(If some the pictures on the link above are too blurry, you can see them clearly on the link below….however some of the text paragraphs in the link below are out of place. Sorry for the inconvenience).
(If some the pictures on the link above are too blurry, you can see them clearly on the link below….however some of the text paragraphs in the link below are out of place. Sorry for the inconvenience).
As a result of the conflicts in Syria and Libya, Morocco has become the only state in the Middle East/North African region that is not or does not border a failed or semi-failed state.
Morocco’s next-door neighbour Algeria, in contrast, borders two or three such states, namely Libya, Mali, and Niger. Algeria might also be standing on politically shaky ground itself, as its economy is highly dependent upon exports of oil and gas and as its leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has governed the country since 1999 (since the Algerian Civil War, which lasted from 1991-2002), has now reached 79 years old and has very serious health problems but no clear political successor.
Tunisia, meanwhile, in sandwiched narrowly between Libya, Algeria, and the depressed economy of southern Italy. Egypt borders Libya and Sudan and Gaza. Saudi Arabia borders Iraq and Yemen. Iran borders Iraq and Afghanistan. Turkey borders Iraq, Syria, and the economy of Greece. Sudan borders several troubled states and also remains troubled itself. Jordan borders Syria and Iraq. Lebanon borders Syria. Kuwait borders Iraq. Oman borders Yemen.
The West Bank Palestinian Territory, like Morocco, does not have failed-state neighbours: it is directly bordered only by Israel and Jordan. Still, Palestine cannot be said to be on this list with Morocco, since it is not independent and since it includes the more troubled Gaza Strip. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, meanwhile, are no longer truly majority-Arab economies, as non-Arab foreign workers now significantly outnumber their own citizen labour forces.
Morocco is an outlier also in terms of its economy (it is a significant net importer of fossil fuels, unlike most other Arab economies) and in its geographic location at the outer edge of Africa and Europe. Though Morocco has not been able to capitalize much on these traits in the past – the country’s per capita GDP is under $4000 – there are reasons to think that it will begin to outshine most other nations in the coming years.
Here are 5 factors to keep an eye out for:
1. Ties to the Americas
Morocco has closer connections to the Western Hemisphere than do most other countries in the Arab world, for a number of reasons. One is geography: Morocco is an Atlantic country, and most people in North and South America live within the Atlantic basin. Marrakesh is 5900 km from Manhattan, 6900 km from Miami, and 4900 km from the easternmost edge of Brazil. By comparison, Marrakesh is 5400 km from the Saudi capital Riyadh, 4900 from Baghdad, and 3700 km from Cairo.
Another is language: millions of Moroccans can speak French, Spanish, or (increasingly) English, which along with Portuguese are the languages spoken most often in the Americas.
Another is history: Morocco was not a British colony, so it does not have the same resentment against the English-speaking world that many other countries do. Also, it was liberated by the US and Britain relatively early on in the Second World War (insert Casablanca reference here).
And another is politics: the US wants at least one stable, large, non-Wahabbist political ally in the Arab world, and as a result it is views Morocco favourably. In addition, the US and British navies continues to require passage through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain in order to access the Mediterranean.
(Morocco and the US struck a Free Trade Agreement in 2006. Outside of Canada, Australia, South Korea, Israel, Jordan, Oman, and some countries in Latin America, Morocco is the only country to have such an agreement with the US)
As the economies of Europe, East Asia, and most of the developing world are simultaneously struggling at the moment, whereas the economy of the United States remains relatively vibrant, Morocco’s linkages to the US and other countries in the Americas could provide it with a significant advantage over its peers.
2. Oil and Food Imports
Falling commodity prices in recent years have left most Middle Eastern countries panicking, depending as they do upon energy export to maintain their economies. Morocco too could be hurt by the falling price of energy, as it has benefited in the past from tourism, investment, and financial transfers coming from oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia. Still, Morocco is not a net commodity exporter itself. Quite the opposite, in fact: as a share of GDP Morocco is one of the world’s biggest net oil importers among countries with significant-sized populations, and it is also one of the bigger food importers.
