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Month: February 2019

Why is there a special relationship between America and Israel?

The US and Israel have been involved in a special yet complicated relationship since the beginnings of the proposals for a Zionist state. Over the decades both sides have aided one another and have found mutual security in their actions. Aside from the strategic aspect of the partnership of the two states, Israel embodies an ideal deeply embroiled in American thought since the earliest years of the New World. With the help of America, Israel has succeeded in its primary mission, providing a state for its people, and no American administration has considered reversing the decision on 1947, which established Jewish sovereignty. Israel’s relationship with the United States lies at the heart of the Middle East conflict, as not only does America’s influence underpin Israel’s immense military power and hence unyielding attitude, but it may also be the key to any compromise. The basis of the US-Israel relationship is extralegal, not found in formal bilateral treaties or documents, but in the public and private statements of presidents and other government officials.

Balfour Declaration

In 1917 there was a debate on whether or not the Balfour Declaration should be put forward, and on September 3rd the British cabinet voted to learn if American president Woodrow Wilson approved of it. This Balfour Declaration which was adopted by the British war cabinet on October 31, 1917 stated, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”. On September 10th Wilson’s Foreign Office official Colonel Edward House communicated to Lord Robert Cecil of the British cabinet that Wilson was reluctant to endorse it. Wilson was in an delicate situation as America was not at war with Turkey but rather its allies, so for him to publicly endorse the declaration would worsen US-Ottoman relations which were already strained due to the war. Chaim Weizmann who was the president of the Zionist organisation learned of this reluctance and cabled the declaration’s text to several Zionist leaders who were close to president Wilson in an attempt to change his mind. As a result, within 2 weeks the Zionists got Wilson to reverse his decision and in mid-October Wilson formally sent Britain his approval, telling them not to make it known publicly however. Wilson therefore risked harming US relations with the Ottomans in order to relieve the political pressure that was placed on him by Zionist leaders. Wilson’s approval is widely considered as decisive in the first step of the formulation of an Israeli state as well as the beginning of Israeli American relations, as one can only speculate whether the British would adopt the declaration without the American president’s approval[1].

Woodrow Wilson’s first two successors, Harding and Coolidge supported the Balfour Declaration as well, and in fact expanded the support for Zionism, becoming increasingly involved in the Zionist-Palestinian conflict throughout the 1920s. The actions of the White House and Congress during the Harding and Coolidge administrations in support of Zionism were taken despite Wilson’s claim of the people’s ‘rights to self-determination’, with these pro-Zionist steps being taken in spite of the 1920 and 1921 Arab riots.

During the 12 year presidency of Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945), British-Zionist relations deteriorated and the Zionists began looking more to America than to England for help. Roosevelt tried to avoid any involvement by only offering limited aid to Nazi victims, although Roosevelt did support the heavy immigration of Jews into Palestine just like the previous 3 administrations. As British-Zionist relations deteriorated even further during the Second World War, throughout the war, the Zionists had successfully worked on increasing their control over the American Jewish population, therefore sufficiently helping mobilise the American public opinion[2].

Post-WW2

After the Nazi defeat and WW2, an estimated 1 million Jews were displaced around non-Soviet Europe (Jews behind the iron curtain were not allowed to leave the communist regime), leading America and the Truman administration to a deep involvement in solving the problem of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict. Truman was highly aware of his voters’ opinions and in 1945, US Jews were split between Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists, all sending Truman conflicting signals. Truman met with the representatives of all 3 camps on several occasions each time reiterating that he was too preoccupied with the cold war to increase involvement in the Jewish immigration problem. However Truman did notably state that the formation of a Jewish state would cause a Third World War. In October 4, 1946, there was a sign that Zionist influences in Washington had got to Truman, as Truman gave a speech stating that the US could support “a viable Jewish State in the area of Palestine”. In November, four heads of US diplomatic missions in Arab states met with Truman and warned him that his pro-Zionist statements threatened US interests. He reportedly replied, “I’m sorry gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism, I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”[3].

