East Asia

The Birthplaces of China’s Leadership

In democratic countries, political analysts often try to sniff out any regional divisions that exist within a given country by looking at the voting patterns of that country’s electorate. In Italy’s recent election, for instance, it has been thought to be significant that Italians living in northern Italy tended to vote centre-right (including for the Northern League), whereas in southern Italy people tended to vote for the Five Star Movement.

In countries like the People’s Republic of China, however, where no such elections are held, different factors may be looked at instead, in order to gauge the level of regionalism that might exist.

One interesting thing to note here is that almost none of modern China’s top politicians were born in peripherally located areas like the southeast, southwest, northwest, or northeast. The only province in southeast or southwest China to have produced a somewhat notable number of Politburo members is Fujian, a relatively small province where Xi Jinping served 17 years of his career, which is important to China in part because it shares unique social and linguistic connections with the nearby island of Taiwan.

China birthplaces .png


The chart above shows, by birth-province, the number of members in the politburo, politburo standing committee, party secretariat, central military commission, provincial party secretary, or members of previous party secretaries going back to 1990, adjusted to take into account the varying population sizes of each province. Apart from Fujian and Qinghai (which ranks high on this list only because it has such a tiny population, by China’s standards), all of the provinces at the top of this list are in the north or central coastal regions.

China’s most populous province, Guangdong, has had no leaders on this list. As of 2017, Guangdong may have also broken a thirty year tradition by having its provincial governor not be a native of the province. It is now one of the few provinces not to have a native-born governor.

china standing committee birthplaces.png

Birthplaces of China’s new Politburo Standing Committee

In this picture above, we see the birthplaces of China’s current top leadership, the members of the Standing Committee. Here we also see the one big exception, Qinghai-born Zhao Leji. Zhao’s career is noteworthy. Zhao served as party chief of Qinghai, breaking the unwritten rule that a person should never be party chief in their birth-province. Zhao was later party chief in Shaanxi, where his parents were from; this too broke an unwritten rule, that a person should not be party chief in their “native” province. Now, Zhao has not only reached the Standing Committee, but has taken over Wang Qishan’s anti-corruption job, a critical position. Some have argued that Zhao has been able to rise in this way mainly because Xi Jinping’s family is also from Shaanxi.


china birthplaces graph .png

A chart of the birthplaces, by province, of Chinese members of the Politburo, the Politburo Standing Committee, the Central Military Commission, the Communist Party secretariat, provincial party secretaries, provincial governors, or past politburo standing committees going back all the way to about 1990, not adjusted for provincial population sizes. —  Correction: Yunnan, the largest southwestern province (unless you count Sichuan as southwestern too), I left off this list by accident. It would have been right near the bottom of the list, just above Hainan

Here’s a map of the birth-provinces of the current 25-member Politburo Central Committee (which includes within it the 7 members of the higher-ranked Standing Committee):

communist politburo central committee

And here, finally, is a map of the birth-provinces of the current provincial party chiefs:
provincial party chiefs.png


The Lay of the Land

Imagine a map of the world in which land and sea are both drawn in the same colour, so as to be indistinguishable from one another. Imagine also that areas inhabited by humans are drawn in a different colour than areas that are relatively uninhabited by humans.

Such a map might reveal a great desert in the Northern Hemisphere, encompassing most of Asia, the Pacific Ocean, and the western half of North America. Within this great desert there would be a great oasis: Northeast Asia. There would also be many lesser oases such as California. The Indian Subcontinent would also appear to be a great oasis, between the desert of Central Asia and the desert of the Indian Ocean. But it would not be as remote an oasis as Northeast Asia.

world map at night

Now imagine that all of the oceans on this map were to be greatly shrunk in size, in order to account for the ease of transporting bulk cargo by sea, whereas all of the mountain or hilly rainforest barriers on the map were to be greatly increased in size, in order to account for the difficulty of transportation in such areas. This map would now reveal the key position of the habited parts of Europe and the Middle East, which would now be seen as being extremely close to most of the inhabited parts of the Americas and Africa, as well as to much of the inhabited parts of Asia.

It would not now be surprising to learn that the watershed of the narrow Atlantic and Mediterranean seas is where an estimated two-thirds of global economic activity occurs. Nor would the fact that the Mediterranean economies have mostly struggled to keep up with those of the North Atlantic be surprising, given the mountains or deserts which surround the Mediterranean on all sides.