Morocco does not even trade much with its energy-exporting neighbour Algeria, as the two have been rivals of one another because of Morocco’s ongoing control of Western Sahara. Morocco does trade, however, with Spain and with Portugal, both countries that could benefit significantly should cheap oil and gas prices persist.
(Source: The World Bank; Wall Street Journal)
3. Spain’s Economic Recovery
Spain and Portugal have been in a very deep economic recession since the “global financial crisis” hit. The southern regions of Spain, meanwhile, have been in a Depression in which as recently as 2015 they had formal unemployment rates of well over 30 percent, higher even than in Greece. This has not been good for Morocco at all, which sits just 14 km across the Straits of Gibraltar from southern Spain. The two Spanish “ex-claves” in Morocco, Cueta and Melilla (which have a combined population of 165,000), have similar unemployment rates.
Since the beginning of 2015, however, Spain is thought to have been the fastest growing significant economy in “Western Europe” apart from Sweden or Ireland, and Portugal has also been doing much better than in previous years. Meanwhile the heart of the “Eurocrisis” seems to have moved to Italy, which could be very bad for neighbouring Tunisia and so make Morocco even more of an outlier in terms of being a stable economy within the Arab world.
(Morocco exports slightly more to France than to Spain, however given that France’s GDP is more than twice as large as Spain’s, this indicates Morocco’s closer economic ties to Spain)
4. Modern Communications
Morocco is a semi-rural country. According to the World Bank, 40% of Morocco’s population live in rural areas, compared, for example, to 57% in Egypt, 33% in Tunisia, 30% in Algeria, 31% in Iraq, 27% in Iran and Turkey, and just 17% in Saudi Arabia. Morocco is also the most mountainous country in the Arab world outside of Yemen, making many of its inhabitants – in particular its rural inhabitants – somewhat isolated from one another as well as from the outside world. Morocco’s population could benefit from Internet and mobile phone access helping it to overcome this isolation, then.
Morocco might also benefit from modern communications because of its unique linguistic abilities: its population speaks four different prominent languages, namely Arabic (which is spoken not only in Arab countries, but also by at least tens of thousands of people in almost every Muslim country), French, Spanish, and (increasingly) English. Morocco is in fact one of the few countries outside of Spain or the Western Hemisphere in which significant numbers of people are capable of speaking Spanish. Moreover, if Spain and Portugal benefit from being able to forge closer connections with Spanish and Portuguese speakers in the Americas as a result of the Internet, Morocco could benefit indirectly from their success.
The Internet could be particularly useful in helping Morocco to connect usefully with the rest of the Arab world, which until now Morocco has been somewhat cut off from as a result of its faraway location – it is a five hour flight from Morocco’s biggest city Casablanca to Cairo, and nearly an eight hour flight from Casablanca to Dubai – and as a result of its poor political relationship with its next-door neighbour Algeria. Given that most of the Arab world’s population and almost all of the Arab world’s economic activity occurs in the Middle East (including Egypt) rather than in North Africa (excluding Egypt), the distance-shrinking effects of the modern Internet could be of special assistance to Morocco.
(above: Population by country; below: The Moroccan diaspora)
5. Self-Driving Vehicles
Morocco is located at the front door of Western Europe. It has to cross just one border to reach Spain, two borders to reach France, and three borders to reach Germany, Britain, or Italy. (By comparison, Turkey has to cross at least five borders to reach Germany or Italy by land, six to reach France, and seven to reach Britain or Spain). Still, Morocco cannot yet seamlessly access these countries.
It is, for example, 2350 km from Casablanca to Paris by land, a route which crosses the Strait of Gibraltar as well as a number of mountain ranges in Morocco, Spain, and southern France. This can make transport difficult, particularly by train. Trains cannot easily drive on and off of ships like trucks can, and they cannot handle steep inclines and sharp curves in mountainous areas as easily as trucks (particularly small trucks) can.
Indeed Morocco has only the 71st largest railway network in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook, smaller even than Tunisia’s. Spain has a much larger rail network, of course, just not once you account for Spain’s economic size. Moreover, few lines cross the Pyrenees Mountains on Spanish-French border, and Spain’s railways mostly use a different rail gauge as France’s, so the two systems to do not always link up quickly.