Formation of Israeli State

On February 17, 1947, Britain announced that it lacked authority to give Palestine to the Arabs or the Jews, or to divide it between them. Britain said it thus had no choice but to submit the issue to the UN, and it did, and the UN general assembly opened a special session in April. At that time the figures against US support for a Jewish state included Defence Secretary James Forrestal, Secretary of State George Marshall, other State department personnel, and consular officials in the Middle East, as they feared such support would not only lead the Arabs to cut their oil supplies, but also become Soviet allies. As a result of big pressure mounted on the Truman administration from Zionists in the US, ahead of the vote for the 1947 partition of Palestine, US government officials pressurised other states to vote ‘yes’. Michael Comay, the head of Jewish Agency’s New York office stated that during the last 48 hours before the final vote, presidential aides, members of congress and even Supreme court justices joined together in an intensive lobby to secure positive votes, with examples of this action including Supreme court justices cabling the Philippines president, threatening him with negative consequences regarding Philippines interest in America if he did not change his vote from ‘no’ to ‘yes’, Truman aid Nile orchestrated similar pressure on Liberia and France, which were other key votes. These votes were crucial in securing a ⅔ majority in favour of the partition when the vote was held on November 29. As a result, the Zionists now had a UN resolution that favoured a Jewish state and allotted 53.46% of Palestine to the Jews, even though they occupied only 5-6% of its territory. Israel then declared its statehood on May 14 1948. Because of the intense US lobbying most states viewed the partition plan as an American project[4].

Relations throughout the Arab Israeli wars

The day after the Israeli declaration of independence, five Arab states, Lebanon, Syria, Trans-Jordan, Egypt and Iraq declared war on Israel. The US supported Israel throughout the war through both arms sales as well as morally. Israel repeatedly violated the truce agreement signed on July 19, 1948, by continuing its major offensives in the Negev desert. Despite this and strong State department objections, Truman continued his support for Israel, in doing so sacrificing the basic rights of around 1.4 million Palestinians. In early 1949, the UN negotiated a series of armistices between Israel and the Arab states involved, leaving Israel in control of 77% of Palestinian land. Through its role in the UN, America helped take even more land than in the 1947 partition plan through truce violations[5].

The 1967 Arab Israeli war broke out in a hostile atmosphere where American policy was pointed towards punishing Egypt due to its association with the Soviet Union during the 1960s at the helm of the cold war, and aiding its enemies, among them Israel. The outbreak of war in June 1967 revealed the regional fragility at the time. Despite increasing demand for Arab oil, the 1967 war was a catalyst for US support for Israel increasing enormously. In fact, it is reported that the US encouraged Israel to attack Egypt in order to weaken president Nasser, who had well developed anti-imperialist tendencies. Furthermore, by defeating Nasser, Israel opened the way for conservative Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, Libya and Kuwait to use their financial resources to neutralise the threat to their nations coming from Nasser’s Egypt[6].

On the 6th of October, 1973, Egypt launched an attack on Israel through the Suez Canal, in addition to a powerful Syrian offensive on the Golan Heights. After initial Egyptian and Syrian successes, the battle started going Israel’s way from October 17. There was a cease-fire signed on the 24th, giving the US time to evaluate the situation. Several days later the US State Department announced the start of an airlift of military supplies to Israel to counter the Soviet airlift of supplies to Egypt and Syria. President Nixon therefore formally asked Congress for $2.2 billion in immediate military aid to Israel. For the first time the US had formally taken Israel’s side in an Arab Israeli conflict. However in 1974, Richard Nixon was replaced by Gerald Ford in the White House, who took a harder line on Israel and threatened a reduction of US support for Israel if it didn’t withdraw from Sinai, and reduce its aggression in the region. Jimmy Carter then set up a meeting in Camp David between Israeli and Egyptian presidents Ernest Begin and Anwar Sadat.