China, in contrast, would still seem to be in an isolated position. The mountains or hilly rainforests that make up much of the terrain of Southeast Asia and the east coast of India, plus the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas, would now appear to further isolate China from India. China would now also  appear to be more internally divided. China’s non-natively-Mandarin-speaking areas along its southeast coast would now seem to be further from the Mandarin areas of the north (since mountainous lands lie between the two).

At the same time, China’s coastal areas would appear to be located closer to the rest of the world (including to the world’s Chinese diaspora, which disproportionately comes from southeast China), since the world’s seas would now appear to be much smaller than before.  Japan, in contrast, would appear more internally unified when looked at using this map, as all of its lands border the sea and so would now seem to be closer to one another.

Going forward 

Of course, this is a very, very rough imagining of the practical realities faced by human economics, based on a number of assumptions that may be wrong, including most importantly on the idea that navigability and habitability are among the most decisive economic and historical factors. Arguably, it helps to explain some key questions – why Europe and Middle Eastern religions spread so widely, why Atlantic and Mediterranean are economies are so large, why China has often struggled with internal regionalism, etc.. Even, however, if we do accept it as a decent model of the world today, it does not tell us how the world might soon change.

If modern technology tweaks the realities of this world-map we have tried to imagine — if, for instance, autonomous vehicles make it far easier to transport bulk cargo in mountainous and hilly rainforest areas — that could alter what we might expect the world economy, political or financial, to look like.


  1. “Chindia” (and Chargentina)The term Chindia became somewhat popular during the BRIC boom a decade ago. It was used to refer to the idea that East Asia and South Asia would become economically much larger and somewhat better integrated with one another, together forming an Indo-Pacific economy that would rival (even if only a friendly rivalry) that of the  Atlantic world, while also allowing China and India to dilute the global power of the US.
    This scenario would also put Southeast Asia, Southwest China, and  Northeast India in a key position in the world, controlling the trade routes (and much of the freshwater) of East and South Asia. Overland trade between China, Southeast Asia, and India might also threaten somewhat the position enjoyed by Singapore, Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, all three of which benefit from ships sailing a long detour through the Straits of Malacca to get from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. But, will any of this actually happen? It has not happened yet: trade between China and India remains quite low, given their sizes. karte-topographie-zentralasien-01.pngWe should also not overlook the possibility of a similar economic integration between two large countries that are separated by the world’s other great mountain range, the Andes, namely Chile and Argentina. Unlike China and India, these two nations speak the same language. Their population centres, though separated by high mountains, are located quite close to one another. Chile’s largest city, Santiago, and Argentina’s fourth largest city, Mendoza, are only 175 km apart, as the crow flies. But they are separated from one another by mountains reaching over 5 km high.Greater integration between Argentina and Chile could help both to balance against their much larger, Portuguese-speaking neighbour Brazil. It could perhaps then allow (Ch)Argentina and Brazil work together towards a greater level of South American or Latin American economic or political integration. This could turn out to be as important as anything that might happen between East Asia and South Asia.


    2. Return of the Mediterranean(s)

    In our map of the world we saw the key position held by the Mediterranean, but also that the mountains of Mediterranean countries have limited their development as compared to the flatter lands like northern Europe and the eastern half of the United States. If, however, technology allows for economical transport in mountain areas, then the Mediterranean region might regain some of the influence it enjoyed historically.

    Drainage Basins, rivers

    Drainage Basin (millions of square km)

    So too might other “mediterranean” seas that are surrounded in large part by rugged or rainforest lands. Most notable of these, perhaps, is the American mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico & Caribbean, which, like the real Mediterranean, is centrally located (next to the narrow Atlantic, and between continents) but has much of its nearby population living in mountainous areas, in Mexico and Central America. The Caribbean, in turn, is near another “mediterranean” basin, the Amazon River and its many navigable tributaries.
    3. The Heartland

    Works of “Classic Geopolitics”, notably Halford Mackinder’s book Democratic Ideals and Reality (which I recommend reading)written a century ago at the end of WW1, lays out a vision of the world that is somewhat similar to the one I have tried to describe here. It identifies Europe and the Middle East as the economically-geographically central spot in the world, and argues that, given the Middle East’s relatively arid climate (the Middle East and North Africa had a far smaller population relative to Europe in 1919 than it does today), and given the spread of railways into landlocked areas, it would be the vast flat lands of Eastern Europe that might give rise to a political entity potentially capable of dominating Europe, the Middle East, and by extension the “World-Island” (meaning the Asia-Africa-Europe supercontinent), and by extension the world as a whole.