Smarter cars and trucks — and, eventually perhaps, self-driving cars and trucks — would be a boon for countries in the mountainous Mediterranean region, notably Morocco but also Algeria, Spain, Italy, southern France, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans. They could make it safer and cheaper for cars and trucks to navigate difficult mountain roads. For Morocco, they could also make it easier to manage the long delay trucks typically face in crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, a body of water that is often too stormy to cross. If this happens, then the lack of national borders separating Morocco from large economies in Western Europe could become a significant economic advantage.
Over the longer-term, self-driving vehicles could also help Morocco to leverage its location as the sole land bridge between Western Europe and the huge region of Western Africa.
Economies in Western Africa often have a difficult time reaching European markets by sea. Either they are landlocked (approximately 70 million people live in landlocked countries in Western Africa, and many more are part of landlocked groups within non-landlocked countries, like the nearly 60 million Hausa or Fulani of Muslim-majority northern Nigeria), or they have to sail all the way around West Africa to reach Europe (most notably in countries like Nigeria — see map below — where most of the population of Western Africa lives), or they lack access to good natural harbours and ports (in the Nigerian megacity of Lagos, for example, “the [shipping] terminals are both practically in the city centre, so it can take an entire day for a lorry to get [through traffic] from the terminal to a warehouse“, according to the Economist), or their ships are subject to piracy.
The alternative to maritime shipping is to cross the Sahara Desert. That is, of course, far easier said than done: the routes across the Sahara are long, difficult, and dangerous. Still, they have a shot to become economical, given the challenges involved in the the sea route. Driverless trucks, which are both safer and cheaper than having a human driver risk crossing both the Sahara Desert and Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, could perhaps tilt the balance (in some cases, at least) between the land and sea routes. If this occured, it would reverse the process that began in the 1400s, when it first became easier to reach this region by ship than by caravan.
Finally, self-driving vehicles could perhaps make it easier for Morocco to access markets in Latin America. Most people in Latin America live in southern Brazil, around Sao Paolo, and in neighbouring northern Argentina, around Buenos Aires. (The state of Sao Paolo alone accounts for an estimated 32% percent of Brazil’s GDP, without even taking into account neighbouring Rio de Janeiro). Yet this is a long sail from Morocco. It would instead be much quicker for ships to land somewhere around the eastern tip of Brazil and then drive overland to cities like Sao Paolo (see map below). Thus far it has been difficult to drive the more than 2000 km that this route is made up of, however, as it crosses long distances through Brazil’s eastern coastal mountains. Brazil’s traffic jams and road conditions are notoriously difficult to deal with; this route could certainly use a big boost from technology.
A similar thing would be useful for Morocco if for self-flying (or at least, “smarter”) aircraft were become common.
I’ve made some graphs about Europe’s mountains, using data from this thorough report made by the European Union:
This graph above shows, approximately, the size of European countries’ mountainous areas (in the y axis) and how big their mountainous areas are as a share of their overall territories (in the x-axis). With the exception of Slovenia, the graph does not include any of the mountainous countries of the former Yugoslavia, since the report does not mention those countries. Nor does it mention Morocco, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, or some of Europe’s other peripheral non-EU countries. Norway, though, which is not in the EU either, is included in the report, and as you can see it is by far the biggest outlier on the graph above.
This graph above shows that, as one might expect, there is a strong correlation between how mountainous a European country is and how much of its population lives in mountainous areas. Switzerland leads in both categories, followed by Norway, Slovenia, Greece, and Austria.
In this graph above the main outliers are Italy and Spain, which have by far the largest populations living in mountainous areas. Had Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria been included, however, they would have been even further ahead of Italy and its 18 million people living in mountain areas.
Since 2001, when Greece adopted the Euro as its currency, seven countries have joined the Eurozone. Slovenia began using the Euro in 2007, Cyprus and Malta in 2008, Slovakia in 2009, Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014, and Lithuania in 2015. These countries are small. Together, they are home to around 14.5 million people, just 4 percent of the Eurozone’s total population.