Ultimately, the talks succeeded, and Israel and Egypt signed the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty in 1979. Israel subsequently withdrew its troops and settlers from the Sinai, in exchange for normal relations with Egypt and a lasting peace, with last Israeli troops exiting on April 26, 1982[7].

 

The Nuclear Question

The prospect of nuclear war in the Middle East unleashed by Israel and beyond the capacity of the Bush administration to control was a real, but little publicised element of the 1990-91 crisis in the Persian Gulf. If nuclear war had occurred it would have transformed both the conflict and its consequences. The spectre of atomic warfare in the Middle East has placed the region’s nuclearization at the heart not only of US-Israeli relations, but also at the center of Israel’s drive to preserve its regional nuclear hegemony.

In December 1990, a senior air force officer pronounced that his branch of the armed services was ready “on every level, [including] non-conventional warfare capability.”9 The day that the US-led bombing of Iraq began, Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld warned that “if [Saddam Hussein] fires chemical weapons at Tel Aviv, someone in Tel Aviv may go crazy, and he knows it.”

Based on signals from Israeli leaders that they would enter the war against Iraq only if the latter breached the non-conventional threshold, the Bush administration wanted to destroy Iraq’s ballistic missile capability in order to forestall the use of these weapons for a chemical attack against Israel[8].

Present Day

In America, views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more partisan than they’ve been since 1978, according to one study, which revealed that 79% of Republicans say their sympathies lie more with Israel than with the Palestinians, while only 27% of Democrats are more sympathetic to Israel. Another study revealed that, while a large majority of Democrats see Israel as a strategic asset, 55% of Democrats also see Israel as a strategic burden, and 60% of Democrats believe the United States should impose sanctions or take serious action in response to Israeli settlements. In the realm of trade, Israel’s trade to the United States is essential as the number of dollars created by exports from Israel create the highest number of U.S. jobs among its free-trading partners. For Israel, the United States remains a vital free- trading partner as it provides the country with an outlet for goods and services[9]. Donald Trump is backing Netanyahu’s government with hardly a critical word regarding Israeli activity towards the Palestinian people, and in 2018 announced the opening of a US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. From the vantage point of the United States, Israel today behaves like a dependable ally in a threatening world.

To many observers, the US-Israeli connection appears to possess its own dynamism which seems to be drawing the United States almost inexorably into an increasing direct involvement in the complexities of the volatile Middle East. U.S.-Israel relations continue to be an important source of economic, potential and financial support to both countries a partnership that continues to grow with time. This varied connection between the two countries will have greater implications in the future, and should also provide a good buffer against shocks in the world economy.

 

[1] https://archive.org/details/americafoundingo00mulh/page/60

[2] https://archive.org/details/americafoundingo00mulh/page/60

[3] https://archive.org/details/americafoundingo00mulh/page/60

[4] https://archive.org/details/americafoundingo00mulh/page/60

[5] https://archive.org/details/americafoundingo00mulh/page/60

[6] https://archive.org/details/DTIC_ADA035072/page/n11

[7] https://archive.org/details/DTIC_ADA035072/page/n11

[8] https://www.jstor.org/stable/4328496?casa_token=4Od6NMkFoiwAAAAA:tplZfzOChzDtkYh-t5ba0J_ZEWx-G4pxgs1qvWRRChB2KZLkJmpYbEuAaHrvoY1x4K0OUueKxiiJ8tVW1Oj_KEOhaVEeVXXoDAwg50H_3Fh8As21XCRv-Q&seq=10#metadata_info_tab_contents

[9] https://borgenproject.org/growing-importance-u-s-israel-relations/

Will Italy leave the European Union

Following a decrease of 0.1% in the third quarter of 2018, Italy’s economy contracted of 0.2% in the final quarter of the same year. As such, Italy is now officially in technical recession; just when it seemed to be recovering from the effects of the debt crisis. This has sparked an intense political debate and has cast doubts over its economic prospects. But what does this actually mean for Italy and the EU?

