Why Iraq is Still So Important

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So, why did the United States decide to invade Iraq in 2003? There may have been some sinister or stupid reasons for the war, as an overwhelming majority of Americans believe there were, but there were also strategic motivations behind it, which are almost never acknowledged. These were, namely:

1. To weaken the position of the Sunni Arabs in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, within the Middle East. Even though Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist, Sunni-led government was often unfriendly towards other Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and even attempted to annex Sunni-majority Kuwait, Saddam’s Iraq was ultimately aligned with the Saudi Arabian position in the region anyway.

This was a result of Iraq’s intense rivalry with the Shiite non-Arab state of Iran, which it had fought an enormous war against throughout most of the 1980s, and because of Iraq’s repression of its own Shiite Arab majority population, which its had acted with brutality toward during the 1990s. The Saudis were afraid that Shiite Iran and Iraq’s Shiite majority would one day work together to undermine the Saudi position within Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite-inhabited Eastern Province, which is extremely far away from where most Saudis live and yet is also where most Saudi energy production is located.

[Saddam Hussein’s government may have been a nominally secular Ba’athist one, but that did not stop him from engaging in religiously sectarian politics during most of his time as Iraq’s leader, or from adding the phrase “God is Great” to the Iraqi flag in 1991 in what was sometimes said to be his own handwriting. With the collapse of Iraq’s secularist patron the Soviet Union around 1990, and with the increase in worldwide pan-Islamism around the same time (as a result of various factors, such as the Islamic victory in the Afghan-Soviet War in the late 1980s, the gaining of independence for Muslim countries in Central Asia as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the wars between Muslim and non-Muslim populations in the 1990s in places like Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Palestine, Armenia, Kuwait, Kashmir, Sudan, and East Timor, and the increased globalization of Islam as a result of the emergence of the Internet), it is not clear to what extent Iraq’s Ba’athist-style secularism — such that it was — would have survived had it not been toppled by the US invasion].

The United States blamed the Sunnis, and especially the Sunni Arabs, and especially Saudi Arabia, for 9-11, and for most Islamic extremism in general. Even as the Bush administration named Shiite Iran, and not Saudi Arabia, as one of the three “Axis of Evil” countries, it also knew that Iran’s influence was limited by the fact that 90 percent or so of the world’s Muslims are Sunni rather than Shiite, and by the fact that Iran is not an Arab country. Moreover, it knew that Iran’s state-driven brand of religiosity was far less socially conservative – and far more often ignored by its own citizens – than that which exists in several of the Sunni areas of the Muslim world, in parts of Africa, Arabia, and South Asia.

Thus the United States was not too surprised to learn that fifteen of the nineteen 9-11 hijackers, in addition to Osama bin Laden and some of the other Al Qaeda leaders, were Saudi nationals. Saudi Arabia, after all, has such an extreme political and social system that its millions of women are still not even allowed to drive a car. The US also laid a portion of the blame for Pakistan’s aquisition of nuclear weapons in 1998 at the feet of Saudi Arabia.

[In fact, less than a year before 9-11 an airplane flying from Saudi Arabia to London was hijacked by four Saudis and taken to land in Iraq, which sent both the passengers and hijackers back to Saudi Arabia. A month before that, a Qatari plane was hijacked and flown to Saudi Arabia. And only six months before 9-11, a Russian plane was hijacked by Chechens and flown to Saudi Arabia, where it was stormed by Saudi special forces. Airplane hijacking has a long history in the Arab world; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in particular hijacked many planes during much of the Cold War, and was able to pass on its experiences because its hijackers were often never arrested or killed. Most notably, on September 6, 1970, the PFLP hijacked four airplanes simultaneously – three of them successfully, one, an El Al plane, unsuccessfully – and landed two of them on a Jordanian airstrip. Yet another plane was hijacked two days later and also taken to Jordan, together triggering the Black September war a week later. The hostages from the hijacked aircraft, with the exception of Jewish hostages, were freed on September 11].

The US did not feel it could invade Saudi Arabia, however, because Saudi Arabia was too large and rugged (it has the seventh largest territory in the world, and is covered mostly by deserts and mountains), too rich in oil and natural gas infrastructure (unlike Iraq, where the energy sector had been severely underdeveloped as a result of decades of sanctions and war), too conservative and internally fractious (the US fears what would become of Saudi Arabia and Yemen if the Saudi royal family were overthrown), too strategic (the US worries that, absent the Saudis, Iran would become too influential within the Shiite-majority Persian Gulf region, and also that instability in Arabia might endanger global trade routes through the Red Sea to Suez), and too sacred (the US does not want to put its soldiers anywhere near the Saudi-controlled holy cities of Mecca or Medina, particularly given the ongoing American support for Israel’s control of Jerusalem).

As such, the Bush administration saw the de-Baathification of Iraq – i.e. the disempowerment of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, and by extension the empowerment of Iraq’s Shiite Arab majority and Sunni Kurds –  as the next best way to weaken the regional position of the Sunnis and Sunni Arabs in general and both Iraq and Saudi Arabia in particular. Indeed, the United States had already spent the decade prior to 2003 helping to build up the strength of Iraqi Kurdistan in defiance of Saddam Hussein’s government, and wanted to ensure that this work would not be undone by the Sunnis in Iraq and neighbouring Turkey who most fear Kurdish separatism.

2. To turn the United States into the dominant power in the Middle East over the short-to-medium term, by temporarily taking control of Iraq and its massive conventional oil and gas resources (the world’s third and seventh largest, respectively, according to the US Energy Information Agency), and by using Iraq as a platform from which it could put pressure on neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. There are a number of reasons why control of Iraq seemed necessary, or at least useful, for this purpose:

– eastern Saudi Arabia, which borders Iraq, is where most Saudi oil and gas is located, yet it is a Shiite-majority region in an otherwise Sunni-majority country

– western Iran, which borders Iraq, is where much of Iran’s oil and gas is located, yet it is a majority Arab, Kurdish, Azeri, and Lur region in an otherwise Persian-majority country. (Ethnic Persians only make up an estimated 50-65 percent of Iran’s population). The Arab region of Iran, Khuzestan, is particularly energy-rich and vulnerable to Iraqi intrusion.

– eastern Syria, which borders Iraq, is where most of Syria’s oil is located, yet it is a majority Sunni Arab and Kurdish region in a country ruled by the non-Sunni government of the Assad family

– Kuwait, as the events leading up to the First Gulf War in 1990 showed, is incredibly vulnerable to external Iraqi pressure. Kuwait is the world’s eighth or ninth largest oil producer. Though it is majority Sunni country, it also has a large Shiite minority – perhaps 20-25 percent of its total population – most of whom live in the areas where most of Kuwait’s oil is extracted or exported from. In addition, Kuwait’s population of non-Arab, and often non-Muslim, foreign workers now outnumbers its own citizens by a decent amount.

– Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, both of which also share the Persian Gulf with Iraq and are also among the world’s leading oil or natural gas producers, are in a somewhat similar position to Kuwait, albeit with less direct exposure to Iraqi influence

– Jordan, which borders Iraq, has in effect a Palestinian-majority population, yet is ruled over by a royal family that was brought in from faraway Mecca by the British in the 1920s. The Jordanian royal family has survived mainly via an alliance with the US, Britain, Israel, and the Gulf Arabs. It shares a long border with Israel, from which Jerusalem is only 25 km away, and with Syria, from which Damascus is only 75 km away. Back in 2003, Jordanian politics were crucial to Israel and its allies within the United States, as Israel was then in the midst of the Second Intifada (from 2000-2005), a guerilla war which was many times more deadly to Israelis than any of the Gaza or Lebanon wars since have been

– eastern Turkey, which borders Iraq, is where most of the dams on the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, from which Iraq and eastern Syria derive most of their freshwater, are located. It is also where the Turks hope to build energy pipelines linking both the Middle East and Central Asia to Istanbul and Europe. It is, however, a majority Kurdish region, in an otherwise Turkish-majority country. Kurds in Turkey account for an estimated 20 percent of Turkey’s overall population, and for more than half of the overall Kurdish population that spans Tukrey, Iraq, Iran, and to a lesser extent Syria.

– eastern Turkey also borders Azerbaijan and the Christian countries of Armenia and Georgia. Armenia is an enemy of Turkey and ally of both Russia and the US, while Georgia is an enemy of Russia and an ally of the US. Azerbaijan, which fought a terrible war against Armenia during the 1990s, is a significant state in its own right: it is the world’s 20th largest oil producer, borders Russia’s separatist-inclined Muslim territories like Chechnya and Dagestan, and, most importantly, borders the Azeri-majority regions of Iran. Azeris account for perhaps as much as 25 percent of Iran’s entire population; indeed, Azerbaijan has even toyed with the idea of renaming itself “Northern Azerbaijan”, implying that Iran is in direct occupation of “Southern Azerbaijan”. Iran’s Azeris are linguistically about the same as those in Azerbaijan, and not too different from Turks in Turkey.

[Azerbaijan is also the world’s only formally secular Shiite state, which means that the religious Shiite Iranian regime, which rules an Iranian population that includes an increasingly large number of modern-minded Shiites as well as many Sunni, Sufi, and secular Muslims, views the Azeris as a major social and ideological threat as well. Thus Azerbaijan, which is less than 300 km from Iraq, is strategically important in spite of having a population of just around 10 million. Azerbaijan is, finally, the only link for future Turkish-European pipelines to cross the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, which has been thought to hold the world’s fourth largest accessible reserves of natural gas.]

Iraq, in other words, is not just immensely energy-rich: it is also far and away the most strategically vital country in the Middle East, capable of pressuring all of the countries it borders – Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, and beyond – when it is internally unified or under the domination of a foreign power.

The United States hoped to exploit both of these traits in order to throw its weight around within the region and attempt to prevent a second major terrorist attack from occurring on American soil. This is, similarly, why Iraq continues to draw global attention today. The recent US decision to cut a deal with Iran was in made in part because of the gains that ISIS – representing some of the Sunni Arabs – and the Sunni Kurds have made within Iraq.

None of this necessarily changes the fact that the Iraq War was arguably a strategic mistake for the United States, and possibly a moral failure as well. Still, it may be comforting to know that, contrary to popular belief, the reasons behind the invasion were not entirely incoherent or sinister (or at least, not incoherent or sinister in the ways that people have generally assumed they were). And perhaps we should not judge Bush too harshly for concealing his true purposes. After all, Obama cloaked his support for Syria’s rebels in precisely the same anti-tyranny, anti-WMD rhetoric that Bush once employed towards Iraq, consistently avoiding the fact that the rebels’ success benefited the United States by curtailing Iranian influence in places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.

And now that Assad has weakened, Obama finds himself again with the same dilemma as Bush, wanting to move closer to the Shiites and/or Persians in the region in order to counterbalance the dominant Sunnis and/or Arabs, yet also concerned that this will result in increased Sunni militancy, a destabilized Arabia, and an ascendant Turkey or Iran.

Of course, this is not what the (Jeb) Bush’s or (Hilary) Clintons say. With those two running for office, we could be in for yet another round of Iraq War misdirection. May the best candidate win.

Image of the Day — November 26, 2015 — Clash of “Civilizations”

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(Eastern Christian Orthodox countries include Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, etc.; Turkic Muslim countries are Turkey, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Northern Cyprus. For Turkey, the two most important Christian Orthodox countries are Russia and Greece.           …take these numbers with a grain of salt though, it’s hard to be sure of these things, particularly when going back a few decades and looking at large closed-off economies like the former Soviet Union)

Image of the Day, November 24, 2015: Turkish-Russian Geopolitics

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(above — Black Sea drainage basin; below — Volga river drainage basin)

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Russian-Turkish Geopolitics:

The economies of Russia and Ukraine depend on exporting bulk goods like oil, coaliron oregrainuranium, and manufactured goods. The easiest way for Russia and Ukraine to transport these goods is via ship or barge rather than by truck or train, for a number of reasons:

  • ships are generally the most efficient way of moving bulk goods long distances
  • the railways of Russia and Ukraine use a different gauge than those of other European countries and so do not directly connect to one another in most cases
  • most of the import markets for grain are in North Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia, and most of the import markets for goods like coal, iron ore, and Russian-made or Ukrainian-made weapons are in Asia
  • relying on land transport would make Russia and Ukraine dependent on Eastern and Central European nations like Poland, Romania, Italy, and especially Germany. It might also make Russia reliant on Ukraine or Belarus, which sit in between Russia and European markets.
  • The Volga-Don river system (the two rivers are connected to one another via a canal, next to Volgograd – formerly Stalingrad – which solves the problem of the Volga flowing into the landlocked Caspian Sea) is where nine of Russia’s sixteen largest cities are located, including Moscow
  • The Volga and Don rivers in Russia and the Dnieper and Dniester rivers in Ukraine are wide, deep, long, and relatively slow-flowing, and as such can be used by large vessels. Moreover, their extreme width – they are often about 5 km across, and far wider than that in many places – has made building bridges across them expensive, further constraining land transport alternatives.The Volga and Dnieper are especially visible in the satellite image below:

Russia and Ukraine have two main options for their water transport: via the Baltic Sea or via the Black Sea. The Baltic route has a number of crucial limitations too:

  • Ukraine does not border it directly, and Russia barely borders it directly
  • It generally freezes over a lot during the winter, particularly the Gulf of Finland where Russia’s main access to it, next to St Petersburg, is located
  • The populations of Russia and Ukraine mainly live in areas where the rivers flow towards the Black Sea rather than the Baltic
  • Accessing the Atlantic Sea via the Baltic would make Russia dependent on Baltic Sea powers like Germany, the Scandinavians, and perhaps even Poland, Finland, or Britain
  • The Baltic is an extraordinarily out-of-the-way route for exporting grain to the Middle East and Asia, or other goods and commodities to Asia
  • Most of landlocked central and eastern Russia and all of Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia are located much closer to the Black Sea than to the Baltic

If Russia and Ukraine are to use the Black Sea to reach international markets, however, they must be able to ensure passage through the gulfs on either side of the Crimean Peninsula, as well as through the narrow Turkish Straits next to Istanbul and through the Aegean Sea occupied by Turkey, Greece, and the Greek islands. Given that in recent years Russia has seized Crimea from Ukraine, involved itself militarily in south-eastern Ukraine, and built up the area around Sochi along the Black Sea, while at the same time Turkey’s economy has expanded and Greece’s has practically collapsed, the relationship between the Russians and the Turks has now become of particularly great importance.

Some other Turkish-Russian issues to watch:

  • The Syrian Civil War, which Russia has entered into more directly in recent weeks, and in which Russia and Turkey generally find one another on opposite sides
  • Turkey has become Russia’s main vacation destination. With Russia’s population aging and desiring to get away from Russia’s dark, cold, long winters, and with the recent Sinai peninsula attack on the Russian plane flying out of the resort haven of Sharm el Sheik threatening Russian tourism to Egpyt, which is Russia’s second largest vacation destination, this is a big issue.
  • More than 10 percent of Russia’s population is Muslim, and Russia also has a sphere of influence in Muslim Central Asia, in resource-rich Turkic countries like Kazakstan (where very large numbers of Russians live), Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
  • Turkey wants to wean itself off its dependence on importing Russian energy, and then eventually supplant Russia as Europe’s energy supplier by connecting European markets to the energy producers in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, and Central Asia
  • Turkey and Russia have both historically wanted influence in Bulgaria, a Slavic Christian Orthodox country, and Greece, a Christian Orthodox country. Russia has  looked to these countries as a source of leverage over Turkey, since the city of Istanbul is exposed to the borders of both and reliant on passage through the Greek Aegean. Bulgaria and Greece could also provide Russia with a winter vacation destination and, if intermodal transportation can become more efficient, a way to access the Mediterranean without passing through the Turkish Straits.
  • The Balkans continues to have tensions between Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim groups – with the Orthodox closer to Russia and the Muslim ones to Turkey – and between Slavic and non-Slavic groups. Meanwhile, the Caucasus continue to have serious tensions between Christian Armenia, which is close to Russia and despises Turkey, and Turkic Muslim Azerbaijan, which is close to Turkey. Turkey and Russia are also the only two countries apart from Azerbaijan and Armenia to border Georgia, and in the past Russia has accused Georgia and Turkey of helping groups in the Russian Caucasus in places like Chechnya.