This is not surprising: from 2001 to 2008 European countries were more focused on expanding the European Union and NATO than expanding the Eurozone, while since 2008 the economic slowdown in Europe has limited the ambition of European institutions to expand in a meaningful way. Key economies in the region, like Britain, Poland, Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, not to mention Russia or Turkey, do not appear likely to join the Eurozone any time soon, if ever.
Still, the admittance of these seven small states has altered somewhat the geography of the Eurozone. Slovakia is the only state among the ex-“satellites” of the former Soviet Union (the others being Poland, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria) to adopt the Euro, and it is the only Eurozone country to border Ukraine.
Slovenia is the first among the states of the former Yugoslavia to formally join the Eurozone, and its membership gives Austria and Germany a Eurozone-only route to the Mediterranean that bypasses Italy. The Baltics are the only former Soviet Union republics to adopt the Euro, and their inclusion also means that Finland is no longer the extreme geographic outlier of the Eurozone that it was between 1999 (when it and all ten of the other Eurozone countries apart from Greece joined) and 2011, when Estonia joined.
Similarly, the Cyprus and Malta additions mean that Greece is no longer an outlier in the Eurozone. Even before they joined, though, Greece was still only 100 km from Italy — whereas Finland had been more than 800 km from any fellow Eurozone economies before the Baltics joined.
Among the Eurozone members that joined the group prior to 2007, the economies on the outer edges of the Eurozone — Portugal, Spain, Ireland, southern France, southern Italy, Greece, and Finland — have struggled the most during Europe’s nearly decade-long economic downturn. The inner countries of the Eurozone, on the other hand, as well as most of the non-Eurozone countries in the region, have not fared so poorly.
As the graph below shows, Germany and Austria may have been the only two pre-2007 Eurozone members to have experienced per capita income growth from 2008-2013, and Germany in particular (which accounts for an estimated 29 percent of Eurozone GDP) has been a veritable island of low unemployment within the Eurozone.
Even among the newcomer Eurozone states, which apart from crisis-ravaged Cyprus have not done too poorly, it has been the more centrally located countries of Slovakia (the capital of which, Bratislava, is just 50 km from Vienna) and Lithuania (the westernmost Baltic) that have experienced the most growth. Slovakia and Lithuania are both thought to have had per capita income growth of 5.2 percent during the period 2008-2013, whereas Estonia, Latvia, and Malta had growth of just 1.6-2.7 percent, and Cyprus’s income shrank by 20.6 percent.
Now, however, the economic slowdown may be moving towards the inner sanctuary of the Eurozone, in and around Germany, even as it has also lately been afflicting the outer regions of non-Eurozone Europe (Russia, Norway, Turkey, Scotland, etc.), which had performed relatively well in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Economies like Germany, northern Italy, and the Netherlands have increasingly appeared to be under threat of recession, while at the same time some of the Eurozone outsider “PIIGS”, like Spain and especially Ireland, are finally thought to be in recovery. Europe may be looking a bit topsy-turvy these days.
Much of this perception is simply anecdotal (which is not to say incorrect, necessarily), an adding-up of Brexit, Deutsche Bank’s falling stock price, the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the Syrian migration crisis, terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, and so forth.
There have also, however, been larger shifts. Falling energy prices are likely to help southern Europe more than northern Europe. Slowing economic growth in China, Russia, and other developing markets threatens export-oriented economies like Germany and the Netherlands. People in countries like Germany are getting old. The global shipping industry crash has been hurting parts of the Dutch and Danish economies. And there is a growing fear that Italy’s financial system may be reaching a crisis-point.
Now, it may be that these fears are overwrought, and that the centre of Europe will not undergo a reversal of fortune. But perception can often influence reality where economics are concerned, and the perception of countries like Italy, France, and even Germany has undeniably changed for the worse of late. It was less than a year ago that Germany was still popularly viewed as an unassailable economic and political stronghold of Europe, and less than two years ago that Spain, rather than Italy, was seen as the likeliest trigger for a Euro crisis (apart from Greece, of course).