    In this view, the devastating German-Russian wars of 1914-1917 and 1941-1945 were about who would control East Europe; the Cold War, the 1917-1918 part of WW1 (when Russia left the war and the US entered it), the 1939-1941 part of WW2 (before the Hitler-Stalin pact was broken), the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, or various conflicts during the 19th century, such as the Crimean War or the Anglo-Russian “Great Game” in Central Asia and the Middle East, were about peripheral powers (Britain, France, Japan, the US, etc.) preventing an East European power like Russia and/or Prussia from expanding its influence.

    Regardless of whether or not this Mackinderian perspective is an adequate one, it does seem that the central position of Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East arguably really does exist, and may persist. Eastern Europe continues to house by far the largest state and population in this area (Russia), and the Germans still by far the largest economy. But the more mountainous states and populations in Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, and much of the Mediterranean and/or Arab worlds are also large, oil-rich, and centrally located. How this story will unfold going forward is anyone’s guess.


East Asia

Geopolitics within China

The year 2017 has short, medium, and long-term significance in China.

Its short-term significance comes from the Communist Party’s quinquennial leadership transition, which is being held a week from today.

Its medium-term significance comes from being the twentieth anniversary of the most recent notable geopolitical transition in China; namely, of Hong Kong leaving the British to join (in effect) China’s largest province Guangdong, and of Chongqing leaving China’s formerly-largest province Sichuan, in 1997*.

Its long-term significance comes from being the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution; of which, with the Soviet Union now long gone, the Chinese Communist Party is the only major remnant. The Party’s centennial is itself arriving in 2021, the first deadline in Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”.

It is interesting to think on how these factors may overlap. The Russian Revolution of course brings to mind the Soviet collapse. That collapse occured 69 years after the Soviet Union’s formation; next year will be 69 years since the People’s Republic of China’s formation. These memories may be reenforcing the desire of China’s leadership to avoid the mistakes they perceive Gorbachev to have made. In a small way, this might be contributing to the Party’s granting more power to Xi Jinping. The promotions Xi makes this week are being watched closely, worldwide, as a yardstick of his clout.

Geopolitics within China 

The twentieth anniversary of the political changes to the Hong Kong-Guangdong and Sichuan-Chongqing regions are, arguably, deeply relevant to this issue.

First, the two men Xi is expected to highlight as long-term successors of himself and of Premier Li Keqiang currently lead those regions. Chen Min’er is the party chief of Chongqing, Hu Chunhua is the party chief of Guangdong. Both will have an incentive to keep their regions pliant, in order to realize this rise to the top.

Second, the strongest moves in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign have been taken against top leaders in the Sichuan-Chongqing region: against Sun Zhengcai, party chief of Chongqing, a few months ago, and against Zhou Yongkang, a former chief of Sichuan, in 2015. Sun will be the first Politburo member kicked out under Xi. He will be just the third incumbent Politburo member to fall in the past 20 years, and yet the second party chief of Chongqing (the other being Bo Xilai, in 2012) to do so.

Third, Guangdong and Sichuan are by far the largest of China’s “peripheral” provinces (see graph); provinces outside of the part of China that, roughly speaking, lies between or near Beijing and Shanghai. Few recent Chinese leaders have been born in peripheral provinces; the new Standing Committee that Xi is expected to pick will not have anyone born in a peripheral province. Neither was anyone on the current Standing Committee* born in a peripheral province. Indeed, nobody born in Guangdong or Sichuan holds any of the 43 positions within the Communist Party’s Politburo, Secretariat, or Central Military Commission.

China's Peripheral Provinces

Read the full article here: Geopolitics within China

Africa, Europe, Middle East, North America

Secession Procession

A century ago, a British Member of Parliament and geographer, Halford Mackinder, wrote one of the famous books of geopolitics, “Democratic Ideals and Reality”. The book discussed the tension between what nations want (“Democratic Ideals”) and what they often get (geographic “Reality”).

That tension seems especially topical this week. It is not everyday that the president of the United States tries to give his viewers a geography lesson, but that occured in the past few days as President Trump repeatedly told Americans that aiding Puerto Rico would be difficult because of “the big ocean” — the Atlantic — that blocks it from the rest of the country.