Europe and Arabia: A Geopolitical Perspective

As different as the Quran is from the New Testament, or the Constitution of France is from the Constitution of Saudi Arabia (which is, in fact, the Quran), these differences are arguably less important than those which seperate the geography of Europe from the geography of the Arab world.

Europe is a region of islands, peninsulas, mountains, rivers, forests, and marshes: natural barriers that have historically hindered the development of a unified European identity. The Arab world, on the other hand, is in effect an enormous coastal desert, stretching for nearly 8000 km from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and yet, with the exception of some notable mountain ranges around its edges, containing few internal barriers of any sort. This comparatively open landscape of the Arab world has allowed it to achieve a level of linguistic, religious, and cultural unity that Europe has rarely if ever been able to match.

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While the Desert and its coastal seas act as unifying force within the Arab world, the fact that significant supplies of freshwater can be found in just a few scattered areas within its gigantic territory (mostly in mountains, as in Morocco, Algeria, and Yemen, or in rivers, as in Egypt, Sudan, and Iraq) has meant that the pan-Arab identity it has fostered must compete with a wide assortment of intra-Arab identities, which in most cases have been far better than pan-Arabism at winning the allegiances of their inhabitantsIn addition, the geographic division between the Middle East and North Africa has led to sharp ethno-linguistic and political divisions between Arab and Berber peoples within countries like Morocco and Algeria.

The desert geography has also tended to make the Arab world relatively poor. This too is in stark contrast to Europe, which has become rich as a result of the commercial navigability provided by its numerous slow-flowing rivers, long coastlines, and sheltered seas and fjords, as well as by its luck in possessing a temperate climate and natural resources like freshwater, farmland, timber, and coal — and proximity to the natural riches of the Americas that it was able to access and exploit.

These opposing geographies have underlain the great historical contest between the “civilizations” Europe and the Arab world have cultivated for themselves. The advantage was first with Europe, arguably, as Italy, led by Rome, was able to conquer the entire Mediterranean basin as well as Mesopotamia, defeating the Carthaginians (a powerful Semitic empire based out of what is now the Arab state of Tunisia, which had controlled much of North Africa and Spain and was ethnically linked to the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean) and other African and Middle Eastern groups in the process. Even following the decline of the Christian Roman Empire, most of the inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa continued to be ruled by Rome’s successor, the Greek-led Byzantine Empire (which was also Christian), for several hundred years.

Eventually the tables turned, however, and around 600 CE the Arabian Peninsula united under Muhammad and then expanded its control outward during the rule of his immediate successors, quickly conquering Spain, most of France (for a very brief period), and a large part of Asia. In turn, the Arabs were invaded and occupied by Central Asian groups like the Mongols and Turks; however, in a sign of Arab influence, most of the conquering Turks ended up adopting the religion of the conquered Arabs, and long outlasted the Mongols.

While the Arabs then lost their beloved Spain after a more than 700 year long struggle with Christian forces to keep hold of it, the Muslim Ottoman Turks made up for the loss by conquering all of southeastern Europe as far as the Austrian capital of Vienna, which they besieged in 1529 and again in 1683. Muslims also continued to spread the faith into Southeast Asia: many of the ancestors of people living in what is now Indonesia, which today has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world by far, adopted Islam during the 1400’s, almost a millennium after the death of Muhammad.

Of course, the Europeans ultimately regained the advantage over their Muslim neighbours. During the late 1400’s the Portuguese first sailed a route to India which avoided passing through Turkish or Arab-held territory, while, around the same period, the Spanish reached the Americas and the Russians surged into Muslim Turkic Central Asia, conquering territory they mostly continue to hold today. The greatest blow to Islam then fell in the 1700’s and 1800’s, as the Muslim Mughal Empire, which at its height had governed over almost a quarter of the world’s population, lost its hold on the Indian subcontinent to the British. The colonizing Europeans also took over Muslim populations in places like Africa and Southeast Asia.

During the 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Ottoman Turks forfeited southeastern Europe and the Arab world in a series of assaults aimed at them by European powers like the British, French, Russians, and Austrians. The Persian empire was heavily intruded upon by both the British and Russians. Finally, in the 1970s, the last super-sized Islamic state, Pakistan, was divided into two separate countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which do not even border one another anymore since India lies between them. Today Pakistan and Bangladesh are the world’s sixth and eighth most populous countries, respectively.

For many people, the battle between Europe and Arabia, or between the West and Islam, continues to this day. After losing its main source of wealth when Europe stole the control of trade with India and China away from it, most of the Middle East seemed likely to become somewhat irrelevant to global politics. Instead, it gained a new source of wealth in the modern era: oil. As recently as 2010, more than 15 percent of world oil production occurred in Saudi Arabia alone, while an additional 15 – 20 percent occurred in other Arab countries and 40-50 percent occurred in the Muslim world as a whole.

The Muslim world also accounts for close to a third of world natural gas production (led by Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria), and is estimated to possess over 60 percent of the world’s “conventional” proven reserves of natural gas (not including gas from shale) as well as over 50 percent of non-shale oil reserves and over 75 percent of oil reserves that are neither from shale nor from oil sands.

Today, partly as a result of the energy wealth it has gained during the past century, the Arab world has a population of approximately 380 million (in contrast to a century ago, when its population was significantly smaller than even any of the major European nation-states were at the time, without even counting the Europeans’ overseas empires) and a nominal gross domestic product of just under 3 trillion dollars. This means that, if the Arab world could somehow reunite politically, it would have the third largest population and fifth largest economy in the world. It would, in other words, become a Great Power again.

Needless to say, few of the Arab world’s neighbours want to see any serious pan-Arab union come into being. Arab unification was in fact very briefly attempted in modern times, in a formal sense, with the joining of Egypt and Syria to form the United Arab Republic, which lasted from 1958 to 1961. From a purely geopolitical perspective, the potential of such cooperation between Arab countries is especially worrying to regions like Europe because of the Arab world’s shared religious identity – and to a lesser extent, shared cultural traditions and linguistic affiliations – with other parts of the Middle East and Muslim world.

(The “classical” version of the Arab language, which is understood by scholars and clerics in every country of the Islamic world –  and by many other people too, to varying extents – because it is the language of the Quran, is one potentially important example of a unifying factor throughout the Middle East).

If combined with non-Arab Middle Eastern neighbours Turkey and Iran, the population of the Arab world would rise to more than 530 million and its GDP would rise to more than 4 trillion dollars. The states that comprise the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, meanwhile, have a combined population of approximately 1.6 billion and a GDP of approximately 7 trillion dollars — and they do not even include the estimated 180 million Muslims living in India, 25 million living in China, 16 million in Russia, or 20 million living in the European Union.

While in the West there is much talk of the Muslim world being stuck in an economic decline, Muslims actually continue to have a higher per capita income than Hindus do, or than Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa do. Many Muslim countries have a higher per capita income than China does, even today following decades of rapid Chinese economic growth. The past decade has in fact been a terrific one for most Muslim economies, with oil and gas prices rising sharply, the developing world as a whole growing solidly, and a number of countries with large Muslim populations, most notably Indonesia, Turkey, India, and Nigeria, growing very quickly.

Apart from economic growth, the Muslim world’s geopolitical trajectory has also been positive in the past generation, mainly as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union having freed about 60 – 90 million Central Asian Muslims (the exact number depends on whether or not you count  Afghanistan as part of Soviet-occupied Central Asia) from Russian rule, along with the resource-rich, centrally-located region of Eurasia they inhabit.

Since then, some Muslims have been hoping or pushing for a further Islamic geopolitical revival, which many non-Muslim countries would obviously not be happy to see. Pan-Islamic sentiments have, to varying extents, found their way into local and regional disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world, in places like Kashmir, western China, Palestine/Israel, various African countries, various Southeast Asian countries, the Caucuses (both within Russia and without), and the Balkans. Arguably, technologies like the Internet have been strengthening pan-Islamic identities as well.

The West has, of course, generally aimed to gain influence within the Arab world, in part to prevent it from ever becoming too closely united. Europe, Russia, and the US have historically been focused on gaining influence in Egypt, for example, as Egypt has by far the largest population of any Arab country, is more internally stable and united than any other large Arab country, and is strategically located, sitting directly in the centre of the Arab world and encompassing the Suez Canal.

The West has also focused on gaining influence in the Persian Gulf, in particular by allying itself closely with the tiny energy-rich Gulf monarchies (Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain), as well as with  the royal family of Saudi Arabia and, not too far away, the Israelis, the Iraqi Kurds, and the royal family of Jordan. Given that the West is in some ways more powerful today than at any time in history (largely as a result of the rise of the US, which was completed with the fall of the Soviet Union), and that the Persian Gulf region is sharply divided between Arabs and Iranians, Sunnis and Shiites, and Iraqis and Saudis, gaining influence there has not been too difficult for the West to achieve.

And so, even leaving aside social values or issues explicitly tied to religious belief, many Arabs believe the West is acting unjustly or aggressively towards them. Most believe that the current political borders of the Middle East are artificial, imposed on them a century ago by ignorant or sinister British and French politicians. There is certainly truth to this, though, in defence of the British and French, some of the borders that were drawn actually did accurately reflect some of the existing social and geographic divisions within the Arab world.

With a number of possible exceptions, such as Kuwait and Lebanon (which arguably should not have been created as independent states), Israel and Palestine (which arguably should have been created as a single state, perhaps even including neighbouring Jordan as well), and Kurdistan (which arguably should be created out of parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, though even this is more complicated than it is often portrayed), it is not clear that the borders in the Middle East could actually be all that improved upon. But of course, this is a topic worth debating in much greater detail.

It is also not only the Christian world that has been responsible for messing with the “natural” borders of Arab lands. Iran and Turkey, for instance, both refuse to give up Arab-inhabited regions of the Fertile Crescent they possess; a more consistent geographic or cultural rendering of Middle Eastern borders should perhaps have included Turkey handing over its province of Hatay to Syria (as Syria still officially claims it should) and Iran handing over its province of Khuzestan to Iraq.

Yet most people who complain of Western-imposed artificiality among the borders of the Arab world are not concerned with either of these areas, even though both are significant to the politics of the region (especially Khuzestan). Indeed, while Arab bitterness toward Europe’s past imperialism remains wholly justifiable, complaints of imperialistic European map-drawing in the Arab world nevertheless tend to be somewhat exaggerated. If you want to see truly unfair and dangerously-drawn borders the Europeans were responsible for, you should not even begin to think of the Middle East, but look instead to regions like West Africa or Central Asia.

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China’s Hidden Regionacracy, part 1: China’s Borderlands

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How can one measure China’s economic stability? In the West, it is common to look to Hong Kong and Tibet as litmus tests of the strength of the central Chinese government. While it is true that both Hong Kong and Tibet are very important places, their combined populations do not account for even one percent of China’s overall inhabitants.

To get a better sense of China’s stability, then, one must also examine the other areas of China where the dictates of the central government are most likely to be resisted. Arguably, these include the following six regions: Southwestern China (namely, the provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou, plus the “Autonomous Region” of Guangxi), Southeastern China (the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and Hainan), Northeastern China (the provinces of Heilongxiang and Jilin), the Sichuan plateau (the province of Sichuan and “Direct-controlled Municipality” of Chongqing), and the “Autonomous Regions” of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

These regions have a total population of over half a billion. They are home to a majority of China’s 120 million or so ethnic minorities, 300-400 million speakers of languages other than Mandarin, tens of millions of speakers of dialects of Mandarin that are relatively dissimilar to the Beijing-based standardized version of Mandarin, 20-30 million Muslims, 50-100 million recent adopters of Christianity, and tens of millions of family members of the vast worldwide Chinese diaspora.

Together, these regions form a cordon around the flat, triangle-shaped Chinese heartland that extends for more than a thousand kilometres from Beijing to Shanghai, where most of the rest of China’s population lives. Several other provinces, meanwhile, such as Shanxi, Gansu, Hunan, and the Hui Muslim “Autonomous Region” of Ningxia, arguably fall somewhere in between China’s central and peripheral territories, from both a geographical and political perspective.

Along with the high-altitude Tibetan(-Qinghai) Plateau and the Chinese Himalayas, these six peripheral regions possess by far the most rugged, expansive, and insular terrain within China. Their territories consist either of:

  • subtropical hills and mountains (throughout most of Southeastern and Southwestern China)
  • vast semi-desert plateaus (in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia)
  • enormous mountains (in Xinjiang, where mountains cover an area larger than England and regularly reach heights higher than the highest Rockies)
  • mountainous or hilly islands (within the archipelagic coastal waters of Southeastern China, in places like Hong Kong, Macau, Hainan province, Xiamen, Zhoushan, Pingtan County, and nearby Taiwan)
  • mountain-enclosed riverlands (in Sichuan and Northeastern China)

Not surprisingly, Chinese central governments, whether they are controlled by ethnic Han Chinese as is the case today, or else by outside invaders like the Manchu or Japanese as was the case for most of the past half-millenium, have almost always had trouble subduing most or all of these areas.

Indeed, China’s peripheral regions contain all of China’s land borders, which are the longest in the world, more than two thousand kilometres longer than all of Russia’s land borders and well over double the length of the continental United States’. These borders remain almost impossible for the Chinese government to fully control, not only because of their incredible length and difficult terrain, but also because they are located an average of between one and a half thousand and three thousand kilometers away from the Chinese heartland. Only two significant railway lines cross the western half of this enormous distance as of yet.

Complicating matters further, China’s borders are shared with fourteen different countries, nearly all of which possess either ethnolinguistic or religious ties with the areas of China they are adjacent to. These include:

  • the long Himalayan border that separates Tibet from India, Nepal, and Bhutan, across which the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leadership resides
  • the even longer border that seperates Inner Mongolia (where more than one-fifth of the population are ethnic Mongols) and Xinjiang from the country of Mongolia (which in turn shares a three and a half thousand kilometer-long border with Russia)
  • the Manchurian-Korean border, where China is terrified of millions of refugees flowing in from North Korea in the event of a disaster there, and where nearly two million people living in the Manchurian provinces of Heilongxiang and Jilin are already Korean
  • the twin Siberian borders with Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria; Xinjiang’s borders with Khazakstan, Kyrgystan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir, where, as in Xinjiang, a plurality of the population is Muslim and/or ethnolinguistically Turkic
  • the southeastern and southwestern Chinese borders with Southeast Asia, throughout which there is a diaspora of tens of millions of southern Chinese, and where ethnic minority populations span both sides of China’s borders with countries like Myanmar and Vietnam.

As the economies of these peripheral Chinese regions as well as China’s neighbouring countries emerge, as in recent years many have begun to do at a faster pace than the Chinese economy has as a whole, they may deepen this array of cross-border relationships, and in turn could undermine efforts by China’s central government to enforce national unity within the huge Chinese economic and political system. The Chinese have certainly been worried about their neighbours within the relatively recent past: China sacrificed hundreds of thousands of its citizens during the Korean War in the 1950’s and then thousands during the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979, which, as a point of comparison, may be more casualties than the United States has suffered in all of the wars it has ever fought put together.

Since the 1980’s, however, as the China-US alliance took root and the Chinese economy began rapidly expanding, and as the economic growth of most of China’s neighbours collapsed in the early 1990’s (Japan and the Soviet Union), late 1990’s (South Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and British-era Hong Kong), or during the the 2008 global recession (Russia, Japan, Taiwan, Europe, and North America), while around the same time the power of China’s English-speaking rivals became preoccupied with Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the 2000’s, China has not had to worry about its borderlands nearly so much.

This is not to say that these regions were problem-free during this period. The Chinese government has in fact been concerned with many of them, including, for example:

Yet all such risks proved to be manageable ones, eased as they were by the amazing Chinese economic boom that was then still in full swing, and by the fact that China, which until 2010 still had an economy thought to be smaller than Japan’s, had not yet attracted the full attention of other powers intent on containing it.