When it comes to the “future of the Euro project”, the inward creeping of economic troubles from the Eurozone periphery to the Eurozone core should raise the question of whether or not the Czech Republic will join the monetary union as well.
The Czech, as well as most of the other Eastern Europe nations, were officially supposed to adopt the Euro, but many guess that this will not happen anymore given the current atmosphere in Europe. Nowadays, a “Czexit” from the European Union seems more likely, arguably, than a Czentrance into the Eurozone. The Czech Republic has the biggest GDP in Eastern Europe apart from Poland, more than double Slovakia’s. It is a “core” state: Prague is actually located closer to Frankfurt than Berlin is, and closer to Berlin than Vienna is.
If the Czech Republic does join, Poland would then be surrounded by Eurozone states on all its EU land borders. The Czech Republic’s key trade partners, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany, have all joined now — and both the Czech and the Slovaks are arguably among the world’s five most trade-dependent nations. The Czech Republic also sits in the main route between Germany and Slovakia, both of which are in the Eurozone. Along with the financial fastness of Switzerland, or worldly London, or the half-in, half-out (but mostly out) ERMII monetary system of Denmark, the Czech Republic is now the only place within the core of the European Union not to have joined the Eurozone.
Whether or not the Czech Republic joins could impact the future shape of the monetary union: its expansion, contraction, or dissolution. Yet for now the Eurozone seems focused on keeping the economies in its own centre intact, rather than expanding toward new peripheries in Eastern Europe.
During the past year, the primary focus of the US-Russian rivalry has centred around Iran. The United States put an end to Western sanctions against Iran, and also chose to keep American troops in Afghanistan who support, among others, many of the tens of millions of Afghans who are Shiite Muslims or who can speak Farsi (as opposed to the Taliban, who are Sunni and typically Pashto-speaking). Russia, meanwhile, intervened to aid Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who’s survival diverts Sunni attention away from Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq.
With Russia now withdrawing most of its forces from Syria and the US hoping to do so from Afghanistan, the focus of the US-Russian rivalry could revert, perhaps, to Ukraine. By comparison to the Middle East, Ukraine has appeared to be very quiet of late.
Russia may have dialed back the conflict in Ukraine partly in order to shift the West’s focus to the Middle East. This of course has not been very difficult to accomplish, given Europe’s influx of Syrian migrants and America’s election-season rhetoric on issues like ISIS, the conflict in Libya, and Donald Trump’s proposal to ban, for an unspecified amount of time, all Muslims from travelling to the United States.
If the US-Russian focus does move back towards Eastern Europe, one can perhaps guess the rough outlines of any geopolitical contest that may occur there.
Poland will likely be the chief ally of the United States in the region. Unlike any of the five other former satellite nations of the Soviet Union, Poland borders the Atlantic Ocean (via the Baltic Sea). This provides it access to English-speaking countries like Britain, the United States, and Canada, as well as to countries where proficiency in English as a second language has become particularly widespread, most notably in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent Germany.
Poland, indeed, tends to be relatively Atlantic-oriented. It conducts a larger percentage of its trade with economies like Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States than do any of the other ex-satellite countries in Eastern Europe. More than 10% of Poland’s modern-day labour force has worked at one time or another in Britain or Ireland, whereas Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks have more often gone to Germany or Austria and Romanians have more often gone to Germany, Austria, Italy, or Spain.
Poland is not an Eastern Orthodox country, like Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia and several others in the region are. Rather, its population is predominantly Roman Catholic.
Much more important than Poland having Western ties, however, is that it may be the only state in Eastern Europe large enough to lead a US alliance. Poland’s GDP is estimated to be 80 percent as large as those of its fellow ex-satellites – Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia) – combined.
Among other things, this economic size has allowed Poland’s economy to become relatively self-sufficient: Poland’s imports and exports are thought to be equal in value to just 80% or so of Polish GDP, compared to 110-170% of GDP in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Lithuania (though just 75% in Romania). This could make Poland somewhat less susceptible to the whims of its (largely European) trading partners than the other countries in Eastern Europe might be, and so perhaps also a more dependable ally of the United States.