Puerto Rico’s ocean barrier is more than just a logistical barrier. It is also an emotional, political one. It is the main reason why many Americans do not care about the plight of Puerto Ricans in the same way as they did for the hurricane victims of Texas or Florida. It is also one of the main reasons why the US has not offered Puerto Rico statehood, despite 97 percent (of the 23 percent of its voters who participated in the referendum this past June) voting in favour of its becoming a state.

An opposite situation exists for Catalonia and for Iraqi Kurdistan, where referendums were held in the past two weeks. No big oceans separate regional capitals Barcelona or Erbil from national ones Madrid or Baghdad; the latter two of which have taken steps to prevent secession by the former.

Rather, Catalonia lies south of the high, steep Pyrenees Mountains, making it part of the Iberian peninsula along with the rest of Spain. Ditto for Iraqi Kurdistan, which lies on the Mesopotamian side of the high peaks that divide Iraq from neighbouring Kurdish regions east and north. The tensions between Democratic Ideals — over 90 percent of Catalans and Iraqi Kurds voted in favour of independence (with 43 and 73 percent voter turnout)—and geographic Realities are high.

Of course, geographic realities are not necessarily or directly decisive. Hawaii is an example of this; its Big Island is surrounded by an even Bigger Ocean than is Puerto Rico’s. Portugal is another example, Iberian but not Spanish. So too is Kuwait, which is Mesopotamian but not Iraqi.

Still, it is hard to know how much to lean toward realism or idealism in any given case. The three examples given above came about less because of ideals trumping geographic reality, but instead because of geographic reality being crushed by an even greater reality; namely, the decisions of superpowers. The US chose Hawaii in spite of its remoteness. The British Empire chose to protect Portugal from the Spanish and French in order to pursue its own political aims. And both the British and the Americans have worked, on separate occasions, to carve Kuwait out of the Mesopotamian plains to which, geographically, it belongs.

This brings us to the other, more neglected secession attempt this week, which occured in Cameroon. Historically Cameroon was a compromise between two imperial powers, Britain and France, which took it from Germany in WW1 (the same year Mackinder was writing his book). It is located in a region, West Africa, that was also split between Britain and France. An estimated 50-60 percent of people in Cameroon speak French and 20-30 percent English. Last week, arguably 17 people were killed during protests being held by some of the country’s English-speaking minority, some of whom have called for secession from Cameroon.

This is especially notable given that West Africa is the region of the world in which geographic realities were most readily ignored by the imperial powers which drew the maps of the region’s states. While today it has become popular to chastize past British and French governments for misdrawing Middle Eastern borders, the truth is that in most cases it is actually not easy to figure out alternative Middle Eastern borders that would have clearly been much better. (And some of the ones that are most obviously wrong, such as—arguably—the existence of Kuwait, are not the ones usually criticized). In West Africa, in contrast, most of the borders that were drawn are obviously wrong.

West Africa is full of states or autonomous regions that, like Kuwait, seem to be enclaves carved out from larger regions willy-nilly (examples include Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Angolan region of Cabinda, and, arguably, Sierra Leone). It also has states that either have or consist entirely of narrow strips of land that were created solely to make them accessable to the Europeans from the sea (examples include Gambia again, plus Togo, Benin, and both of the Congos). And it has five different large, landlocked countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and the Central African Republic).

From this we come to the final and perhaps most important aspect of the secession issue: transnational regionalism. It is regionalism that has, arguably, helped to keep Puerto Rico from becoming an Atlantic Hawaii: Puerto Rico is a part of a large region, Latin America, which the US in general is not a part of. Regionalism also plays a role in Spain, where the existence of the EU has helped to bolster independence movements like that of the Catalans, while the weakness of the EU limits those movements’ success. And regionalism plays a role in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has served as a leading force in the fight against ISIS’ transnational attempt at a Caliphate; ISIS recently having its largest city, Mosul, just 85 km away from Iraqi Kurdistan’s, Erbil.

If and when transnational regionalism is ever a success anywhere, it is likely to be in a region in which nationalism is itself most problematic. Given its terribly-drawn borders, that may turn out to be West Africa.