Technical recession: the domestic debate

The news that Italy has entered into technical recession have immediately triggered a mutual-blaming quarrel between political forces. The governing coalition formed by the Five Star Movement and the League attributed the fault to the former ruler, the Democratic Party; who, on its part, accuses the economic policies of the current executive.

In reality, the situation is way more complex, and the responsibility cannot be ascribed to a single reason. As in all economic issues, there are multiple factors in place whose interplay determines the growth on a given period; therefore, it is difficult to clearly find out who or what is responsible. Economic performance is a long-term issue. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos once said that “if we have a good quarter it’s because of the work we did three, four, and five years ago. It’s not because we did a good job this quarter”. His sentence does also apply to states. So, part of the responsibility can be imputed to the previous governments who, in spite of having managed to reassure the markets and bring Italy back on the path to a limited growth, failed to reduce the country’s huge debt. But it is equally true that the current executive, in power since June 2018, has raised the concerns of investors with the economic policies it has implemented or proposed.

First, it attempted to adopt an expansionary fiscal policy to boost growth by increasing public expenditures. However, this alarmed the EU Commission: even though Italy’s budgetary plan did not break the Union’s rules, it was still considered too risky as it would have caused a fiscal deficit and increased the already enormous public debt. This resulted in a standoff that was ultimately solved when the Italian government partially backed down and reduced the planned spending. Yet, the episode caused stress on the financial markets and harmed trust among investors. Another controversial topic in the economic policy of the incumbent government is the introduction of a basic income for unemployed people: it would increase public spending, but its future benefits are dubious.

Technical recession: the external factors

Apart from the policies of this government or the previous ones, there are many other external factors that the executive cannot control and that probably have had a more important impact on Italy’s economic performance. The country’s GDP contractions comes amid a global slowdown. The growth of the EU as a whole has been limited to 0.3% in the final quarter of 2018. There are some issues on trade as well. China, the world’s second-largest economy and a non-negligible export destination for Italy, is also growing at a slower pace than before. Problems exist also with another and more important trading partner: the United States. President Trump’s protectionist policies have surely had a negative impact on the EU and on Italy. At the end of May 2018 the US imposed 25% tariffs on steel and 10% ones on aluminium. In 2016, Italian metal exports to the US were worth almost 2 billion dollars. This is not an impressive figure, but more important industries could soon be hit and this eventuality could have had an impact. Trump is threatening to put tariffs on cars, that always in 2016 represented 9.5% of total Italian exports to America for a total value of more than four billion dollars. Again, this is not an extraordinary amount, but the spill-over effects on related industries should also be considered. The EU is trying to reach a deal on trade with the Trump administration, also by menacing to impose counter-tariffs wort 23 billion dollars on US products, but in case it fails Italy will surely be negatively affected. The looming possibility of a no-deal Brexit in recent months might also have had a role. The UK is a more important destination for Italian export than China and the US, and the prospect of a no-deal scenario may have had an impact, even though it is still too early to evaluate this. But the most important point probably concerns energy supplies. Italy is dependent on petroleum imports, and the price of oil surged in 2018 to reach the climax at the beginning of October, thus covering much of the period in which the Italian economy has contracted. The price went down since then, and the effects will probably be felt in the coming months.

These are only some of the numerous factors that may have determined Italy’s recession in the second half of 2018. What is important to understand is that the issue is very complex and easy explanations are not effective indicators of the reasons behind the GDP contraction. But what about the future prospects for Italy? Will it leave the Eurozone?

A prelude to leaving the Euro?

Since the debt crisis of 2011 and the subsequent austerity policies, Euroscepticism has become common in Italy’s political discourse. EU institutions were criticized and perceived as technocrats at the service of financial interests, and some even advocated for Italy to abandon the EU or at least the Euro. The most recent recession, albeit marginal by now, might reopen the debate, especially if it were to continue. After all, the two ruling parties were among the most vocal anti-Euro political forces, even though they took more moderate positions later on.