Poland, finally, is the only one of the ex-satellites to border the northeastern Baltic region, which consists of the “Baltic states” of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (which is situated between Poland and Lithuania), the Russian city of St Petersburg, and southern Finland.
Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in particular have become the object of worldwide geopolitical speculation. They are the only former members of the Soviet Union to have joined the European Union and NATO, and, along with Slovakia, Finland, Greece and Cyprus, are the only countries east of Central Europe to use the Euro in place of their national currencies. They are home to six million people, about the same number of people as live in St Petersburg.
While Poland will probably be the foundation of American influence in Eastern Europe, Romania may become its capstone. Though Romania’s per capita income is still considerably lower than other countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Poland, its population is significantly larger than any of the other former satellites apart from Poland, as is the size of its territory.
Romania has Western ties because its language is close to Latin, rather than being a Slavic language like Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Serbian, or Croatian. This has resulted, among other things, in substantial Romanian diasporas having formed in Spain and especially in Italy. A Romanian living in Italy can arguably become near-fluent in Italian within just a month or two, without much difficulty.
Crucially, Romania may also be able to exert influence in Ukraine. Romania shares a roughly 800 km frontier with the former Soviet Union (by comparison, Poland has a 900 km or so border with the former Soviet Union, Hungary and Slovakia have 70 km ones, and the Czechs and Bulgarians have none), and both Romania and Ukraine are economically oriented toward the Black Sea.
Romania and Ukraine both also surround Moldova, which is a mostly Romanian-speaking country but home to Ukrainian, Russian, and Turkic Gaguaz minority populations. This is a particularly contested region; Russia has troops stationed in Moldova’s secessionist province of Transnistria, while the Black Sea coast, which includes Ukraine’s second city Odessa (just 140 km from Romania), is the only part of western Ukraine in which politically “pro-Russian” Ukrainians and “ethnic Russians” may still be prominent.
In response to a US-Romanian axis, Russia could attempt to press Romania from all sides by building up influence in Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary. Ukraine and Moldova are already home to Russian soldiers, while Serbia and Bulgaria are both Slavic and Orthodox countries that have historically often looked to Russia for support when fighting against their non-Slavic, Catholic, or Muslim neighbours like Turkey, Greece, Albania, Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Romania. Russia continues to have ties to Bulgaria, and especially to Serbia, in the present day.
Hungary, however, is neither Slavic nor Orthodox. Still, Hungary would be a critical anti-Romanian ally for Russia to attempt to recruit. The large and rugged Hungarian-Romanian borderland, located in and around the region of Transylvania, has long been politically fraught. It lies on the Hungarian side of the Carpathian Mountains and is home to substantial Hungarian and Roma (who are distinct from Romanian) minority groups, yet, since roughly the end of the First World War, has mostly been part of Romania.
While Romania holds the upper hand in this region, Hungary still has leverage over Romania because it controls the land and river routes that link Bucharest to markets in Austria, Germany, and northern Europe in general. Russia has been moving to form closer ties with Hungary, as Hungary’s Fidesz-led nationalist government has angered many of the other countries in the EU in recent years.
Hungary and Bulgaria are both potentially significant to Russia for other reasons as well. Bulgaria can give the Russians access to the Mediterranean Sea via Greece or the Balkans, without having to pass through the Turkish Straits. It is just 250 km from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea via Bulgaria and Greece, and 600-700 km from the Black Sea to the Adriatic via Bulgaria and the Balkans.
Indeed, given Russia’s reliance on natural gas exports and Italy’s reliance on gas imports (Russia is the world’s leading gas exporter, and Italy the world’s third largest gas importer), this trans-Bulgarian route to the Adriatic is one that Russia may need to avoid recession and at the same time maintain its influence in Italy. In turn, Russia may try to use Italy to put pressure on Romania, given the relatively close connections that exist between the two Latin countries.
Russia may need Hungary, meanwhile, to resist interfering with Russia’s interests in Ukraine (there are an estimated 200,000 ethnic Hungarians living in western Ukraine), serve as a wedge between Poland and Romania, and ensure Russian access to Central European economies like Germany.