North America

Upstairs, Downstairs

With the US being a 17 trillion dollar economy, it can sometimes be easy to forget that both of its neighbours, Canada and Mexico, are in the trillion dollar club as well. Canada is the 10th largest economy in the world by nominal GDP and 17th by purchasing power parity (PPP)-adjusted GDP; Mexico is the 15th in the world by nominal GDP and 11th when adjusted for purchasing power parity. Outside of the US or EU, Canada and Mexico are already the two largest economies in the world within the same trade bloc. With continued decent GDP growth—both are expected to grow 2-3 percent in 2017—they may soon overtake more EU economies in size too:

trade bloc pairing comparisons

And yet, as the NAFTA renegotitation begins its second round of formal talks this week, the trade bloc shared by Canada and Mexico may to some extent now be on the chopping block. Not surprisingly, the two countries are now attemtping, diplomaticaly, to stand shoulder to shoulder with one another; to present a unified front to the US. But this can be hard to do, especially when those shoulders are separated by a few thousand km of US territory. It may be,  then, that the US will divide and conquer them (economically speaking) and get the best deal for itself.

Read the full article: Upstairs, Downstairs

East Asia

The Geopolitics of Chinese M&A

According to an article in The Economist, the value China’s outbound M&A activity rose sharply in 2016, up approximately fivefold since the summer of 2015 and eightfold above its average rate between 2010- 2015.

The article mentions that this increase could represent a troubling trend for China, of capital fleeing the country in response to its slowing economic growth rate and gradually depreciating currency in recent years.

It then largely dismisses this theory, however, saying, “rather than sparking a stampede [of money] to the exits, it is more accurate to say that these changes [in China’s economic performance] have alerted Chinese firms to the fact that they are still woefully under-invested abroad. China’s share of cross-border M&A has averaged roughly 6% over the past five years, despite the fact that it accounts for nearly 15% of global GDP”.

In other words, the article assumes that, if  a country’s share of global M&A does not exceed its share of global GDP, its M&A is less likely to be capital flight. This assumption is not justified, however. It overlooks other key factors that may determine a country’s propensity for engaging in outbound M&A. Such factors include:

1. A country’s physical proximity to other large economies

In order to have cross-border M&A, you need borders to cross. Economies with large neighbours, for example Canada or the Netherlands, tend to have a relatively high propensity for engaging in international M&A.Canada’s cross-border M&A, for example, has tended to be 25-50% as large as the US’s in recent years, in spite of the fact that Canada’s GDP is less than 10% as large as that of the US. China, unlike Canada, does not border any large economies. This impacts not just its M&A, but also trade: in China trade counts for 37% of GDP, whereas in Canada it is 64% and in the Netherlands it is 151%.

2. A country’s cultural and linguistic affinity with other large economies

Most economies in the world speak European languages; Northeast Asia remains something of a linguistic outlier. This may make Northeast Asian countries less likely than other regions to engage in global M&A.  Japan, for instance, currently accounts for 6.5 percent of global GDP, yet has accounted for less than 1 percent of global inbound M&A in recent years, and less than 4 percent of cross-border M&A in general. Arguably, China too might be expected to have a low propensity to engage in M&A.

3. Capital availability versus investment opportunity

One of the reasons that Japan’s outbound M&A far exceeded its inbound M&A is that capital in Japan has been cheap (its interest rate is below zero), yet investment opportunities in Japan have been limited (its economic growth rate is 1 percent). Thus, the Japanese borrow money cheaply at home, and often invest it abroad. In China, however, interest rates frequently top 4 percent, while economic growth is estimated to be 6-7 percent. We might, then, expect China to be less M&A-intensive, and generate more of its own investment opportunities domestically rather than seek out ones in foreign markets. Unless, of course, as many economists suspect, China’s true growth rate is much below 6-7 percent.

4. A country’s political relationship with other large economies

Outside of mainland China itself, approximately 45 percent of East Asia’s GDP is generated in Japan, China’s historic regional rival. Outside of mainland China, approximately 29 percent of global GDP is generated in the US, China’s potential global rival. Because China’s relationship with Japan and the US is sometimes a tense one, its investment relationship with Japan and the US may be less than it could otherwise be. For instance, when a territorial spat between China and Japan, over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, heated up (rhetorically) around 2012, cross-border M&A between China and Japan fell sharply. Indeed, in spite of relatively close cultural connections, Japan was not even one of China’s top ten targets of outbound M&A spending in the past decade. China has tended to invest in Europe; Japan in its political ally the US. 43 percent of Japan’s outbound M&A in the past decade went to the US.

