161 billion, imports: $205 billion

Turkey relative and absolute exports Turkey relative and absolute imports

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