If, hypothetically, Russia were to cow western Ukraine into submission and then be shunned as a result by US allies like Poland and Romania and by German allies like the Czech Republic and Slovakia (The Czech Republic and Slovakia are deeply entrenched in the modern German trade network), Hungary could be left as the only land route linking Russia’s sphere of influence to potentially “neutral” European economies like Italy, Austria, Switzerland, or France.
Moreover, Hungary is the only ex-satellite state apart from Romania that borders both the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. Hungary’s leading city Budapest is just 300 km from Serbia’s capital Belgrade, 300 km from Croatia’s capital Zagreb, 380 km from Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, and 400 km from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital Sarajevo. Considering that Budapest is also only 215 km from Vienna, 160 from Bratislava, and 400 km from the outskirts of Prague, this puts seven European capital cities within a 400 km radius of Budapest. The only other EU capital which can come even close to saying the same thing for itself is Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.
Russia might ideally like to ally itself with Germany or one of Europe’s other big economies, but if the Germans are not willing to participate in such a relationship then Hungary could be the place where a tug-of-war between Russia and America, or between Russia and Germany, or between Russia and “the West”, will occur. And if Russians do successfully win Hungary as a partner, thus potentially blocking off access to Romania from Poland, the focus of the conflict might then shift to Southeastern Europe, as the Americans could seek an alternative route to Romania.
During the Cold War the Americans involved themselves in Southeastern Europe by folding both Greece and Turkey into NATO (in spite of their intense rivalry with one another), but of late US-Turkish relations have been challenged by the wars in Syria and Iraq, while Greece has been trapped in an economic crisis and so unable to pick up the slack.
During just the past few months, though, more hopeful discussions than there have been in years have taken place regarding the possibility of the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus finally reunifying. This may perhaps portend an increasing cooperation between Turkey and the West, particularly as it has occurred around the same time as Turkey’s relationship with Russia deteriorated sharply following Russia’s entrance into Syria and Turkey’s downing of a Russian military jet there.
Then again, it is also entirely plausible that American relations with Turkey will continue to decline, and that the Greek economy will not soon recover in any meaningful way, leaving the United States to look instead to countries like Italy, Bulgaria, and the Balkan states in order to form a southern pathway to Romania and the Black Sea.
Of course, nothing like this scenario is guaranteed to happen. This is just a very rough outline of what a new US-Russian political confrontation in Eastern Europe might look like. Given that the past may not necessarily resemble the future, and in particular that technological developments could perhaps render some traditionally important geopolitical imperatives irrelevant – to give just one example, air power might allow countries like the United States to access their allies without possessing a land route to reach them – this outline may not end up being very prescient. Ideally, none of the ex-satellites will have to choose between looking eastward to Moscow or westward to Washington.
For a discussion of the conflict in Ukraine in particular, see The Geopolitics of Ukraine
Germany, which accounts for an estimated 21% of the European Union’s GDP and has an unemployment rate that is less than half as high as the EU average, is now facing five big economic challenges:
1. Germany has one of the oldest populations in the world: it’s old age dependency ratio is as high as Greece’s and higher than any other country apart from Italy and Japan; the share of its population aged 80 or older is higher than in any European country apart from France or the “PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain). The largest portion of Germany’s population is between 45-60 years old. Old age is beckoning.
2. Whereas Britain, France, Italy, Russia, India, China, and Turkey depend on exports of goods and services to account for an estimated 20-30 percent of their GDPs, and the United States, Japan, and Brazil for just 10-20 percent, Germany gets approximately 46 percent of its GDP from exports. As economies throughout Europe and the developing world are simultaneously growing slowly right now, such a dependence on exports may not be a good thing to have.
3. Low energy prices are not likely to benefit Germany as much as many think, nor will they benefit Germany’s neighbours in northern Europe, central Europe, or especially the former Soviet Union too much (see links for more: here, here, or here). According to the Wall Street Journal, oil imports account for just an estimated 2.4% percent of Germany’s GDP, compared to 3-6% in Spain, Greece, Turkey, Poland, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and India, while, according to the World Bank, imports of energy in general account for approximately 62% percent of Germany’s overall energy use, compared to 70-95% in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, South Korea, and Japan.