5. A country’s relationship to foreign financial hubs

Relatively independent financial hubs, like Hong Kong, Singapore, or Luxembourg, tend to be significant net providers of M&A capital. Their outbound cross-border M&A spending tends to far exceed their inbound M&A, and their global share of cross-border M&A tends to far exceed their global share of GDP. From  2011-2014, for example, Hong Kong’s outbound M&A was about 25-40% as large as mainland China’s, even though Hong Kong’s GDP is only around 2% as large as mainland China’s. (Rightly or wrongly, M&A statistics tend to treat Hong Kong as if it was an independent entity). The fact that the world’s top two financial city-states (Hong Kong and Singapore) are Chinese may suggest that mainland China’s propensity for outbound M&A should be relatively low—just as, for example, US outbound M&A would plummet if (hypothetically) Manhattan were to secede from the US.

The value of China’s outbound M&A as a share of global cross-border M&A should, perhaps, be lower than China’s share of global GDP, then. Yet in 2016 Chinese buyers accounted for an estimated 15 percent of the value of all cross-border M&A, slightly higher than the 14.5 percent of global GDP China had. The Syngenta deal alone, announced in early 2016, was roughly large enough to eclipse all outbound Chinese M&A in any year prior to 2014.  China has kept up its M&A pace thus far in 2017, not counting Syngenta.

The explanation that you often hear for why China’s M&A boom is not capital flight — namely, that Chinese firms are seeking foreign expertise and technology, as China transitions to a more knowledge-intensive economy — may have some merit, but still it ignores the fact that money has also been pouring out of China into other assets in the developed world in recent years. To take the most notorious example, Chinese capital been pushing up real estate values in Pacific cities (Vancouver, Seattle, Sydney, etc.) and hub cities (NY, London, Toronto, etc.). The M&A boom, then, may be part of the greater trend of Chinese capital seeking safe haven. China’s 2016 M&A investment in the global safe haven, the US, was roughly triple what it had been in 2015, 2014, or 2013. It was larger than in every year from 1990-2012 combined.

If much of China’s M&A boom really is a result of capital flight, it is also likely to be unsustainable. In part two of this article we will analyze China’s geopolitical structure, to see when (or whether) this boom will end.

East Asia, North America

The League of the Overshadowed

It is easy to be small and ignored. But to be large and ignored, it helps to hide within the shadow of an even larger entity. In the realms of economics and geopolitics, there are three very large countries which, though not actually ignored, do not always receive the respect their size demands, as they inhabit the shadows thrown by the world’s colossi, the USA and China. These countries are Canada, Mexico, and Japan.

Japan has by far the third largest economy in the world, by far the second largest developed economy in the world, by far the second largest population among developed economies, and the tenth largest population globally.

Canada is the second largest country in the world, the fourth largest possessor of renewable freshwater, the fourth largest producer of renewable energy, the fourth largest exporter of oil, and the tenth largest economy.

And Mexico has the world’s eleventh largest population, thirteenth largest territory, and fifteenth largest economy. (Only five other nations are top-15 in all three categories: the US and the BRICs). Mexico has 2.5 times the population of the next largest Spanish nation (Colombia), plus a diaspora of 35-45 million in the US. It is also the twelfth largest oil producer in the world. The Greater Mexico Region (including Mexico, Texas, California, Venezuela, and US waters in the Gulf) produces more oil than Saudi Arabia or Russia. This region also has an economy larger than any country in the world, apart from the US or China.

The League of the Overshadowed

At the moment, however, trade between Canada, Mexico, and Japan is quite small. Neither Canada nor Mexico are even among Japan’s top fifteen trade partners. And while Mexico and Canada do trade with one another more often — Mexico recently overtook Britain to become Canada’s third biggest trade partner — trade with Mexico still counts for less than three percent of Canada’s total. Their trade with one another is overshadowed by that of the US. Indeed, California alone trades far more with Canada, Mexico, and Japan than those countries do with one another. There is no League of the Overshadowed… yet.

It may be worth noting, though, that US politics have to a certain extent put trade with Canada, Mexico, and Japan into question. President Trump’s first executive order was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, in which Japan would have accounted for over 60 percent of the twelve member-states’ GDP apart from the US. Trump has also signalled his intention to renegotiate NAFTA, tighten the US-Mexico border, raise tariffs on Canadian farm and forestry products, and keep American fossil fuels cheap.