Lately, in contrast, just as the United States has been disengaging from Afghanistan and Iraq and the economies of the US and Britain have begun speeding up again following their multi-year post-recession slog, and just as Japan, which continues to have the third largest economy in the world by a large margin, has finally begun to rebuild its will to implement an aggressive economic stimulus program and outwardly post-pacifistic foreign policy, many of China’s peripheral provinces and most of the countries surrounding China either grew or accelerated their economies at a faster pace than did the overall Chinese economy, which has slowed significantly in recent years.

In some of these areas, for instance on both sides of the border between south-western China and northern and eastern India, growth in 2014 accelerated at a much faster pace than in China as a whole. While China’s overall economic growth nevertheless remains quite strong compared to most of the rest of Asia and the world – at least, according to Beijing’s own official estimates, which admittedly are dubious – this constellation of recent trends does not bode well for its central government going forward.

Why Israel Won’t Let the West Bank Go

let my people go

Most of Israel’s critics argue that any Israeli claim to the moral high ground is compromised by the fact that the Israeli military has been dominating the West Bank since 1967, thereby denying the Palestinians the ability to ever form their own state. While of course there is some truth to this argument, it nevertheless ignores a critical point: Israel believes it must control the West Bank, at least for now, in order to ensure its own continued safety over the long-term.

Even though religion is the key motivator for most of the Jews and Christians who have settled or support Jewish settlement within the West Bank, Israel’s desire to control the West Bank is not ultimately rooted in religion, but rather in physical geography and presumed strategic necessity.

By dominating the West Bank, Israel gains control over the Jordan Rift Valley, a steep-walled, incredibly deep canyon containing a number of the points on earth that are the furthest below sea level, through which the Jordan River (which is really more like a stream) flows into the Dead Sea. The rift valley has historically served as an excellent defensive barrier against invasion or incursion. Israel uses it both as a defensive border with Jordan and as a barrier separating the estimated three million Palestinians living in Jordan from the three million Palestinians living in the West Bank. Israel is hardly alone in wanting control over this valley: about seven different African states also use the Jordan Rift Valley (in Africa it is called the Great East African Rift Valley) as an international border.

Even more important, the West Bank allows Israel to control the hills and highlands that surround Jerusalem on three sides and directly overlook nearly every other major Israeli city. The average elevation of a West Bank hill is about 700-1000 metres above sea level.  Tel Aviv, in contrast, sits roughly at sea level, with its downtown core just 20 km away from the West Bank and with a number of its suburban areas, like Modi’in or Rosh Ha’ayin, within 2 – 10 km of the West Bank. The Jordan Rift Valley, meanwhile, sits around 200-400 metres below sea level. And the centre of Jerusalem is within 2-4 km of the West Bank in every direction except due west.

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(Source: The Economist)

Managing the West Bank also lets Israel have control over any movement between West Bank Palestinians and Palestinians living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, the latter of whom account for an estimated 20 percent of all Israeli citizens. Most Israeli Arabs outside of Jerusalem live in a region of hills and low mountains that is just around 20-60 km north of the West Bank, within which they make up about 50-75 percent of the regional population. This region also happens to be strategically crucial for Israel, as it borders Lebanon and overlooks Haifa (Israel’s largest port and third largest city) and the Jezreel Valley, the latter being Israel’s route to the the Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights, which is where the majority of Israeli freshwater is located and which serves as a relatively defensible Israeli border with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, then, is most likely the result of Israel’s intense desire for security, rather than the result of the Israeli government being a uniquely radical one. Indeed, it is possible that the Israeli government’s support for religious Jewish civilians settling the West Bank is based for the most part on the notion that these settlers are likely to help cement Israel’s strategic control over the region, rather than being a result of, as most critics of Israel believe, the Israeli government’s having been cowed or infiltrated by religious Jewish extremists. Of course, this does not mean that extremist views have not also become much too influential within Israeli politics.

The idea that Israel faces meaningful threats is not some outdated relic from the earlier days of Zionism when the country’s power was not yet fully-formed. To the contrary, it was only a decade or so ago, between 2001 and 2005, that a thousand Israelis were killed by Palestinian militants, most of them in suicide attacks. Relative to the size of Israel’s population, that would be the equivalent of about 45,000 Americans being killed, roughly nine times more than have died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. In addition, Israeli attacks during this conflict claimed the lives of an even larger number of Palestinians.

Perhaps more worrying than the prospect of another intifadah, however, is the possibility – however unlikely – that Israel could suffer thousands or even millions of casualties by militant groups or individuals armed with weapons of mass destruction. This threat too may inform Israel’s continuing presence in the West Bank. If, for example, a country that has nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan, were ever to collapse into extreme chaos, one of Israel’s main defences would probably be to seal its own borders, and perhaps also to establish buffer zones in areas like the eastern Sinai Desert or southern Lebanon, until it could ascertain whether or not any such weapons were likely to have gone missing.  The goal would be to protect its core territories between Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Be’ersheva.

This strategy might be an effective one, not only because Israeli borders are fairly short and carefully guarded, but also since it is extremely challenging to properly adapt a nuclear weapon for a missile – particularly a long-range missile – and because Israel has a relatively sophisticated missile defence system that it hopes to continue to improve over time. The weak link in the defence, however, could be the Palestinian territories, in which there are long-established smuggling, militant, and short-range missile networks as well as borders which are adjacent to major Israeli cities.

The West Bank poses a danger in this sense, because it directly borders and surrounds Jerusalem, overlooks the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Be’ersheva, and has a long external border with both Israel and Palestinian-inhabited Jordan. Indeed, the West Bank’s border with Jordan is more than 10 times longer than Gaza’s border with Egypt; the West Bank’s border with Israel is more than 6 times longer than Gaza’s. As such, Israel’s ability to respond to a nuclear threat arguably appears to depend on its ability to control the border of, or movement within, the West Bank. If you think this sounds paranoid, you may or may not be right – but still it is not surprising that security officials who live in dangerous places like Israel often think this way. The memory of the Holocaust also looms large in these considerations.

This does not mean that there is not a strong religious current running through the Israeli government and helping to drive its policy of expanded settler activity, or that the Israeli government’s alliance with portions of the religious right-wing is not a cynical one. Indeed, by issuing a claim on the West Bank that appears to be irrational – namely, that Israel has a right to it because Jews controlled it during parts of the Biblical era, or that God Himself granted it to the Jewish people – the religious right often dilutes and, in effect, undermines the true security-based explanation for Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

Given that Israeli politicians understand Israel’s security situation extremely well, as many are themselves former military commanders or security officials, this also suggests that the Israeli government has been at least somewhat disingenuous with regard to the offers it has extended for a two-state solution in recent years or decades. Unless real trust is formed between Jews and Palestinians, or unless Israeli technology reaches such an advanced state that geographically-rooted security considerations are finally rendered meaningless, it seems unlikely that the Israeli leadership would ever remove its military from the West Bank in its entirety. Israel might not even be willing to remove much of its civilian settler population within the West Bank, as that can double as a security and intelligence force or political bargaining chip in times of crisis. The government’s offers to do so during peace talks, therefore, were perhaps never wholly intended to succeed, but may instead have been extended mainly in order to placate outside observers like the United States and Israeli peacenicks.

Clearly, the Israeli government has made, and continues to make, important mistakes. Many of its actions may even be cruel or counterproductive. Still, it is worth remembering that the primary motivation for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is its very real and plausibly even existential security concerns, rather than its religious land-claims or nationalistic expansionism. The geopolitics of Israelis and Palestinians are simply intertwined now, and both must somehow find a way to make the best of a very dangerous – and, especially for the Palestinians, very tragic – situation. Getting God out of politics might be a good place to start.

 

 

 

 

Internal Chinese Geopolitics, part 1

How can one measure China’s stability? In the West, it is common to look to Hong Kong and Tibet as litmus tests of the strength of the central Chinese government. While it is true that Hong Kong and Tibet are important places — Hong Kong because it one of China’s major financial and service centres, Tibet because it encompasses around 15 percent of China’s territory and contains the headwaters of China’s, India’s, and Southeast Asia’s most important rivers — the inhabitants of Hong Kong and Tibet do not even account for 1 percent of China’s overall population.

To get a better sense of China’s political stability, then, one must also examine the other areas of China where the dictates of the central government in Beijing are most likely to be resisted. Arguably, these include the following seven areas: the Sichuan basin, Southwestern China, Southeastern China, Northeastern China (formerly known as Manchuria), the Shanghai Municipality, and the “Autonomous Regions” of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

With the exception of Shanghai, not a single person born in any of these areas has become the ruling General Secretary of the Communist Party of China or the Premier of the People’s Republic of China. And yet, taken together, these areas have a population of almost 600 million people – close to half of China’s total population. So, let’s take a brief look at each one of them:

The Sichuan Basin –  Population: 111 million

See that red circle in the centre of China’s population density map (pictured below), and the greenish-yellow circle in the centre of China’s physical topography map (pictured below that)? That is the Sichuan basin, which consists of the province of Sichuan (population 81 million) and the city-state of Chongqing (population 30 million).

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Topographic-map-of-China-2005

Close up topography of the Sichuan basin and surrounding areas: 

Physical map of Sichuan.

To the west of the Sichuan basin is the sparsely populated Tibetan plateau, which is more than 4000 metres higher above sea level than Sichuan is (to put that into context, the tallest building in Manhattan is only 540 metres tall). South and southeast of Sichuan there are mountains and plateaus that are about 1000 metres higher than Sichuan. To the east there are also mountains, which separate Sichuan from the middle reaches of the Yangtze River valley, where the elevation is about 350 meters below that of Sichuan. And to the north there are a series of high mountain ranges and narrow valleys that have historically helped to insulate Sichuan from the northeastern coastal plain where most Chinese people live.

The Sichuan basin’s geographic insularity and large population (larger than any single Chinese province) have historically made it one of China’s more independent-minded regions. In the 3rd century AD, for instance, during China’s famous Three Kingdoms era, a state basically corresponding to modern-day Sichuan was one of China’s three independent political entities (see left map below). A somewhat similar thing occurred in the 10th century AD (see right map below).

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More recently, Sichuan played a significant role during the Xinhai Revolution just prior to WW1, which overthrew China’s last emperor, and during the “Warlord Era” which followed it. Sichuan then became a critical component of the Communist Party’s rebellion against the ruling Chinese Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War from 1927 – 1950. Mao’s infamous “Long March” went through the outskirts of Sichuan province, for example, and one of the two largest original Communist armies during the Civil War, led by Mao’s rival Zhuang Guotao, was based there as well. Finally, after the Communists turned the tables on the Nationalists, gaining the upper hand in the Civil War, Sichuan ended up becoming the last base of the Chinese Nationalist leadership prior to its retreat to the island of Taiwan in 1949.

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Sichuan, in other words, often became a centre of resistance against whichever group, whether Chinese or foreign, happened to be ruling China at the time. Indeed, when the Japanese controlled much of China during WW2, Chongqing even became the official capital city of the parts of China that were still free of Japanese control (see map above). Much more recently, during the protests of 1989, there were actually two, rather than just one, major government crackdowns: one in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which most people in the West have heard of, and the other in Sichuan’s capital city of Chengdu, which very few people have heard of.

While it is difficult to speculate on the extent to which the Sichuan region may become a nuisance for China’s central government in the future, there have arguably been some troubling signs of late. Most notably, the two most prominent “purges” of high-ranking Communist Party leaders in recent times were both from the Sichuan basin.

The first was Bo Xiliai, the leader of Chongqing, who many had thought might become China’s next top leader, but instead was exiled from the Communist Party and given a life sentence in prison on a corruption charge in 2012, following a curious, alleged incident involving his wife, the Chongqing chief of police, and the murder of a British businessman.

The second was Zhou Yongkang, the former leader of Sichuan province, who was arrested on corruption charges in late 2014, only a few months ago, becoming the first member of China’s seven-person Politburo Standing Committee (the top leadership of the entire country) to be expelled from the Party since the 1980s. Many of Sichuan’s other top leaders have recently been targeted by the central government on corruption investigations as well, because of their associations with Zhou. Of course, the fact that Bo and Zhou were both the most powerful modern leaders the Sichuan basin has seen might just be a coincidence, having more to do with personal politics within the Communist Party than regional geopolitics within China as a whole. But it is somewhat suspicious nonetheless.

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Politically, in spite of the region’s large population, not one person born in Sichuan or Chongqing currently holds a position in any of the 43 positions in the Communist Party’s Politburo, Secretariat, or Central Military Commission, at or around the top levels of China’s political hierarchy.

And yet, all of the previous recent Communist Party leaders of Chongqing (none of whom were actually born in the region) have gone on to some of the top jobs in the entire country. Three of the past four have even become members in China’s Politburo Standing Committee, the 7-man group which de facto holds the highest Party positions of all. And before them, Deng Xiaoping, by far the most infamous post-WW2 Chinese leader apart from Mao, served as Mayor of Chongqing, and was born in one of its suburbs. (Though in Deng’s day Chongqing was more important in China than it is today, since its insular location had allowed it to serve as the capital city of “Free China” during the Japanese occupation of eastern China in WW2).

The promotion of former party chiefs of Chongqing (but not Sichuan, even though Sichuan is much larger) to top positions in the central government in Beijing might also be just a coincidence. It does, however, seem suspiciously like a divide and conquer tactic the government has been using to keep Sichuan and Chongqing apart, by winning Chongqing’s favour. Chongqing holds a particularly strategic position, as it is the spot where the Yangtze River flows out of the mountain-enclosed Sichuan basin, entering into the rest of central China and eventually reaching Shanghai on the Pacific.

Indeed, the reason Chongqing was even made a city-state to begin with — one of only four city-states within mainland China, the others being Beijing, Shanghai, and Beijing’s port city of Tianjin — may be because China’s leaders were worried about having to deal with a politically united Sichuan basin, which prior to Chongqing’s independence from Sichuan in 1997 had been China’s most populous province. This is probably also why the “Municipality” of Chongqing, unlike those of Shanghai, Beijing, or Tianjin, is the only one to have been given large rural areas around it to govern, so that it controls a population of 30 million even though its urban areas are home to around just 10 million.

The current Party chiefs of Chongqing and Sichuan are two of the youngest in the entire country. They are 51 and 58 years old, respectively; most other provincial party chiefs in China are in their sixties or seventies, and the 51-year-old Chongqing leader is actually the youngest of all 25 current members in the country’s Communist Party Politburo. Having the youngest provincial party chiefs or governors is usually not a good sign, since Beijing tends to pick the youngest, most ambitious governors for areas it is most concerned with, the idea being that such governors will be willing to do whatever is necessary in order to maintain order, so that they can later be promoted to one of the Communist Party’s highest offices. Hu Jintao, for instance, had served as the party chief of Tibet prior to becoming a major political figure. Indeed, we will continue to see the pattern of relatively young and ambitious party chiefs and governors in the other potentially trouble-making regions we will discuss in this article.

Finally, also notable is the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008. The earthquake, the epicentre of which was only about 80 km from Sichuan province’s main city of Chengdu (population 14 million), killed an estimated 80,000-90,000 people and caused an enormous amount of physical injury and property damage, leaving 5 – 15 million people homeless. It is one of the deadliest natural disasters in the world in modern times, and the deadliest in China in over three decades. By comparison, that is about 20,00 more casualties than the United States experienced in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam combined.

The Sichuan earthquake was mostly overlooked by people in the West, not only because it took place deep within the unknown Chinese interior, but also because it was overshadowed by a flurry of notable world events that took place during the months immediately following its occurrence, such as the global financial crisis, the first Obama election, the Beijing Olympics, the Russian invasion of Georgia, the first Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza, and the Mumbai terrorist attacks. The same week as the earthquake, in fact, California became the second US state to legalize same-sex marriage, and the debate discussion of this decision even got much more American news coverage than the disaster in Sichuan did.