4. Germany is facing economic and political diminishing returns in its eastward economic integration. In the past generation it has looked to East Germany and Eastern Europe, but Eastern European countries are no longer so cheap. Czech Republic and Slovakia now have nominal per capita GDP’s of around $19,000, for instance, up from just $5700 in the year 2000; Russia has reached $14,000, up from $1800 in 2000. Increasingly there are also political limitations of various sorts to German involvement to its east. Many Eastern European countries, for example, would rather not see the Germans and Russians become too close with one another economically, and also do not want to become German economic satellites themselves. Things may be becoming more politically fraught than they were a decade or two ago.
5. A similar dynamic is true of Germany’s domestic politics. In the 1990s Germans could unite over the goal of German reunification, while in the 2000s they could unite over European expansion into Eastern Europe, a region located for the most part directly on the borders of Germany or German-speaking Austria. Now, though, with both those goals having been realized to a large extent, there could be room for inter-German regionalism to become more prominent.
It has still been just 145 years since German unification, and 25 since reunification; the three-way divide between eastern Germany, western Germany, and southern Germany, aka Bavaria, may still be somewhat in play. This was seen recently, when Merkel’s longstanding political coalition finally came under pressure as a result of internal opposition from Bavaria over the refugee issue. Germany is under no threat of dissolution, obviously, but regionalism could nevertheless threaten the ability of its central government to continue forming majorities, and it could threaten the ability of any majority governments it does form to take decisive political action.
Germany’s parliament is already regionally split to a slight degree: the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, the regional sister-party of Angela Merkel’s national Christian Democratic Union, holds 7 percent of the seats in Germany’s parliament. Southern German states, moreover, in particular Bavaria but also neighbouring Baden-Wurttemberg, tend to be more right-wing in their voting patterns, whereas eastern German ones tend to be the most left-wing. (Here’s an article describing some of the geographical patterns in Germany’s 2013 election). Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg are the second and third most populous of Germany’s 16 states, and have the closest ties to Austria.
There may be other triggers as well for regionalist challenges within Germany. If, for example, Europe’s banking and political system, which is currently under pressure from struggling economies like Italy, Greece, and France, ends up being badly damaged, it may hurt western or southern Germany more than eastern Germany. This is because Frankfurt (in central-western Germany) is Europe’s banking and transportation hub, and because southern Germany has relatively close connections with nearby northern Italy while western Germany is relatively close with France, Belgium, and the Netherlands (the latter two being Europe’s political and shipping hubs). Of course, this is all extremely speculative; I am not actually saying that political regionalism will reemerge within Germany, only that it cannot be ruled out.
There are, perhaps, two basic roads Germany can now go down. One is to become a more nationalist, more insular country. German nationalism could be used as a tool to attempt to bring about cooperation in parliament. Germany could restrict immigration flows as most other countries (and Bavaria) have wanted to do. Germany could try to use technology rather than immigration to solve its looming old-age crisis. And Germany could attempt to overcome its dependence on exports by reorienting its economy: either by having the government buy up the surplus goods that Germany now exports to other countries, or else by producing fewer goods and attempting the difficult task of making money in other ways instead.
On the other extreme, Germany could become even less nationalist and even less insular than it is now — and it is already quite a bit less nationalist or insular than most other countries, as a result of its 20th century history and export-intensive economy. It could continue to welcome immigrants from places like Africa, Arabia, and Asia, which could help it to address its old-age problem and, along with the population of Turks and many other groups already living in Germany, would make Germany a globally diverse country, somewhat like Canada, Britain, and the United States are. Germany could continue to happily use the English language without being worried that this will threaten the German language, rather than move towards a linguistic protectionist model as countries like France often have. And Germany could continue to integrate economically with Eastern Europe, Russia, and Turkey, but become so non-nationalist in its identity that this expansion will not be as likely to create a political backlash.
Which direction will Germany choose? I suspect, regretfully, that it will be the former. Nationalism may simply be too difficult for a nation to overcome.
For more, read Germany’s Trade Empire
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 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 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.
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 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, 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.