If these policies are followed through on, they could have the effect of driving US trade partners somewhat closer together. Obviously, Canada and Mexico have an interest in showing that they can trade with one another regardless of what Washington intends to say or do about NAFTA. Both also have an interest in exporting more fossil fuels to Asia, where prices remain more expensive than in the shale-rich US. On June 1, in fact, Canadian senator Paul Massicotte wrote an op-ed calling for Canada and Japan to sign a free trade agreement with one another as quickly as possible, given the failure of TPP and risks for NAFTA. Especially as both Canada and Japan have large majority governments right now, such a deal may happen.

An economic relationship between Canada, Mexico, and Japan could turn out to be far more significant, however, than being just a knee-jerk response to Trump’s America-First politics. As we will see, Canada, Mexico, and Japan are in fact complimentary nations, both economically and geographically. Already they have a propensity to trade with one another that is larger than their absolute trade levels suggest (see graph below). So long as Japan’s economic growth remains stagnant, Mexico remains poor, and Canada remains underpopulated, this propensity does not matter much. But if these conditions do not remain, we should expect trade between these three significant, overshadowed countries to grow by a very large amount.

canada propensity to trade

Complimentary Nations

Economists often talk about land, labour, and capital, considering them fundamental inputs of productivity. In the case of Canada, Mexico, and Japan, these inputs are epitomized: Canada has land but not labour, Mexico labour but not capital, and Japan capital but not land. Together, then, they could make a formidable team.

In Canadian politics and business, it has become common in recent years to say that by exporting natural resources to China, Canada can finally reduce the near-monopoly that the US has on buying Canadian exports. This view, however, is based on a false extrapolation of a trend that is now nearing its end: industrial growth in coastal Chinese cities. As China now seeks to rebalance its economy, by investing instead in its service sectors (which are less resource-intensive) and interior cities (which have a lower propensity to engage in trans-Pacific trade), its demand for Canadian resources is unlikely to continue to surge. Most of the resources it does buy will probably continue to come from within its own borders — China only imports 15 percent of the energy it consumes — or from its “One Belt, One Road” partners in Asia.

In Japan, on the other hand, the reverse is true. Japan has few resources of its own, and no Silk Roads to tap. Japan imports 90-plus percent of the energy it consumes, mainly from the Middle East. Its access to the Middle East, however, is imperilled, both from competition with other Asian countries (notably, China and India) as well as from Middle Eastern conflicts. Consider, for example, that Japan accounts for 30-40 percent of LNG imports globally, yet its primary supplier, Qatar, is now in an open feud with Saudi Arabia. Between competition and conflict, Japan could have to rely more on trans-Pacific trade to get resources. It would not be the first time: in the 1930s, eighty percent of the oil Japan consumed was imported from the US.

China-Japan comparisons.png

Even more important may be the impact of labour-saving machinery — robotics — upon Japanese trade. Because Japan has the oldest population in the world by far, it is planning to become a leader in robotics. Even, for example, as soon as the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Japan is planning to showcase its robotic prowess. Yet robots are highly energy-intensive, and industrial robots resource-intensive. If Japan really does become the leader in robotics, it is likely to start importing lots of energy and other commodities from resource-rich countries like Canada. It may also be likely to start exporting its robotic technologies to countries like Canada, given Canada’s abundance of resources but lack of a large, cheap, human labour force.

Upstairs, Downstairs 

Today, if you exclude the US or Europe, Canada and Mexico have the largest combined economies of any pair of countries which are part of the same trade bloc (see graph 1 below). Yet if you include Europe, Canada and Mexico still rank quite a bit lower than a number of pairings of Europe’s largest economies (graph 2).

trade bloc pairing comparisons

In other ways, however, Canada and Mexico rank ahead of these European pairings. In population they do so (graph 3). In land they do so too (indeed, Mexico alone is larger than any four countries in the EU combined). And in terms of their indirect, second-degree trade (their combined trade with a third country), Canada and Mexico as a pair lead the world (graph 4), a result of their both trading hugely with the US.

canada-mexico indirect trade


While Canada’s propensity to trade with Mexico is greater than with any significant country apart from the US, it is still only around half as high as its propensity to trade with the US. The reason for this is simple: Canada and Mexico do not share a border with one another. They are not even very close in proximity to one another. More than 3000 kilometres separate Mexico City from any of the largest cities in Canada.