The earthquake was, however, obviously an event of huge importance within China, and it is still quite fresh in some people’s minds. Its tenth anniversary will be approaching in 2017, the same year as China’s once-a-decade top leadership changeover. Crucially, many Chinese people believe that the central government are at least partly to blame for the earthquake (though it is difficult to know how many people believe this, given Chinese censorship). This is because the government created the gigantic nearby Three Gorges Dam, which finished being constructed just prior to 2008, and many think the weight of the dam – which can produce almost twice the electricity of any other dam in the world – and the reservoir of water it created was the catalyst for the earthquake. (Even before the earthquake, the Dam crushed the previous record for people displaced from their homes by a hydroelectric plant: the number of displaced Chinese was estimated at more than 1.2 million people, most of them from the province of Hubei, which directly borders the Sichuan basin).

And the thing about earthquakes is, of course, that you never fully know when another one is going to happen. If a second large one were to occur and affect Sichuan, it could bring back the memory of 2008 – and potential Sichuanese anger with the central government  – along with it. In fact, this may have already happened to a certain extent: China’s highest-magnitude earthquake since the Big One in 2008 occurred again in Sichuan, in 2013, only about 115 km from Chengdu. It killed an estimated 200 people (according to the Chinese government) and injured more than 10,000.

Southeastern China —  Population 154 million

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In a previous article, we discussed a large number of differences between southern China, where nearly all of the country’s tens of millions of ethnic minorities and hundreds of millions of linguistic minorities live, and northern China, where most of the country’s enormous majority of ethnic Chinese and Mandarin speakers live. So we will try to repeat only some of the basic facts of the region that were discussed there, and then focus specifically on why this part of China could potentially become the most problematic region for the Chinese central government to handle.

Southeastern China consists basically of three provinces: the province of Guangdong (population 107 million), which has the largest population and economy of any Chinese province, and which is the only province which borders Hong Kong; the province of Fujian (population 38 million), which is located directly across the 180 km long Taiwan Straits from Taiwan, speaks the same dialect of Chinese as is spoken in Taiwan, and, in spite of having less than 3 percent of China’s total population, accounts for perhaps 15 percent of all China’s trade with Taiwan (and China trades roughly 40 percent as much with Taiwan alone as it does with the entire US); and finally the province of Hainan (population 9 million), which is the only island province in China. The first bridge linking Hainan to the Chinese mainland (specifically, to Guangdong), is supposed to be finished between 2016 and 2020, and is likely increase Guangdong’s level of influence on the island.

As you can see from the population density map below, southeastern China is very different from northern China, in that its population centres are almost entirely situated on the country’s Pacific coast. The reason for this is that southern China, unlike northern China, has a very difficult climate and topography to deal with – it is extremely hilly, mountainous, often forested, and sub-tropical (see the other two maps below) – so that its population has moved to the only places where economic development was not extremely difficult to achieve, namely the narrow coastal flatlands that sit next to its numerous natural harbours.

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or, for a different perspective of the topographic differences between southeastern China and central-eastern China:

1941_China_from_the_East

Because southern China’s challenging geography has tended to impede internal movement of people and goods – especially in the past, but to a decent extent also in the present – southeastern Chinese coastal cities have also become relatively close to, and dependent on trade with, the outside world, with foreign economies like Japan, the United States, Canada, and Europe, as well as with Taiwan. The relationship between Hong Kong (population 7.2 million) and Britain is of course the most obvious and significant example of this, but it is not the only one. Macau (population 600,000), for instance, on the borders of Guangdong, is a former Portuguese territory that is China’s only “Special Administrative Region” apart from Hong Kong. Macau is also by far the wealthiest of any political subdivision within China, with a per capita nominal income of more than $90,000.

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According to the Economist, Guangdong and Fujian alone account for 30-40 percent of all Chinese exports. Most of China’s gigantic global diaspora – which is 50 million strong, perhaps, and is located all over the world, but particularly in places like North America, Australia, Peru, and especially Southeast Asia – is also from Southeastern China. In fact, it has been estimated that one out of every seven Chinese Americans have their roots in the Guangdong area of Taishan, even though Taishan itself only has around 1 million inhabitants today. More recently, in the 1980s, emigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong came to countries like the US and Canada in very large numbers. If, therefore, globalization forces continue to deepen, and if the economies of Southeast Asia and Taiwan continue to emerge, it could have a huge influence on this part of China, in a sense pulling it away from the rest of China.

Southeast Asia alone is home to an estimated 27 million Chinese people (though admittedly, these statistics vary widely depending on which numbers you trust, and on which criteria you use to define who is and is not “Chinese”, since many have been living in Southeast Asia for many generations now). Southeastern China also directly borders a potentially rapid-growing Vietnamese economy, the capital city of which, Hanoi, is only about 100 -150 km from the southeastern Chinese border, only 400 km from Guangdong’s enormous capital city Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and only 250 km from the Chinese island province of Hainan.

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Along with the adjacent provinces of Hunan, Jiangxi, and Zheijang, Southeastern China also has by far the most intra-Chinese linguistic diversity in the country. In it, non-Mandarin Chinese languages are spoken by an estimated 300 million people (though increasingly, most people are also able to speak the standardized, Beijing-region dialect of Mandarin) — see map below. Like Sichuan, this region has also been politically disenfranchised to a certain extent, with not a single one of China’s 43 positions in the Party’s Politburo, Secretariat, or Central Military Commission held by someone born in Guangdong or Hainan, and only one held by someone born in Fujian. Currently Beijing has also given Guangdong the second youngest party chief (aka party secretary) in the country, a 51-year-old who has spent most of his career working in Tibet.

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Recently, this region has also been slowing economically as a result of the effect that Europe’s and Japan’s stagnant economies have had on demand for its exports. As a result, and also given the recent (and perhaps ongoing) protests in neighbouring Hong Kong, the province of Guangdong should be watched very closely at this time.

Historically, to be sure, Southeastern China has been a huge pain for Chinese central governments. From roughly 200 AD to 500 AD and from 1000 AD to 1200 AD, for example, there was a general north-south political divide in China (see maps below).

china 900 china 200

In modern times, during the anti-emperor Xinhai Revolution prior to WW1, Guangdong and Fujian were two of the original centres of the revolution. Later, in 1925, the Chinese Nationalists (the Kuomintang) set up an alternative Chinese capital city in Guangzhou, Guangdong, and from it successfully led a campaign to overthrow the government in Beijing, at which point the Chinese capital was moved to Nanjing (next to Shanghai).

Only a few years after that, in 1930, there was a very deadly civil war within China, the Central Plains War, which among other things pitted Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, who was ruling out of Nanjing, against Hu Hanmin, who had the support of the Nationalists across Guangdong and the rest of southern China. This rivlary had in fact been presaged by an earlier one in 1922, when the top Nationalist leader at the time, Sun Yat Sen, was forced to flee Guangdong from a different, more regional-minded Nationalist leader, Chen Jiongmin.

Around the same time, the Guangdong capital of Guangzhou was also one of the main bases of the Communist movement in China. The Communists were gaining momentum across various parts of southern China: in 1933, just to give one example, an alliance between a portion of the Communist movement and a portion of the Nationalist movement emerged, leading to the Fujian Rebellion: the creation a self-governing leadership in Fujian province that aimed to overthrow the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-Shek. The provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi, directly on the border of Guangdong, also became very important for the Communists.

Finally, when the Communists took over and were about to win the Chinese Civil War, Guangdong became the final base – along with Sichuan – of the Nationalists prior to their retreat to Taiwan.

While it is probably unwise to make generalizations about Chinese history, there does seem to be a bit of a pattern here: Guangdong, or more broadly southern China, tends to resist centralized Chinese leadership. It has always seemed to lead the anti-government movements in the country, whether it be the anti-imperial uprising against the Qing Dynasty at the begining of the 20th century, the Nationalist move to overthrow the Beiyang government (which had replaced the Qing) in the Northern Expedition, the attempt by regional leaders within the Nationalist movement to get rid of the Nationalist central government of Chiang Kai-Shek that ruled out of Nanjing, the emergence of Communist movements opposed to the ruling Nationalists (with whom they had previously been allied), or, finally, the retreat and resistance of the Nationalists in the face of the ruling Communists.

chinese_provinces-map

The thing which makes southeastern China so potentially difficult for the central Chinese government, however, is not so much its history as it is its wealth. If you take Guangdong and Fujian, and add in neighbouring Taiwan, Hong Kong, Zheijang, and the Municipality of Shanghai (and we will discuss Shanghai later in part two of this article), you get a coastal region with a GDP that, as recently as 2009, was approximately 80 percent as large as the rest of all of mainland China’s other provinces put together.

Such wealth not only gives southeastern China economic influence, but has also made its internal politics complicated – and potentially dangerous – through the creation of divisions between the native inhabitants of the region’s cities, and the migrants from its rural areas and from the rural areas of poorer Chinese provinces, who are in search of work in its cities. Guangdong alone has an estimated 27 percent of China’s inter-provincial migrant population. And in China, “rural-urban” is not only a geographic or demographic distinction, but also a legal designation with significant  financial and social implications. Rural Chinese populations, even when they have moved to urban areas, are generally denied many of the social services, such as subsidized housing or education, which are provided for the native urban populations.

Finally, parts of central-eastern and southeastern China in recent years seem to have become the main centres of China’s potentially enormous transition toward Christianity. Today, according to the Economist, arguably more than 100 million people in China are Christian, up from perhaps as few as 15 million as recently as the 1990’s. If these numbers are accurate, then the growth of Christianity within China during the past two decades represents one of the largest religious adoptions in all of human history. The Economist more recently argued that the relationship between Christianity and the Communist Party in China has been becoming much more tense  in the past year.

Neighbouring Hong Kong has long had a significant Christian population, meanwhile, and remains around 10-15 percent Christian today. A number of the Hong Kong protest organizers were practicing Christians, in fact. And, notably, the Chinese government may have begun to crack down on parts of this growing Christian religion within China during the past year or so.

Southwestern China Population: 120 million

Southwestern China (containing the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and the “Autonomous Region” of Guangxi, one of only two Autonomous Regions apart from Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia) is by far the most mountainous of any populous Chinese region. Partly as a result of this, it also has by far the most ethnic diversity in the country, with a regional population that contains tens of millions of non-Chinese peoples (most notably the 15 million or so Zhuang ethnic group), some of whose homelands extend across the Chinese border with Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar. Like the other regions discussed so far, southwestern China has historically been a challenge for Chinese central governments. During the 1950’s, for instance, in the largest southwestern province, Yunnan, an anti-Communist Islamic guerrilla insurgency took place, orchestrated in part by the Nationalists who were ruling Taiwan. Today, as in Guangdong or Sichuan, not one person who was born in southwestern China is currently serving within the highest echelons of the Chinese government.

se-asia-map_ethnicgroup

Southwestern China is the only part of China to border most of Southeast Asia. It could in the future become particularly close with the northern part of Vietnam, which is nearby, populous, and can serve as an alternative route for southwestern Chinese goods to reach the Pacific. It could also become close with Myanmar, which can serve as a direct route for it to reach the Indian Ocean via the commercially navigable Irrawaddy River (see map below), or to reach India and Bangladesh overland without having to cross the virtually impassable Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau (see other map below). Notably, Vietnam and Myanmar have seen a great deal of economic growth in recent years, and Myanmar has politically been re-opening itself to the West after decades of isolation. Economic interaction between Southwestern China and these potentially emerging countries could present some challenges for the Chinese central government.

mapasia

In addition, and also potentially troubling for the Chinese central government, the region of southwestern china also has ties to southeastern China via the Pearl River, which is by far China’s longest commercially navigable river apart from the Yangtze, and which meets the Pacific at the place where Hong Kong and Guangdong’s capital city of Guangzhou are located (see map below). Southwestern China also directly borders both Sichuan and Tibet.

Zhujiangrivermap

(In the graph above: Kunming, Guiyang, and Nanning are the capital cities of Southwestern China’s provinces. The Greater Guangzhou-Hong Kong area in Southeastern China, which has a total population of perhaps more than 50 million, is arguably the most populous urban area in the entire world)

In part two of this article we will take a look at Shanghai, Xinjiang, the former Manchuria, and Inner Mongolia. 

America’s Domestic Environmental Geopolitics

In an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this month, economist Paul Krugman asks the question: why have the Republicans moved so far to the right on the environment, going from the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1970 during the Republican Nixon administration (which passed the Senate, as Krugman points out, “on a bipartisan vote of 73 to 0”), and from the relatively eco-friendly amending of the Clean Air Act during the Republican George Bush Sr. administration in 1990, to the climate change denying, regulation-opposed strands of today’s Republican Party?

Krugman provides a possible answer to his question, writing: “[climate change denying] ideology is only part of the story — or, more accurately, it’s a symptom of the underlying cause of the divide: rising inequality. The basic story of political polarization over the past few decades is that, as a wealthy minority has pulled away economically from the rest of the country, it has pulled one major party along with it. True, Democrats often cater to the interests of the 1 percent, but Republicans always do. Any policy that benefits lower- and middle-income Americans at the expense of the elite… will face bitter Republican opposition. And environmental protection is, in part, a class issue, even if we don’t usually think of it that way. Everyone breathes the same air, so the benefits of pollution control are more or less evenly spread across the population. But ownership of, say, stock in coal companies is concentrated in a few, wealthy hands. Even if the costs of pollution control are passed on in the form of higher prices, the rich are different from you and me. They spend a lot more money, and, therefore, bear a higher share of the costs.”

Income inequality may indeed be the most significant aspect of this story, as Krugman says. Yet there might be some other explanations to this question as well, ones that do not have to do with general shifts in income distribution or political ideology, but rather with specific changes that have occurred to the economic geography and voting patterns of the United States during recent decades. Here are 10 such additional guesses as to why American environmental politics have become more divisive today than they were in previous generations.

1) US Coal Production Moves West 

The United States has by far the largest coal reserves in the world, is by far the largest coal producer in the world apart from China , and was a larger coal producer than China as recently as the 1980s. As you can see from one of the graphs below, US coal production used to come from states located to the east of the Mississippi River (notably, from West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and to a lesser extent Ohio), but has since moved to states west of the Mississippi — mainly to Wyoming, a state which now accounts for almost 50 percent of all coal production in the United States. To a lesser extent, it has also moved to Montana (which borders Wyoming), North Dakota (which borders Montana), and Texas.

US coal production has moved, in other words, from a number of states that have historically tended to vote Democrat or are swing-states — three of which, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, are among the most populous states in the country, and therefore carry more weight in elections — to a single state, Wyoming, which has almost always voted Republican and has literally the smallest population of any state in the country (though, because of coal, Wyoming also has the second highest per capita income of any state). Coal-producing Montana and North Dakota also have been firmly Republican states for decades, and also have relatively tiny populations. The Democratic Party no longer has even close to as much of a political interest in the coal industry as it used to, therefore. Indeed, while states like Illinois and Pennsylvania continue to produce a decent amount of coal today, their economic growth over the past few decades has meant that the value of this coal production as a share of their state GDP’s has dropped by a significant amount.

In contrast, coal production does remain a critical component of the smaller Midwestern economies of Kentucky and especially West Virginia. It is not too surprising, then, that West Virginia and Kentucky have not voted for a Democratic president since 1996. While Kentucky was always something of a swing-state, West Virginia actually used to be a staunchly Democratic state back in the days when the Democrats’ interests were more closely aligned with coal production. West Virginia voted for the Democrats in every presidential election but one between 1956 and 2000; in fact, as recently as the 1980 election it was one of only four states in the entire country to vote for the Democrats.

Meanwhile, as the graphs below also show, coal production has moved from underground mining to surface mining (which tends to be much more environmentally intrusive than underground mining), from producing bituminous coal to producing sub-bituminous coal and lignite (which are much more environmentally inefficient to transport and burn than bituminous coal is), and from being labour-intensive to being far less labour-intensive (meaning that there are fewer coal labourers around who might be inclined to vote against environmental protection; this is probably also one of the reasons West Virginia votes for the Republicans nowadays).500px-Fig_7-2_Coal_ProductionWV_Employment_vs_Production

toptwo

2) Texas and California Switch Parties 

Today it seems hard to imagine that Texas would ever vote for the Democrats, or that California would ever vote for the Republicans. But that it is how it used to be. Prior to Bill Clinton, no Democratic President had ever won an election without Texas. In the presidential elections of 1964, 1956, 1952, and 1948, Texas actually voted for the opposite party as most of the rest of “the South” voted for, and in every presidential election from 1952 until 1988, Texas voted for the same party as New York voted for. California, meanwhile, voted for the Republicans in every presidential election from 1968 until 1992 (there were fewer Latino-Americans, white liberals, and other minority groups over the age of 18 in California back then); in fact, the most recent non-Bush Republican presidents, Reagan and Nixon, both came from California.

As Texas has become firmly Republican and California firmly Democrat, environmental politics have become more politically polarized, since California consumes the third least energy per capita of any US state (and also understands the dangerous power of the environment, as its population faces significant drought, earthquake, flooding, and forest-fire threats), while Texas uses the sixth most energy per capita of any state, and exports by far the most energy in absolute terms of any state apart from Wyoming. Texas is the US’s largest oil producer by far, its largest natural gas producer by far, and its sixth largest coal producer.

3) Declining California and Florida Oil Production

Back when it was a Republican-leaning swing-state, California was one of the country’s leading oil-producing states (it is actually still the third largest oil producer in the US). Oil production used to account for a much larger share of the Californian economy than it does today; however, since the mid-1980s, California’s energy production has gone down and down (see graph below) while its GDP has gone up and up because of its leading role in sectors like technology, tourism, entertainment, and real estate. Though California did briefly look like it might become a major player in the US’s recent shale oil production boom, that no longer seems likely to occur.

Because California is now so crucial to the Democrats (not only in the electoral college, but also financially and in terms of media influence), the Democrats might have had an incentive to be less environmentalist if California’s economy still depended on oil production to the same extent that it used to. (As California’s population has grown so much, it now also faces greater environmental challenges, such as droughts, than it used to, which has also made it more afraid of climate change, and therefore more in favour of environmental protection). If California was still willing to vote Republican, meanwhile, the Republicans might have an incentive to be more environmentalist. California, after all, has 12 percent of the US population and 14 percent of US GDP, both much larger figures than any other US state has. Thus, economic changes and voting patterns in California have probably contributed somewhat to making US environmental politics more divisive.

A similar trend has also occurred in some other important states. Florida, for example, which in the past few decades has grown to become the third most populous state in the US, has seen oil production fall by an astounding 95  percent or so since its peak production in 1978. It too has become a Democrat-voting state more often than it used to, also because of demographic changes. The same is true of Illinois, New York, and a few other states that have not taken part in the “shale revolution” oil production surge of recent years.

California-Energy-Production-All-Sources-Trillion-BTU-1960-2010

oil-prod-graph

florida oil production

New York Oil Production

4) Rising Energy Prices 

Prior to 2014, the past 15 years or so saw oil and coal prices rise by a very large amount. This rise had a polarizing political effect, since, for the states which produce the most energy per capita (virtually all of which are Republican or swing-states), such as Wyoming, North Dakota, Louisiana, Alaska, Montana, Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, and Arkansas, energy production became more profitable, while, for many of the states which do not have much energy production per capita (most of which are Democrat or swing states), such as New York, Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, Michigan, or Massachusetts, it became increasingly worthwhile to improve energy efficiency and/or increase alternative energy production or natural gas consumption.

Energy efficiency has also been occurring as a longer-term trend in the US (see graph below); it accelerated in some states as a result of rising energy prices in the past decade, but had already started long before that in the country as a whole. Rising energy prices also caused economies like Western Europe and Japan to become more energy-efficient and committed to alternative energy production in recent years, providing an example for many Democrats to aspire to.

Consumpt vs GDP

5)  Rising “Unconventional” Oil Production 

Partly as a result of higher oil prices – not only in the 2000’s, but also in the late 1970’s (see graph below) – there has been a rise in oil production from non-traditional sources in North America, such as Alaska (though Alaskan production has since begun to decline), deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, and, more recently, in the Albertan oil/tar sands, in shale deposits in states like Texas and North Dakota, and, expected in the near future, deep underwater off the coast of Newfoundland. Talk of beginning to develop the potentially humongous Alaskan and Canadian underwater Arctic oil reserves also became common in recent years.Crude_oil_prices_since_1861

All of these newer oil sources, however, tend to be more environmentally intrusive than “conventional” onshore or shallower-water offshore production. Thus, supporters of this production (more often than not Republican, of course) have been forced to leave environmentalist ideals further and further behind. Similar trends have often been occurring on a global level as well, and not only in oil production, but in coal production too. And all of this has been occurring during a time when both annual and cumulative emissions of gasses like carbon dioxide and methane are already much higher than they were in past decades.

eia_gom_production

Canadian-Oil-Sands-Production

The graph below shows “proven” oil reserves, not current oil production. The recent spikes in Canada and Venezuela are from estimates about the proven reserves in oil/tar sands:

Oil_Reserves_Top_5_Countries

Alaska_Crude_Oil_Production

And finally, shale oil and shale gas:

z131202OGJxag01

Shale-Crude-oil-Production

6) Rising Commodity Prices 

Oil and coal prices were not the only ones to rise during the 2000s. In part because of rapid manufacturing, construction, and general economic growth in China (and other countries, to a lesser extent), there was also a rise in metal, food, fertilizer, and a number of other commodity prices (see graph below). Because bulk commodities are often highly energy-intensive to produce and to transport, and because mining and in some cases agricultural production also tend to be directly environmentally intrusive, the growth in commodity production that was brought about by rising commodity prices has been an issue of environmental significance as well.

economist_cpi

Notably, as with oil and coal, the production of agricultural and mineral commodities within North America mostly takes place within Republican states or swing states, or else in the Canadian Prairies (in politically Conservative Canadian provinces that are just across the border from Republican states in the US). States like Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, Nevada, Missouri, Utah, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Idaho are significant producers of agricultural or mineral commodities, for instance, and they usually (or always) vote Republican.

Because the largest commodity reserves tend to be in the vast interior states which tend to have either fairly small or very small populations, these states also get a lot of money per capita for this commodity production, and rely on commodity production for a significant portion of their states’ economic output. And the US (and Canada) really does produce an enormous amount of these commodities; it is far and away the world’s largest food exporter, for instance, which is impressive considering that it is also the world’s third largest food consumer. So, the fact that these states have long tended to vote Republican means that rising commodity prices may have contributed to the Republican parties becoming relatively less eco-friendly compared to the Democrats.

There are only a few exceptions to this pattern. The largest of these are the neighbouring states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. Wisconsin produces agricultural goods like corn and dairy products and almost always votes Democrat; Minnesota produces most of the US’s iron ore (the world’s most traded commodity aside from crude oil), yet has voted Democrat in every presidential election since 1972, and in fact was the only state in the entire country to vote against a second presidential term for Republican Ronald Reagan in 1984; and Iowa – an important state in US politics, because it holds the earliest caucus during the presidential primaries – has an economy that is highly dependent on corn production, yet has shed its Republican-leaning past by voting for the Democrats in five of the last six presidential elections (in part, perhaps, because a lot of its corn is used to create ethanol, a more eco-friendly substitute for gasoline. Also Iowa produces more wind power than any state other than Texas). But even Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were all among the top ten closest races in the 2012 election among states in which the Democrats won; their populations only gave about 6.5 percent more of their votes to Obama than to Romney.

Because of rising commodity prices, commodity extraction has been an issue of growing environmental significance on a global level as well, particularly within the developing world. This too may have also led to a growing divide between Democrat voters, who arguably tend to be more global-minded in their political outlook when it comes to non-military issues, and Republican voters, who arguably tend to be more nationalist or insular in their worldview.

7) Changing Electoral Demographics 

Demographic changes as a result of immigration and internal migration have changed the US electoral map over time, aiding the Democrats and, as a result, perhaps making them less in need of reaching out to energy and commodity producing corporations in swing states, or to the very rich or super-rich throughout the country, or to the states which depend the most on energy or commodity production (many of which tend to have relatively few non-white inhabitants, incidentally). As you can see from the graph below, the US immigration boom has increased steadily in recent decades, and took off in a big way around 1990. So, immigration to the US is to a certain degree actually a fairly recent phenomenon (ignoring the pre-WW1 immigration boom, which is practically ancient history at this point). In fact, most second-generation immigrants from the heart of the most recent boom are still just turning 18 around now. And even among those who have already turned 18, voting participation tends to rise with age.

USA-Immigration-Annual1

We already discussed the flipping of California from swing state to Democrat state, which was, at least in part, the result of inward internal migration from other parts of the US and external immigration from Asia and of course from Latin America. More recently, immigration from Mexico has flipped the state of New Mexico, which voted for the Republicans in every presidential election from 1968 until 1992, but has now voted Democrat in every presidential election since (with the exception of 2004, when it voted for a second Bush term). In the 2000 election, in fact, New Mexico was surrounded by a virtual sea of red states (see map below), but still voted for the Democrats; it was the counterimage of New Hampshire in that election, which voted Republican but was utterly surrounded by blue states.

2000 US election map

Immigration from Latin America (plus internal migration of young liberals to the city of Denver) may also have led Colorado – the population of which is now 20-25 percent Hispanic – to go from voting for the Republicans in every presidential election but one from 1968 until 2008, to voting for Obama in both of his elections. A similar thing is probably true of Nevada (now 25-30 percent Hispanic, and with a huge amount of internal US migration to Nevada’s Las Vegas metropolitan area in the past decade), which has actually voted for the winning US president in every single election since after 1976 (most of which have been Republicans), and could be about to vote Democrat for the third election in a row in 2016.

Many Democrats also think it may just be on the verge of happening in Arizona as well (now 30-35 percent Hispanic, and with lots of people from across the US moving to Phoenix), which voted Republican in every single presidential election but one since 1948. In 1964, in fact, Arizona was the only Republican-voting state in the country outside of “the South” – see map below. While Arizona did not vote for Obama in either of his elections, it may be that it would have voted for Obama in 2008 had his opponent not been Arizona’s own John McCain. Arizona and Nevada both produce almost no fossil fuels.

1964_Electoral_Map

Immigration may also help the Democrats win the eastern states of North Carolina and Virginia, the 9th and 12th most populous US states, respectively, neither of which produce much fossil fuels. The populations of North Carolina and Virginia are both now around 10 percent Hispanic (in other words, far less than some states, but far more than many other states). The population of Raleigh, North Carolina has also been swelled by a very large amount of internal migration from across the country during the last decade, as has the population of the metropolitan area of the city of Washington. D.C., which extends into Virginia. In fact, the cities of Charlotte, North Carolina and Raleigh, North Carolina have had the US’s two fastest-growing Hispanic populations since 2000, and Washington D.C. was not far behind them. North Carolina had not voted Democrat since 1976 and Virginia not since 1964, but both voted for Obama in 2008 and Virginia voted for Obama in 2012 as well.

Even more importantly, many Democrats think these same trends are now working to help them secure some of the country’s largest states, most notably Florida. Florida has historically tended to vote for the Republicans more often than the Democrats, but voted for Obama twice (and may technically have voted for Gore over Bush in the contested 2000 election which saw a Florida recount, even when the governor of Florida at the time was Bush’s own brother Jeb). Florida’s population is now around 25 percent Hispanic, and in particular has seen a large amount of growth in its non-Cuban Latin American population and among younger Cuban generations. This demographic shift is probably significant, given that the original Cuban generation that has been prominent in Florida’s politics in recent decades tended to be relatively conservative politically, reflecting the fact that in many cases it was made up of middle-class and upper-class Cubans who had to leave Cuba following the Communist Castro takeover there. Florida too produces very little fossil fuels.

Illinois, which in recent decades has been a swing state that has tended to vote for the Democrats, has perhaps seen its Democratic base strengthen as well because of demographic changes. It is now more than 15 percent Hispanic. New Jersey, the 11th most populous US state, is a Democrat state that used to vote often Republican prior to Bill Clinton (and which the Republicans probably hope to retake, which may be a part of the reason why they have been considering choosing the current Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie as their candidate in 2016), and it now has a population that is approximately 20 percent Hispanic.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, the three largest conventional swing states in the US apart from Florida, have also had fast-growing Hispanic populations in the past decade or so, though their overall Hispanic populations remain only about 3.5 – 7.5 percent of their total populations. (Michigan also had fast-growing immigration from Iraq during the past decade). On the other hand, these states have also seen some outward internal US migration of young voters to other states.

Finally, even Georgia, a firmly Republican state which is the 8th most populous state in the country, could perhaps soon flip to the Democrats, the result of having a fast growing Hispanic population (the 10th fastest-growing of any state since 2000, which now accounts for more than 10 percent of the state’s total population), a large, long-established African-American population (roughly 20 percent of the state’s total population), and some young, potentially liberal families moving to Atlanta (which was one of the US’s fastest-growing metropolitan regions during the 2000s). Georgia also produces very little fossil fuels.

8) External US Geopolitics   

During the Cold War, most Americans saw the Soviet Union as a very real potential threat to their security. The Soviet economy was dependent on producing energy and other commodities, which meant that any energy or commodity production within the United States would significantly hurt the Soviet position. Indeed, it was probably not a coincidence that the Soviet Union collapsed during a period of low energy prices. And it was not only the Soviets that were dependent on high commodity prices: until around the 1990s, the Communist Chinese were net exporters of energy and commodities as well.

Today the US is no longer in a Cold War. In fact, some of the nations in the world that seem potentially the most capable of challenging American power over the medium-term, such as China, Japan, Germany, or India, would all benefit from low energy and commodity prices far more than the US would — while, conversely, close US allies like Canada, Australia, Scandinavia, and even Britain are all significant energy or commodity producers, and so would actually be hurt by (or in Britain’s case, not benefit too much from) such lower prices.

As a result, the US has no real “strategic” geopolitical impetus to support rising domestic energy or commodity production in the way that it used to (though some Americans, particularly Republicans, have recently begun to support rising American oil production as a way to undermine the governments of countries like Russia and Iran). The collapse of the Communist Russian empire in 1990, therefore, combined with the transformation of Communist China from a net commodity and energy exporter to a gigantic commodity and energy importer, has perhaps been helping to cause more Americans (or at least, more Democrat politicians) to favour stronger domestic environmental protection.

9) Keystone XL and the Swinging Midwest

The defining feature of the American electoral system today is that, apart from Florida, every one of the largest US swing states are located in the Midwest (especially if you count Illinois as a swing state, as perhaps is appropriate to do). This may be a big part of the reason the incumbent Democratic party has embraced Pennsylvania’s enormous shale natural gas boom (see graph below), in spite of its potential environmental damage, partially under the guise of loving natural gas consumption as an alternative to dirtier coal consumption. (Shale gas has, for example, allowed the Midwest to retire many of its coal-fired power plants — see map below).

EIA-12-17-graph

CoalRetirementsMap

The electoral centrality of the Midwest may also be one reason the Democrats have refused to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to be constructed, because, by preventing Albertan heavy oil from reaching refineries on the US Gulf of Mexico coast by way of the Keystone pipeline, refineries in the Midwest were given a near-monopoly on Alberta’s oil exports, which really helped the refining industry (and to a lesser extent, people who drive a lot) in the Midwest. This is because the type of heavy oil produced in the Albertan tar sands deposits can only be refined at a certain refineries, of which there are very few outside of the Gulf of Mexico region or the Midwest. Indeed, after around 2009, Albertan oil in the Midwest (which tends to be measured by West Texas Intermediate or Western Canada Select prices – see graph below) began to cost significantly less than oil  in most other places in America or the world (as measured by Brent Crude prices).

Oil_Price_Gap

It might be a bit cynical or conspiratorial to suggest (though others, like the former chief economist of the major Canadian bank CIBC, Jeff Rubin, have come very close to suggesting it), but it does seem possible that the Democrats’ blocking of Keystone by invoking environmental concerns was, at least in part, a political ploy intended to help them secure their influence in the Midwestern swing state region, while at the same time having the added benefit of denying financial profits to the Republican states and businesses on the Gulf coast, depriving the Republican-friendly Albertans of an even larger amount of profits, and channelling environmentalist ire toward Albertan tar sands production instead of toward Midwestern activities supported or tolerated by the Democrats, such as shale energy production, coal production, auto-manufacturing, suburban sprawl, and certain types of environmentally-intrusive farming.