This separation is also reflected in Canada’s lack of a significant Spanish-speaking diaspora, particularly relative to that of the US. In spite of the fact that 21 percent of Canada’s population is foreign-born, compared to just 14 percent in the US, only 0.3 percent of Canada’s population is Mexican, compared to an estimated 11 percent of the population in the US. Even the state with the smallest share of its population being Mexican or Mexican-American—Maine—has a higher share, 0.4 percent, than Canada does.

But this may be likely to change, for two reasons. First, there is a political faction in the US which is wary of further Hispanic immigration, seeing it as a threat to the singular position held by the English language in America. Second, whereas the population of the US is relatively young, the population of Canada is Boomer-dominated, inching towards old age. This is especially true of the population of Canada’s French-speaking provinces, Quebec and (partially) New Brunswick. These provinces also, because of the far smaller language gap between French and Spanish than between Spanish and English, have a much higher propensity to attract Latin Americans than do other parts of Canada (see graph). Between demographics of this kind and US immigration politics, the next major wave of Latin American emigrants could be to Canada.

canada-quebec comparisons.png

The aging population of Canada’s Baby Boomers, and especially of Quebec’s Baby Boomers, also indicates another area in which Canada-Mexico economic ties—both direct and indirect—are likely to grow: tourism.  Already today, Mexico is the largest destination for Canadian travellers apart from the US, while the areas of the US that Canadians spend the most time in — Florida, the Southwest, and New York — are ones in which Mexican-Americans (or in Florida’s case, Hispanic-Americans in general) inhabit in large numbers. As Canadian Baby Boomers reach old age or retire, they are likely to spend more time in places like Mexico, in order to avoid much of the discomfort (even danger) of dark, icy Canadian winters. This will be most true of Quebec, given its older population, colder winters, and greater ability to learn Spanish.

Travel by Canadians .png

As the chart above implies, the US reconciliation with Cuba may also lead Canadians to spend more time in Mexico. During the past generation, the US rivalry with Cuba has given Canadians a near lock on the Cuban market. Canadians account for an estimated forty percent of all visitors to Cuba, and Cuba accounts for a disproportionately large destination (given Cuba’s relatively small size) for Canadian tourists. As the US allows its own population to go to Cuba, however, Canadian snowbirds will lose the advantage of having such a cheap, warm country all to itself. Many will re-route to other Latin American beaches.

An even more important pull factor for Canadian snowbirds will be “e-commuting”. The ability for young Canadians to spend time in a cheap, warm country in the winter is likely to increase dramatically as a result of the modern Internet. This is also likely to impact the Baby Boomers. If, for example, it becomes easier for a Boomer’s children and grandchildren to come visit them in Florida or Mexico for, say, a whole month over Christmas, rather than for just a week, then Boomers will be likelier to go in the first place.

And the relationship may not even remain one-way only: Mexicans may begin to visit Canada more often too. Today Mexicans do not go to Canada much, because they lack the disposable income to do so. If and as Mexicans become wealthier, however, they may look to Canada as a place to go in the summer; a place where the summer weather is not too hot, the major metropolises are not too crowded, and a cottage by a northern lake may be rented at an affordable rate. Climate change could, sadly, also play a role in this equation. Mexico — and the Southwestern US, in which tens of millions of Mexican-Americans live — is dangerously arid, whereas Canada is in possession of an abundance of renewable, surface-level freshwater.

Conclusion—The New Drivers of Trade 

Today, the main driver of trade is proximity. Countries which share borders with one another tend to trade a lot — though, of course, there are many exceptions to this — whereas far-away countries tend not to. However as (or, admittedly, if) globalization continues, proximity may no longer matter as much. Complimentarity may matter a lot more. We have seen here various ways in which Canada, Mexico, and Japan may be complimentary to one another. Canada has land but not labour, Mexico labour but not capital, Japan capital but not land. Canada has cold, dark winters but warm, water-rich summers, Mexico warm bright winters but hot, arid summers. All three countries have coasts on the North Pacific Ocean; none are part of the Asian (or Eurasian, or Afro-Eurasian) continent. And all three countries are very large, yet are overshadowed by neighbours that are far larger than they are. They may end up, if only informally, a formidable League.