Because this dynamic only emerged in recent years, as a result of the rise of Canadian tar sands oil production and the shale oil boom in North Dakota (which had by far the largest oil production growth of any US state, and which competes with oil from neighbouring Alberta and Saskatchewan for pipelines, trains, etc.), it may have contributed to the recent rising politicization of environmental protection.

10) Midwestern De-industrialization and Southern Industrialization 

In recent decades, the US manufacturing sector has become much smaller as a percentage of US GDP, and also much less labor-intensive. According to Business Insider magazine, the United States saw its manufacturing jobs decline by 32 percent during the 2000’s. Because many manufacturing industries are energy-intensive and resource-intensive, this means that there are fewer voters who have a very direct stake in environmentally damaging work. De-industrialization has also been something of a regional affair, occurring the most within Democrat or swing states in the Midwest/Great Lakes region, such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Among other things, these states produce cars and trucks (and components for cars and trucks), which, while still a very large cause of pollution in North America, have nevertheless become much more fuel-efficient than they used to be. Some Republican states in the South, in contrast, have actually been industrializing (and in particular, growing their auto-manufacuring) in recent years and decades.

Europe and Arabia: A Geopolitical Perspective

As different as the Quran is from the New Testament, or the Constitution of France is from the Constitution of Saudi Arabia (which is, in fact, the Quran), these differences are arguably less important than those which seperate the geography of Europe from the geography of the Arab world.

Europe is a region of islands, peninsulas, mountains, rivers, forests, and marshes: natural barriers that have historically hindered the development of a unified European identity. The Arab world, on the other hand, is in effect an enormous coastal desert, stretching for nearly 8000 km from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and yet, with the exception of some notable mountain ranges, containing few internal barriers of any sort. This comparatively open landscape of the Arab world has allowed it to achieve a level of linguistic, religious, and cultural unity that Europe has rarely if ever been able to match.

While the Desert and its coastal seas act as unifying force within the Arab world, the fact that significant supplies of freshwater can be found in just a few scattered areas within its gigantic territory (mostly in mountains, as in Morocco, Algeria, and Yemen, or in rivers, as in Egypt, Sudan, and Iraq) has meant that the pan-Arab identity it has fostered must compete with a wide assortment of intra-Arab identities, which in most cases have been far better than pan-Arabism at winning the allegiances of their inhabitants. In addition, the geographic division between the Middle East and North Africa has led to sharp ethno-linguistic and political divisions between Arab and Berber peoples within countries like Morocco and Algeria.

The desert geography has also tended to make the Arab world relatively poor, again in stark contrast to Europe, which has become rich as a result of the commercial navigability provided by its numerous slow-flowing rivers, long coastlines, and sheltered seas and fjords, as well as by its luck in possessing a temperate climate and natural resources like freshwater, farmland, timber, and coal.

These opposing geographies have underlain the great historical contest between the “civilizations” Europe and the Arab world have cultivated for themselves. The advantage was first with Europe, arguably, as Italy, led by Rome, was able to conquer the entire Mediterranean basin as well as Mesopotamia, defeating the Carthaginians (a powerful Semitic empire based out of what is now the Arab state of Tunisia, which had controlled much of North Africa and Spain and were ethnically linked to the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean) and other African and Middle Eastern groups in the process. Even following the decline of the Christian Roman Empire, most of the inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa continued to be ruled by Rome’s successor, the Greek-led Byzantine Empire (which was also Christian), for several hundred years.

Eventually the tables turned, however, and around 600 CE the Arabian Peninsula united under Muhammad and then expanded its control outward during the rule of his immediate successors, quickly conquering Spain, most of France (for a very brief period), and a large part of Asia. In turn, the Arabs were invaded and occupied by Central Asian groups like the Mongols and Turks; however, in a sign of Arab influence, most of the conquering Turks ended up adopting the religion of the conquered Arabs, and long outlasted the Mongols.

While the Arabs then lost their beloved Spain after a more than 700 year long struggle with Christian forces to keep hold of it, the Muslim Ottoman Turks made up for the loss by conquering all of southeastern Europe as far as the Austrian capital of Vienna, which they besieged in 1529 and again in 1683. Muslims also continued to spread the faith into Southeast Asia: much of what is now Indonesia, which today has the world’s largest Muslim population by far, adopted Islam during the 1400’s or 1500’s, many centuries after the lifetime of Muhammad.

Of course, the Europeans ultimately regained the advantage over their Muslim neighbours. During the late 1400’s the Portuguese first sailed a route to India which avoided passing through Turkish or Arab-held territory, while, around the same period, the Spanish reached the Americas and the Russians surged into Muslim Turkic Central Asia, conquering territory they mostly continue to hold today. The greatest blow to Islam then fell in the 1700’s and 1800’s, as the Muslim Mughal Empire, which at its height had governed over almost a quarter of the world’s population, lost its hold on the Indian subcontinent to the British. The colonizing Europeans also took over Muslim populations in places like Africa and Southeast Asia.

During the 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Ottoman Turks forfeited southeastern Europe and the Arab world in a series of assaults aimed at them by European powers like the British, French, Russians, and Austrians. The Persian empire was heavily intruded upon by both the British and Russians. Finally, in the 1970s, the last super-sized Islamic state, Pakistan, was divided into two separate countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which do not even border one another anymore since India lies between them. Today Pakistan and Bangladesh are the world’s sixth and eighth most populous countries, respectively.

For many people, the battle between Europe and Arabia, or between the West and Islam, continues to this day. After losing its main source of wealth when Europe stole the control of trade with India and China away from it, most of the Middle East seemed likely to become somewhat irrelevant to global politics. Instead, it gained a new source of wealth in the modern era: oil. As recently as 2010, more than 15 percent of world oil production occurred in Saudi Arabia alone, while an additional 15 – 20 percent occurred in other Arab countries and 40-50 percent occurred in the Muslim world as a whole.

The Muslim world also accounts for close to a third of world natural gas production (led by Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria), and is estimated to possess over 60 percent of the world’s “conventional” proven reserves of natural gas (not including gas from shale) as well as over 50 percent of non-shale oil reserves and over 75 percent of oil reserves that are neither from shale nor from oil sands.

Today, partly as a result of the energy wealth it has gained during the past century, the Arab world has a population of approximately 380 million (in contrast to a century ago, when its population was significantly smaller than even any of the major European nation-states were at the time, without even counting the Europeans’ overseas empires) and a nominal gross domestic product of just under 3 trillion dollars. This means that, if the Arab world could somehow reunite politically, it would have the third largest population and fifth largest economy in the world. It would, in other words, become a Great Power again.

Needless to say, few of the Arab world’s neighbours want to see any serious pan-Arab union come into being. Arab unification was in fact very briefly attempted in modern times, in a formal sense, with the joining of Egypt and Syria to form the United Arab Republic, which lasted from 1958 to 1961. From a purely geopolitical perspective, the potential of such cooperation between Arab countries is especially worrying to regions like Europe because of the Arab world’s shared religious identity – and to a lesser extent, shared cultural traditions and linguistic affiliations – with other parts of the Middle East and Muslim world.  The “classical” version of the Arab language, which is understood by scholars (and other people too) in every country of the Islamic world because it is the language of the Quran, is one potentially important example of a unifying factor throughout the Middle East.

If combined with non-Arab Middle Eastern neighbours Turkey and Iran, the population of the Arab world would rise to more than 530 million and its GDP would rise to more than 4 trillion dollars. The states that comprise the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, meanwhile, have a combined population of approximately 1.6 billion and a GDP of approximately 7 trillion dollars — and they do not even include the estimated 180 million Muslims living in India, 25 million living in China, 16 million in Russia, or 20 million living in the European Union.

While in the West there is much talk of the Muslim world being stuck in an economic decline, Muslims actually continue to have a higher per capita income than Hindus do, or than Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa do. Many Muslim countries have a higher per capita income than China does, even today following decades of rapid Chinese economic growth. The past decade has in fact been a terrific one for most Muslim economies, with oil and gas prices rising sharply, the developing world as a whole growing solidly, and a number of countries with large Muslim populations, most notably Indonesia, Turkey, India, and Nigeria, growing very quickly.

Apart from economic growth, the Muslim world’s geopolitical trajectory has also been positive in the past generation, mainly as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union having freed about 60 – 90 million Central Asian Muslims (the exact number depends on whether or not you count Soviet-occupied Afghanistan as part of Central Asia) from Russian rule, along with the gigantic, resource-rich region they inhabit.

Since then, some Muslims have been hoping or pushing for a further Islamic geopolitical revival, which many non-Muslim countries would obviously not be happy to see. Pan-Islamic sentiments have, to varying extents, found their way into local and regional disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world, in places like Kashmir, western China, Palestine/Israel, various African countries, various Southeast Asian countries, the Caucuses (both within Russia and without), and the Balkans. Arguably, technologies like the Internet have been strengthening pan-Islamic identities as well.

The West has, of course, generally aimed to gain influence within the Arab world, in part to prevent it from ever becoming too closely united. Europe, Russia, and the US have historically been focused on gaining influence in Egypt, for example, as Egypt has by far the largest population of any Arab country, is more internally stable and united than any other large Arab country, and is strategically located, sitting directly in the centre of the Arab world and encompassing the Suez Canal.

The West has also focused on gaining influence in the Persian Gulf, in particular by allying itself closely with the tiny energy-rich Gulf monarchies (Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain), as well as with  the royal family of Saudi Arabia and, not too far away, the Israelis, the Iraqi Kurds, and the royal family of Jordan. Given that the West is in some ways more powerful today than at any time in history (largely as a result of the rise of the US, which was completed with the fall of the Soviet Union), and that the Persian Gulf region is sharply divided between Arabs and Iranians, Sunnis and Shiites, and Iraqis and Saudis, gaining influence there has not been too difficult for the West to achieve.

And so, even leaving aside social values or issues explicitly tied to religious belief, many Arabs believe the West is acting unjustly or aggressively towards them. Most believe that the current political borders of the Middle East are “artificial”, imposed on them a century ago by ignorant or sinister British and French politicians. There is certainly truth to this, though, in defence of the British and French, many of the borders that were drawn actually did accurately reflect existing social and geographic divisions within the Arab world.

With a few possible exceptions, such as Kuwait and Lebanon (which arguably should not have been created as independent states), Israel and Palestine (which arguably should have been created as a single state, perhaps even including neighbouring Jordan as well), and Kurdistan (which arguably should be created out of parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, though even this is more complicated than it is often portrayed), it is not clear that the borders in the Middle East could actually be all that improved upon. But of course, this is a topic worth debating in much greater detail.

It is also not only the West that has been responsible for messing with the “natural” borders of the Arab world. Iran and Turkey, for instance, both refuse to give up Arab-inhabited regions of the Fertile Crescent they possess; a more consistent geographic or cultural rendering of Middle Eastern borders should perhaps have included Turkey handing over its province of Hatay to Syria (as Syria still officially claims it should) and Iran handing over its province of Khuzestan to Iraq.

Yet most people who complain of Western-imposed artificiality among the borders of the Arab world are not concerned with either of these areas, even though both are significant to the politics of the region (especially Khuzestan). Indeed, while Arab bitterness toward Europe’s past imperialism remains wholly justifiable, complaints of imperialistic European map-drawing in the Arab world nevertheless tend to be somewhat exaggerated. If you want to see truly unfair and dangerously-drawn borders the Europeans were responsible for, you should not even begin to think of the Middle East, but look instead to regions like West Africa.

The Coming US-Argentine Tango

Argentina has the world’s 20th largest economy, 8th largest territory, and 30th largest population, according to the World Bank. Yet Americans have historically had little to do with the place. The United States and Argentina have never been close allies, nor have they been hated rivals. Today the two countries trade just $15 billion or so with one another: Argentina is just the seventh biggest trade partner of the US in Latin America, and the US is only the third biggest trade partner of Argentina. Most Americans cannot name a single Argentinian person, past or present. No, not even Lionel Messi!

There are a number of fairly straightforward reasons why the US and Argentina have not become too close to one another in the past. Interestingly, however, there are also a number of reasons why the US and Argentina might become quite close in the future. Given the size of both countries, any such move towards one another could represent a significant evolution in world affairs. Let’s try to lay out the case for why this might happen, then, beginning by looking at some of the reasons why Argentina and the US have never been close in the past, and then moving on to why they might finally become so in the years or decades ahead:

1. Distance

Even in the modern world, there remains a strong correlation between physical distance and international trade. This correlation matters for trade between the US and Argentina, since the two countries are located on extreme opposite ends of the Western Hemisphere. The flight from New York City to Buenos Aires takes about 11 hours, for example; it is longer even than the flight from New York to Moscow, or from Buenos Aires to Johannasburg. Flying from Las Angeles or Chicago to Buenos Aires is longer still.

By ship, Argentina and the US are even further apart than they are by air, since the detour around Brazil (which juts far out into the Atlantic Ocean) adds an additional 2500 km or so to the trip from New York to Buenos Aires. That makes it about 30 percent further by ship than by plane. In addition to this detour around Brazil, the journey through the Panama Canal adds a significant amount of time, canal fees, and size limitations to container ships travelling from the US West Coast to Argentina. And taking an overland shortcut through Chile can still be very difficult for transporting bulk goods, as there are no railways or all-season roads which fully cross the Andes Mountains.

3-623-31031-XWesternHemiPhy

Argentina’s trade is not only impacted by its physical isolation from the US, but also by its physical isolation from Europe and East Asia. Sailing from Buenos Aires to Shanghai, for instance, whether by going westward across the Pacific Ocean or eastward across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, is roughly two and half times further than sailing between Las Angeles and Shanghai. Sailing from Buenos Aires to Paris is around two times further than from New York  to Paris. Partly as a result of this phsyical isolation, Argentina is not well-integrated into global trade networks.

In fact, Argentina’s overall international imports and exports of goods are equal to just around 25 percent of its GDP, according to the World Bank. This is the second lowest share in the entire world among developing countries (see graph below). Plus, nearly a quarter of Argentina’s trade is with Brazil, which is even less trade-oriented than Argentina is. Thus, in addition to not trading much with the US directly, Argentina also does not have much to do with the global commercial system as whole, and therefore also has few indirect commercial connections with the US.

trade as % of gdp in developing economies[Note, by the way, that Argentina is an exception to two different trends displayed by this graph. The least trade dependent economies tend to be extremely large — like Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China, and to a lesser extent Turkey and Mexico — and/or tend to have relatively low per capita incomes, like Nigeria, India, Indonesia, Colombia, Iran, and to a lesser extent China and Venezuela. These trends exist not only among the countries shown in this graph, but also throughout the world as a whole: the least trade dependent economies tend to be either giants like the US, Japan, and Brazil, or else are some of the most impoverished states in the world, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the Central African Republic. Argentina is neither extremely large nor relatively poor (it has a per capita nominal income of around $15,000, which is higher than the Latin American average and more than double that of China), yet it is still second from the bottom in terms of its dependence on trade — not only on the graph above, but also among all of the countries in the world, according to the World Bank]. 

2. Economics

Argentina’s economy is driven to a decent extent by its farm output. According to the World Bank, Argentina has more arable land per capita than any country in the world apart from Australia, Canada, or Kazakhstan. Agricultural goods like corn, wheat, and especially soybeans account for well over a third of Argentina’s net export revenues. It also produces the most beef of any country apart from the US, Brazil, China, or India.

This has historically put Argentina in direct competition with the United States, which in the past was an agriculturally-oriented society, and even today remains the world’s largest producer of both soybeans and corn, and the world’s largest exporter of grains in general. Though at present agricultural goods account for perhaps no more than 5 percent of US exports, they continue to play an outsized role in American politics, because their production is spread out across many different states, municipalities, congressional districts, etc. Thus, the US and Argentina continue to compete economically, to a certain degree.

It might be tempting to say that the same is true of Brazil, which is the world’s second largest producer of soybeans and beef, and third largest producer of corn. But actually, most of Brazil’s export revenues come from goods that are net imports of the United States and Argentina, such as oil, iron ore, coffee, and sugar. Partly because of this, in fact, Brazil exports approximately 7.5 times as much to the US as Argentina does, even though Brazil’s overall exports are only 3.5 times larger than Argentina’s overall exports.

3.  Language 

Because of the high utility of the Spanish language, Latin America is one of the worst regions in the world at speaking English. According to English First, “Latin America is the weakest [at speaking English] of all regions, with an average English proficiency score barely surpassing the low proficiency cut-off.” (Spain, similarly, is far behind the other major countries in the European Union in terms of its English language proficiency). Argentina is no exception to this pattern. Only 6.5 percent or so of its population has a “high” level of English proficiency, according to this article. 

In addition to serving as a commercial barrier between the two countries, the Spanish-English linguistic division has also helped keep the US and Argentina apart in the political sphere. Argentina’s Spanish identity, for example, has given it ties to countries which the US has had rivalrous relations with in the past, such as Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico (where the US invaded Mexico City during the 1840’s, and Veracruz in 1914), Spain (which the US fought a globe-spanning war against in 1898, and which had a fascistic government during middle of the 20th century), Nicaragua (which the US occupied in the 1910s and 1920s, and supported guerillas in during the country’s civil war in the 1980’s), Panama (invaded by the US in 1885, and again in 1989), and others. America’s English identity, similarly, has helped given it relatively close ties to Britain, which Argentina fought a war against in 1982 over the Falkland Islands, resulting in more than 900 deaths.

4. Geopolitics

While today Argentina is generally seen as being an insignificant country when compared to its larger neighbour Brazil, this was not always the case. As recently as the 1950s, Argentina’s economy was actually estimated to be larger than Brazil’s. Brazil aslo used to be much more internally divided along both regional and racial lines than it is today (and even today it is highly divided along both regional and racial lines), in relative contrast to Argentina where the population and political power was more closely unified. Indeed, rather than Brazil, it was Argentina and even Chile which were the major military and naval powers native to the region until at least the early part of the 20th century. Plus, because Brazil spoke Portuguese rather than Spanish, its potential influence within the rest of Latin America or Spain seemed comparatively limited. Many therefore predicted that Argentina, not Brazil, would wind up emerging as South America’s “Great Power”.

Of course, the US does not take too kindly to fellow Great Power hopefuls. Thus, it saw no reason to become too chummy with Argentina, particularly following Argentina’s relative victory over Brazil in a war for Uruguay in the 1820’s, and Argentina’s decisive victory over Paraguay during the 1860’s (in a war in which arguably 90 percent of Paraguay’s entire male population died, making it perhaps the deadliest war for a country in modern history). When, for example, the US convened the first-ever International Conference of American States – the precursor to today’s Organization of American States – in 1890, hoping to implement a hemipshere-spanning trade union and formal political network, the conference resulted in feuding between Argentina and the US, and to a lesser extent between Chile and the US, which prevented the US’s political goals from being realized.

Argentina later irked the US during the begining and middle of the 20th century when, partly as a result of the fact that its population had some significant Italian and to a lesser extent German roots, it took a relatively sympathetic position toward US’s adversaries in the World Wars. To this day, Americans often associate Argentina with its providing of shelter to prominent Nazis fleeing Germany following the end of the war. Following the end of the war in 1945, in fact, the United States even briefly tried to keep Argentina out of the newly-created United Nations. Brazil, in contrast, was the only independent South American country to send soldiers to fight on the side of the Allies during the war.

Later still, during the Cold War, the Soviets hoped to gain influence in Latin America to serve as leverage against the United States. While the US was mainly concerned with the close-to-home governments, geurillas, or criminal organizations in places like Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and Central America, the bond between Latin American nations meant that the US often viewed the left-wing governments of countries further south, like Chile (such as that of Salvador Allende, who was killed in 1973 in a military coup sponsored by the CIA) and Argentina (such as that of Isabel Peron, who was toppled in 1976 in a military coup that may have been sponsored or supported by the US government), as potential threats as well.

5. Politics 

Argentina and the US are in some ways exact opposites of one another in terms of their political culture and internal geopolitical structure. In the US, no single region holds a majority of national economic power; rather, the country’s economic activity is spread out among a number of different influential regions, such as California, Texas, Florida, the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, and so on. The largest urban area in the US, in and around New York City, only has around 5-10 percent of the country’s total population, while the largest region, the Greater Northeast, only has around 15-20 percent.

Even within the US’s Greater Northeast region, economic power and influence is spread out between a sizeable number of major states, all of which have had their own unique assets — politics in Washington, finance and culture in New York, education and technology in Massachusetts, coal and natural gas in Pennsylvania, shipping and gambling in New Jersey, manufacturing in Michigan and Ohio, services and agriculture in Ilinois, etc. — as well as their own natural harbours on the Atlantic Ocean or Great Lakes with which they have historically been able to engage with the outside world. Divisions like these have arguably made it difficult for a powerful central government to form within the United States.

Argentina is perhaps the extreme counter-example of this sort of highly diffuse American system. The Buenos Aires urban area, which is the political, cultural, financial, and commercial capital of the country, is home to approximately one-third of Argentina’s overall population. Another 15  percent or so of Argentina’s population lives within the general area around Buenos Aires. No other metropolitan area in Argentina has a population that is even more than 10-15 percent as large as Buenos Aires’ is.

[Update:  In Argentina’s presidential elections this past October, the two candidates were the leaders of the province of Buenos Aires and the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, respectively].

In addition to this, a large majority of both Argentina’s entire population and farmland is located within river basins that empty into the Atlantic at precisely the spot where Buenos Aires is located (see maps below), and the produce of these farmlands is transported almost entirely along these rivers. The farmland of Paraguay, Uruguay, and even of significant areas of Brazil is also located within this basin. Moreover, most of the Argentinian population within this basin is highly dependent on Buenos Aires to ship its produce to international markets, because there are few other natural harbours to serve as ports in northern Argentina apart from the Rio de la Plata Estuary in which Buenos Aires (and Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay) is situated.

Riodelaplatabasinmap

p1960NASA-ASTER-southamerica-map

As such, any government that is able to control Buenos Aires and the region around it faces relatively little challenge in controlling the entire country — at least, absent interference by a foreign power or neighbouring state. Buenos Aires is, in fact, probably quite a bit more influential within Argentina than even cities like London, Paris, or Moscow are within Britain, France, or Russia. Partly as a result of this, Argentina has often seen a lot of “European-style” Big Government, as opposed to “American-style” libertarianistic government. This Argentinian style did not much please the US during its Cold War against the Soviet Union, when Americans saw themselves as being locked in a struggled against centralized socialistic styles of government, which Argentina possessed in an on-and-off fashion prior to the military junta that seized formal control of the country between 1976 and 1983. Argentina also experienced military coups in 1943, 1955, 1962, and 1966.

Even today, Argentina’s government continues to support poltical and economic policies Americans think of as illiberal and overweening, such as high trade tarrifs and high government subsidies of commodities like water and gas. Similarly, the Argentinian government is overwhelmingly viewed by America’s investor class as being populist, corrupt, and dishonest brokers in longstanding disputes over the repayment of Argentina’s foreign debts. In these sorts of ways, the sharp divisions in political culture between the US and Argentina have perhaps contributed to the two countries’ continuing relative estrangement from one another.

10 Reasons Argentina and the US could finally become close in the future: 

1. The Decline of Distance 

While the influence of distance on trade remains large, it is already much smaller than it once was in the past, and may continue becoming smaller in the years or decades ahead. As was alluded to earlier, cheaper air travel could be especially likely to help boost US-Argentine ties, since the distance between the two countries by air is significantly shorter than it is by sea. The Internet is obviously another potential driver behind the potentially declining economic importance of distance — making the fact that Argentina may have the first or second highest rates of Internet access in Latin America, and among the highest in the entire developing world – especially noteworthy. Around 60-75 percent of Argentina’s population is estimated to hae Internet access, up from just 20 percent a decade ago.

Given that linguistic ties will perhaps be very important in allowing for Internet-based economic or social connections to take place, the Internet could also help create indirect ties between Argentina and the US via Mexico and the countries of the Caribbean basin, which are already close to the US commercially and socially even without the Internet. More importantly, it could create direct ties between Argentina and the US as a result of the growing ubiquity and importance of the Spanish language within the United States itself. Which brings us to point number two:

2. Spanish in the United States

As a result of the American immigration boom of the relatively recent past (see graph below), the Hispanic population in the US is currently estimated at 55 million, which means that it is actually larger than Argentina’s entire population is. An estimated 40 million Hispanic Americans speak Spanish at home, up from just 17 million in 1990. US Hispanic populations have a median income estimated at around $40,000 (not far from three times higher than Argentina’s) — compared to $52,000 for the United States as a whole.

USA-Immigration-Annual1

Even if the US’s high rates of immigration from Latin America were to decrease, the number of Hispanic Americans in higher-paying jobs and in the workforce in general would continue to grow quickly over the next few decades, as a result of the fact that there are many Hispanic children, teenagers, and 20-30 year olds in the country. The estimated median age for US Hispanics is 27 years old, for example, compared to 37 years old for the country as a whole. Most Hispanic children and teenagers are American born and raised, and are therefore much more likely than their parents or grandparents to possess the social connections, English language skills, and educational qualifications that are often the prerequisites to achieving financial success in the United States.

Hispanic Americans have also been living mostly within relatively wealthy or fast-growing US economies, such as Texas, California, New York City, Washington D.C., Washington state, Colorado, etc. If the economic and political clout of Hispanics in the US continues to grow, it may create opportunities for Spanish-speaking countries like Argentina to forge greater economic linkages with it. As was mentioned above, this relationship is likely to be particularly significant because of they continued spread and increased ubiquity and sophistication of the Internet. Online connections between Spanish-speakers in the US and Argentina could increase not only in direct terms, but also indirectly via Spanish-speakers in countries like Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

As for Argentinians living in the US, there are only about a quarter of a million. However, this number has been growing: around 60 percent of Argentinian-Americans arrived in the US after 1990, and most came since Argentina’s economic crash in 2001. Most live in Florida, California, or New York. Given that about a quarter of Argentinian-Americans live in Flordia, and that they are significantly more wealthy than the general Hispanic-American population, it is actually theoretically possible that they could play an important role in deciding the outcome of a US presidential election.

 3. Containing Brazil 

Argentina may have had a slightly larger economy than Brazil back in the 1950s or 1960s, but that is hardly the case today. Brazil’s economy has grown to become the world’s sixth or seventh largest, both in nominal terms and adjusted for purchasing power. It is close to quadruple the size of Argentina’s and ten times that of Venezuela’s (Brazil’s next largest neighbour). Brazil’s population, meanwhile, is the fifth largest in the world, around five times larger than Argentina’s and almost two-thirds as large as the US’s. And of course, Brazil’s territory remains enormous, nearly as large as the US’s, Canada’s, or China’s, and triple the size of Argentina’s.

Brazil has the world’s largest resources of freshwater and biodiversity, and it is the second largest producer of soybeans and iron ore, the third largest oil producer outside of the Middle East or North America, and the largest producer of coffee, sugar, raw tobacco, meat products, fruit juice, wood pulp, and a number of other commodities. Brazil has also become the world’s seventh largest motor vehicle manufacturer. (Argentina, meanwhile, is the 19th largest motor vehicle producer; the per capita motor vehicle production of Argentina and Brazil is about the same).

In the past, Brazil’s economy has been hurt by the difficulty of developing its challenging terrain, unifying its disparate regions, accessing the far-away markets of North America, Europe, and Asia, and overcoming its racial and class divisions (Brazil arguably has the most class-based income inequality of any major country, and, relatedly, was the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery, in 1888). If, however, Brazil can overcome these challenges, perhaps helped by technological advances to do so, it could maybe become a great power in the decades ahead. Notably, unlike in other Great Power aspirants, such as the former Soviet Union, India, or even China, the internal regional divisions in Brazil are not overlain by internal linguistic divisions or milleania-old historical divisions. Nearly 100% of Brazilians speak Portuguese.

If Brazil does end up becoming a Great Power, a US-Argentine relationship would probably form to try and contain it. A powerful Brazil would almost by definition make Argentina feel threatened, for a number of reasons including that Brazil’s influence in Uruguay – a  country of just 3 million people, which was part of Brazil until Brazil lost a war to Argentina in the 1820’s – would put it much too close to Buenos Aires for Argentina to feel comfortable with.

map-of-uruguay

From the US’s perspective, meanwhile, if a Brazil was able to eventually take control of Argentinian politics – whether formally or informally – it might be able to use Argentina’s resources (and also Uruguay’s, Paraguay’s, and Bolivia’s) to become more powerful still. Given that Brazil also has ties to the rest of Latin America and Spain, since Portuguese and Spanish are really not all that different, such a move could theoretically allow Brazil to become a rival global superpower to the United States. The US would almost certainly not want to take the chance of allowing that to happen, and so would probably prefer to ally itself closely with Argentina to begin with to make sure that it never does.

4. Shale Gas 

Today, an estimated 40% of US natural gas production (and the US produces the most natural gas in the world) comes from shale deposits, as does 15% of Canadian natural gas production (and Canada produces the world’s fourth most natural gas). And yet, because of the various challenges associated with shale production, no country in the world apart from the US or Canada produces any significant quantity of shale energy. And even US and Canadian shale production only began in earnest less than a decade ago.

Going forward, it may be that there will be diminishing returns in the US and Canadian shale gas production industries, such that their production costs will rise over time in comparison to the potential production costs of shale gas deposits in other countries. This could make American energy companies – the only ones with the expertise required to produce significant quantities of shale gas – look abroad for gas to develop. Outside of North America, the two largest shale gas reserves are thought to be in China and Argentina. Argentina is also thought to have the fourth highest shale oil reserves, behind only the US, Russia, and China.

Developing China’s shale gas reserves could be difficult for American companies, not only because of potential political barriers between the two countries, but also because of China’s high population density and shortage of freshwater (which fracking uses intensively) in some of its gas-rich regions, and because China’s basins are is in many cases more difficult to develop from a geological standpoint than American ones are. Developing shale reserves in Russia could also be very difficult for US companies.

Argentina, on the other hand, seems like a relatively favourable location for shale gas production. Argentina also wants to boost its gas production, since in recent years its demand for gas has outpaced its domestic supply, forcing it to become dependent on imports from Bolivia. And it has the gas pipelines to do so in place already, since it is has long been a major conventional gas producer (it produces around 13 times more natural gas per capita than China does). This is important, since natural gas cannot be transported in trucks, trains, or barges, like oil and coal can, but instead must have pipelines to move from the site of production to the markets of consumption. Argentina could perhaps become the next mecca for American energy companies, therefore. Chevron has already gotten the ball rolling on this, investing over a billion dollars in the country in 2013.

5. Mexico, the Carribbean, Central America, and Spain  

Argentina may be located on the oppopsite site of the globe from the United States, but Mexico, the Carribbean islands, Central America, and to a lesser extent the northern countries of South America and Spain are not. If these Spanish-speaking countries can become closer to the United States, it could create closer indirect ties between Argentina and the US (though, of course, the reverse of this is also true: if Mexico and the United States were to have a falling out as a result of drug trafficking or immigration issues, for example, it could potentially damage US-Argentinian relations in an indirect way). So, in what ways could these countries be likely to become closer to the US in the years ahead?

One area, of course, is outsourcing. In recent decades, when the United States was looking to save money by outsourcing its manufacturing base, it frequently chose to do so in China. Today, however, Chinese exports are increasingly expensive, and the US increasingly views China as a potential rival. It may be that the US will need to find new locations to outsource to in place of eastern China. Many see India as the likely candidate for this, and maybe they are right; however, the fact is that India, because of its intense regional internal complexities, lacks the political and commercial economies of scale that helped make China (and Japan, and Northeast Asia as a whole) such a significant exporter to the US during the past half century or so. Moreover, unlike Northeast Asia, India is located far closer to wealthy consumers in Europe, East Asia, the Persian Gulf, and Australia than it is to the US, so it may be that its economic ties will mainly be to those areas, rather than to North America. The US, then, may find that Mexico, Central America, and the Carribbean are the economies most likely to become its “next China”.

map

Mexico is already well along this path. Its exports to the US have benefited not only from cost increases in China, but also from the Texas shale gas boom, which, because gas cannot be shipped cheaply overseas like oil can, the Texans have been exporting huge amounts to Mexico, which has been helping to keep the cost of Mexican electricity relatively competitive. US exports to Mexico are up almost 450 percent since 1993 (when NAFTA was finalized), while Mexican exports to the US is up more than 600 percent since 1993.

Meanwhile, if the US and Cuba can finally mend fences, it could also obviously be a huge development, since Cuba is not only the largest Caribbean state, but is also located much closer to the US than any other. Given how slowly container ships move, this proximity to US markets could be very important for companies that are using “just-in-time” logistics as more have increasingly been doing as a result of the ability to use sophisticated computer programs to organize logistical networks. Indeed, any move toward “just-in-time” logistics would help grow US trade with Mexico and the Carribbean in general.

The proximity of this region to the US could also help it to grow its American and Canadian tourist industry, which for a number of reasons could increase a lot in the future. (For example, because of the growing number of American retirees, or the possibility of growing seasonal American unemployment as a result of job automation, or the increasing ease of being away from home for longer amounts of time because the Internet). In 2014, just under three-quarters of the estimated 68 million US  tourist visits abroad were to countries within the Americas.

Trade between South America and the US, meanwhile, could also increase because of possible changes in technology. If, for example, machines allow North America to take back much of the world’s manufacturing industry from Asia, it could cause countries like Peru, Chile, and Colombia to export more of their mineral resources northward to the US instead of halfway across the world to Asia. Similarly, the development of once-remote African, Siberian, or Central Asian mineral resources could lead Asian (and European) manufacturers to rely less on South American natural resources than they do today, which could also free them up to be sold to the United States instead.

It is probably also worth mentioning that in the past generation there has been a huge religious shift within Latin America, and particularly within Central America, whereby tens of millions of people who were raised Catholic have switched to become Protestant evangelicals (or, to a lesser extent, to become religiously unaffiliated or atheistic). The share of Protestant evangelicalism has risen from an estimated 4 to 19 percent of Latin America’s population since 1970. Given that more than 50 percent of the US population is Protestant, and that maybe 25 percent are Evangelical, this religious shift might influence relations between the US and Latin America to some degree. In Argentina, meanwhile, an estimated 15 percent of people are now Protestant, more than half of them new converts. Argentina’s population also has the highest rates of secular or atheistic people in Latin America apart from Uruguay, Chile, or the Dominican Republic, also giving it something in common with the “developed” world.

Finally, US ties to Spain will perhaps remain relatively close during the decades ahead. One reason for this is that the US is highly dependent upon Spain’s Strait of Gibraltar in order access to the Mediterranean Sea (and by extension, to access the Indian Ocean and the Black Sea). Another is that the US may want a strong ally in Europe in addition to Britain, in order to keep any potential relationships between major continental European powers like Germany, Russia, and France in check. Spain is arguably a likely candidate to become this ally, since Spain’s economic ties with Germany and Russia are very small compared to, say, Italy’s, France’s, or Turkey’s ties with Germany and Russia. Moreover, Spain has a potential connection to Spanish-speakers in the US, and it already has a relatively significant economic relationship with Britain (and could become by far the main destination for British Baby Boomer retirees in the coming years). Indeed, Spain has already been one of the US’s main European allies in modern times, for example sending more troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq than any European country apart from Britain, Poland, Italy, or the Netherlands.

 6.  Food Exports 

As was mentioned earlier in the article, Argentina and the US have often been economic competitors of one another in the past, as a result of both being major food exporting nations. Today they are still competitors in global food markets, though because the US economy is no longer as agriculturally-oriented as it once was, they do not always compete to the same extent as they used to in the past. If Argentina could reduce its dependence on agricultural exports as well, it could further cause the level of economic competition between the two countries to fall. Of course, the reverse of this is true as well: if Argentina and the US are able to increase their agricultural exports, they would maybe become more competitive with one another again.

One area to watch here is biofuels. Both the US and Argentina (but especially the US) are world leaders in biofuel production, and both might try to increase their biofuel production going forward in order reduce their dependence on oil imports and reduce their carbon emissions. Already, for example, about 40 percent of the US’s world-leading corn production is used to create ethanol, which accounts for around 10 percent of the fuels used by American vehicles. Argentina’s overall biofuel production is lower than the US’s, but its per capita biofuel production is quite a bit higher than the US’s.

If biofuels become the next big thing in “renewable” energy production, such that Argentina and the United States start using much more of their corn and soybean production to create biofuels to use domestically in their transportation sectors, then they will probably not be exporting nearly as much food as they do today, and so will not be competing as much with one another economically. If, on the other hand, their biofuel production decreases, then they could start competing with one another more in global food markets again.

Finally, in the decades ahead world food markets could perhaps be transformed by technology. If new technologies allow countries with a lot of remote, under-developed, or “unconventional” farmland – like Kazakstan, Russia, Brazil, Australia, Africa, etc.. – to become major grain exporters for the first time, or if it allows countries with little farmland but a lot of capital – like Germany, Japan, South Korea, etc.. – to become larger grain exporters, then countries that have historically dominated global grain exports, like the US (along with Canada) and Argentina (along with Paraguay and Uruguay), could find themselves in a much more diverse global food marketplace. If more countries turn in to major food exporters (which in fact did happen during the decade of the 2000’s, for instance with the quadrupling of Brazilian soybean exports, which led to increased Argentinian-Brazilian economic competition), it could potentially reduce the level of competition between Argentina and the US.

7. Bridging the Andes

Argentina and Chile are the second and fourth largest economies in South America and the 48th and 50th richest countries in the world in terms of their per capita nominal GDP. They both speak Spanish, and they share a land border that is more than 5000 km long, the third longest border between any two countries in the world. Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires is only 900 km from Chile’s capital of Santiago, while Argentina’s fourth largest city, Mendoza, is just 150 km from Santiago.

In contrast, Santiago is 2500-3000 km from Sao Paolo (Brazil’s largest city by far), Rio de Jaenaro (Brazil’s second largest city by far), or Lima (Peru’s largest city, and the second largest city in South America). It is 1400-1800 km from the largest cities of Paraguay and Bolivia, and 4200-4800 km from the largest cities of Colombia and Venezeula. In addition to their physical proximity, both Argentina and Chile could also potentially use one another as very significant short-cuts in order to access the Pacific Ocean (for Argentina) or the Atlantic Ocean (for Chile).

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And yet, Argentina and Chile actually do not have all that much to do with one another.  There is some trade and travel between the two countries, but not nearly as much as one might think. The reason for this is that the Andes Mountains sit in between the two countries, and they are such a formidable barrier that, even today, there are no railways or all-season roads that cross them. The lack of railways between the two countries is especially significant, because Argentina and Chile mainly produce bulk goods like grains (for Argentina) and minerals (for Chile), neither of which can be transported long distances efficiently by truck in most cases.

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In the future it might be that Argentina and Chile will overcome the Andes, whether through a tunnel with a railway through it (which they are hoping to finally build within the next decade), or by air travel becoming cheaper (whether passenger flights or cargo flights), or by more reliable mountain roads being constructed and maintained, or by cyberspace becoming more important, or by gas pipelines (which already exist — see map below) exporting more of Argentina’s natural gas to Chile’s gas-hungry economy. If this were to happen, the two countries might form a very close relationship. Though it is not likely to result in their fusing to become a single country, the future synergy between Chile and Argentina (Chargentina?) might become extremely significant.

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This could have an affect on US-Argentina relations, for several reasons. First, the US could see Argentina-Chilean cooperation as being worhty of political engaegement, since a connection with Chile could help Argentina to more successfully ensure that Brazil never becomes a great global power. Second, a railway linking Chile to Argentina could do a lot to help boost trade between Argentina and the US West Coast. From Chile’s northern commercial port of Antofogasta to Las Angeles by sea, for example, is less than half the distance from Argentina’s northern port of Buenos Aires to Las Angeles via the Panama Canal. Antofagasta to Las Angeles is even shorter than from Buenos Aires to Miami.

Lastly, a connection between Argentina and Chile could create an indirect connection between Argentina and the US. This is because the Chilean economy is much more closely integrated with the US economy than Argentina is. Whereas in Argentina trade with the US only accounts for about 8 percent of total Argentinian trade, and Argentina’s total trade only accounts for about 25 percent of Argentina’s GDP, in Chile trade with the US accounts for about 16 percent of total Chilean trade, and Chile’s total trade accounts for an estimated 56 percent of Chile’s GDP. In other words, Chile’s trade with the US relative to the size of its GDP is more than four times as large as Argentina’s is.

Even leaving Chile aside, Argentina could also find the Andes Mountains less imposing in the future because of the completion of the large expansion to the Panama Canal, which is expected to finally be complete (after having been delayed several times) in 2016. The expansion is supposed to allow ships carrying up to arount 13,000 containers to use the canal, up from around 5000 containers today. The expansion could help Argentina access the US West Coast, and could help Pacific Latin American countries, like Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and El Salvador, access the eastern half of the US. Similarly, improvements in the overland intermodal transport networks of countries like the US, Mexico, Panama, or Costa Rica could help in trade between the two sides of the American continent, which could have both a direct and an indirect positive influence on US-Argentinian trade.

8. The Falkland Islands

In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (which it calls the Malvinas Islands), prompting a war with Britain, which successfully counter-invaded the islands. Around 900 people were killed. Though certain elements of the US government (including, arguably, then-president Reagan) were sympathetic to the Argentinians claim on the islands, the US ultimately supported Britain in the war, hurting US-Argentine relations.

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Today the Falklands is still a tense issue in British-Argentinian relations. However, as the population of Britain is now another generation removed from its grand imperial past (remember, even as late as the 1970’s Britain still formally had a pretty huge empire), and as Argentina is no longer ruled by an intensley right-wing military junta as it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the war occured, and as the Falklands/Malvinas Islands are only home to fewer than three thousand people to begin with, it seems possible that it will become less and less problematic of an issue going forward.

If Britain and Argentina can finally manage to sort out the Islands issue, it might help to boost US-Argentina relations. In fact, even if Argentina and Britain cannot sort out the issue without another conflict, US-Argentinian relations could perhaps improve if the Argentinians become pleasantly surprised by US neutrality (or perhaps even outright support for Argentina) in any future spat (or war) over the islands.

9. The Antarctic Connection 

World maps tend to be somewhat misleading, since they often tend to make areas nearer to the north and south poles – like Greenland, for example – a lot larger than they actually are in the real world. This stretching applies to Argentina too, since Buenos Aires is acually located further south than Cape Town in South Africa or Sydney in Australia. The southernmost provinces of Argentina are about 2000 km further south than Africa or Australia, in fact, and they are several hundred km south of southern New Zealand. A similar thing is true of Chile: Santiago is situated at roughly the same latutide as Buenos Aires is, and southern Chile extends about as far south as southern Argentina does.

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One of the effects of this is that the distance between Argentina and the other southernmost countries in the world, namely Australia, South Africa, especially New Zealand, can be a lot less than it appears. Looking at a two-dimensional map, for instance, one would probably assume that northern Argentina is a lot closer to South Africa than southern Argentina is. But in fact, southern Argentina is actually slightly closer to South Africa than northern Argentina is. Both are only around 7000 km from South Africa, which means that by sea Argentina is actually closer to South Africa than Argentina is to Venezuela or Colombia. Indeed, from southern Argentina to South Africa is more than twice as close by sea as is the distance between southern Argentina and Europe.

Similarly, even though New Zealand is often considered a part of Asia, the distance by air from Buenos Aires to central New Zealand is actually about the exact same as from central New Zealand to Shanghai, while the flight from southern Argentina to southern New Zealand is about 1.5 shorter than from New Zealand to Beijing. The flight from Melbourne or Sydney in Australia to Buenos Aires, meanwhile, is only about 1.5 times further than from Melbourne or Sydney to Shanghai, and is around the same as from Melbourne or Sydney to Mumbai. Sydney is around 9000 km from southern Argentina by air, whereas New York City is around 1600 km from Sydney by air.

Thus, anything that would reduce air cargo costs and the safety costs associated with flying over the Antarctic ice could be significant in increasing the interactivity between these Antarctic-region countries. In fact, the most direct route between Argentina and western Australia is by flying basically over the South Pole itself. Even by sea, however, by rounding the southern cape of South America, Buenos Aires is about as close to New Zealand as New Zealand is from Shanghai (and quite a bit closer than to Beijing or Seoul), and Buenos Aires is only about 1.5 times further from Australia as Australia is from Shanghai.

If Argentina becomes much closer than it is today to South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand – each a significant member of the global “Anglosphere” – it could perhaps help bring Argentina indirectly closer to the United States. In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, the US continues to have some very significant strategic military interests in various parts of the region around Antarctica: in particular, the US navy wants to ensure that it continues to have access to the route around the southern cape of Argentina and Chile, since its aircraft carriers are too large to pass through the Panama Canal or the Northwest Passage to move between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

There are some other reasons to think that Argentina might become somewhat more closely entwined with these countries. In the case of South Africa, most of Argentina’s exports (which are mostly of food) pass directly by its shores on their way to food importing nations in the Arab world and southern Asia. In addition, South Africa’s chief regional rival is Angola, a Portuguese-speaking country that was often the world’s fastest growing economy during the past decade or so, and which has potential pan-Portuguese ties with Argentina’s potential rival, Brazil (and to a lesser extent with Mozambique, which is South Africa’s most populous next-door neighbour by far). It is not unthinkable that a South Africa-Argentina relationship would form to counter a Brazil-Angola one.

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Argentina could also potentially become closer with South Africa and Australia if Argentina finally uses its wealth to develop a large industrial base, since South Africa and Australia are both huge exporter of various minerals. Or, if Argentina finally mends its relationship with Britain over the Falklands; during the Falklands war, for example, even then-apartheid-era South Africa cut off diplomatic ties with Argentina, and did not resume them for nearly a decade. Also, if Australia’s severe water shortage risks eventually turn it from a net exporter of grains to a major net importer of grains, it could lead to a much larger trade relationship between the two countries.

Finally, because of the relative proximity between areas of the Antarctic region, if the southern halves of Argentina and southern Chile could be developed economically on a significant scale for the first time, perhaps through the use of new technologies like water desalination (southern Argentina is arid), wind power (southern Argentina is one of the windiest places on the planet), machine-intensive development (southern Argentina lacks a significant labour force because it is sparsely populated, but it is also resource rich), or cheaper air travel (southern Argentina and Chile have huge tourist potential, yet are very remote, and in many cases are also highly mountainous and archipelagic), it might have a positive influence on their economic interaction with fellow Antarctic-region economies in South Africa, southern Australia, and New Zealand.

10. Political Convergences

Earlier we talked about how Argentina’s and the United States’ geo-economic and political systems are in a certain sense complete opposites of one another, with Argentina being highly centralized around northern Argentina in general and Buenos Aires in particular, and with the US being extraordinarily diffuse by comparison. However, this could be changing in both countries, because of technology. In the US, technology may be serving to bring the country’s disparate regions closer together – as communication has already become easy because of the Internet, and travel could perhaps become much easier in the future as well. Technology might allow the US to overcome its de-centralized geography to become somewhat more centralized, in other words.

In Argentina, conversely, technology could perhaps allow the country to overcome its centralized geography to become somewhat more de-centralized, if, for example, it empowers Argentinian individuals, businesses, or other groups, allows northern Argentina to become somewhat less dependent on Buenos Aires, or allows for the development of regions – such as the Andes regions and southern Argentina – that in the past have not had significant economies. If technology allows the US to become more centralized and Argentina less centralized, the two countries might start to have more in common in terms of political culture. In turn, this could perhaps help them finally become closer to one another.