This is a political choice that Italy will have to make, but it will have of course major economic implications. According to the optimum currency area theory, it is economically beneficial to have a single currency in case the region is strongly integrated by intense trade exchanges and a great mobility of production factors. So, a country evaluating whether to enter or leave a common currency area should assess its degree of economic integration with other participants. As a matter of fact, the higher the level of integration, the greater are the benefit and the lowest are the costs of renouncing to monetary sovereignty to have a single currency. For what concerns the benefits, the main advantage of a common currency is to eliminate transaction costs due to exchange and interest rates and their variation. If the economies are closely intertwined with an elevated trade volume and a strong mobility of workers and productive factors, having different currencies brings very high costs that partly eliminate the gains of trade; and adopting a single currency removes these costs. But having a common currency also brings its own costs, because it makes it impossible for states to use monetary policy to counter asymmetric economic shocks, namely recessions that hit only that country but not others. If it has its own currency whose value can freely float, its automatic depreciation will boost export and counter the economic slowdown. But if it has renounced to its monetary sovereignty by adopting a common currency like the Euro, this mechanism is impossible. However, a high degree of economic integration minimizes this inconvenience, as it also allows to reduce the recession’s effects. If the country’s economy is closely intertwined with that of its fellow partners, the diminution of the price of its products will encourage others to buy them, thus increasing its exports. Similarly, if there is a high mobility of workers, then jobless people will be able to emigrate to other countries thus re-equilibrating the domestic labour market. In short, if the economies are strongly integrated, the benefits of having a single currency are high and the costs are low; so, it is wise to adopt the common currency. Now, is it the case of Italy?

For what concerns trade, in 2016 Italy’s exports to Eurozone alone was worth 192 billion dollars, over a total amounting to 450 billion. In the same year, its imports from other Eurozone countries amounted to 207 billion on a total of 397. This shows the importance of its exchanges with the other countries using the Euro. Moreover, its economy is also integrated with the Eurozone via mutual investments, expats, joint-ventures, services and others. If it abandoned the Euro, then it would lose all the advantages of having the same currency as its main economic partners. In addition, if it came back to the lira it would have to face the short-term shock. The currency would rapidly depreciate, and while it is true that this would boost export, it would also bring back consistent transaction costs. Moreover, inflation would erode the people’s purchasing power and there would be deep consequences on its debt with soaring spread and strong difficulties to obtain new loans. The situation would surely stabilize with time, but all in all, this does not seem to be an economically-convenient move for Italy.

Conclusion

The fact that Italy has entered in technical recession is surely no good news for it and the EU. Blaming each other at the political level will not solve the issue, also because there are many factors at play and responsibility cannot be fully attributed to anyone. Much will depend on future economic developments; but the contraction is limited by now and, in spite of the Eurosceptic positions of the current government, there is nothing that indicates that Italy will leave the Eurozone anytime soon.

The geopolitics of the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is an immense maritime space of great geopolitical and geoeconomic importance. It is a crossroad for sea trade that connects the advanced economies of the East and the West. At the same time, there are also many factors that threaten its stability. These are often closely related with the international dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, to the point that the two areas can be considered as single reality.

West: Challenges and Opportunities for Africa

On its western part, the Indian Ocean touches the shores of the vast African continent. This creates a peculiar mix of opportunities and challenges for coastal states like South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya. Thanks to their position, they can easily reach important economic areas such as India, the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Engaging in maritime trade with these regions could provide a major economic boost to these African states and improve the living conditions of their citizens. In addition, emerging powers like China and India are heavily spending in Africa to access its much-needed natural resources and exploit the opportunities for high investment returns. Yet, in the case of China, this also raises concerns. While African states welcome Chinese investments as they come with no legal precondition on the respect of civil and human rights, some worry that its economic penetration might result in political leverage and in a form of economic neo-colonialism.

There are also two states whose situation is particular. The first is Ethiopia, the powerhouse of the Horn of Africa. As other states along the continent’s eastern coast, it can greatly benefit from international sea trade, but unfortunately it is a landlocked country. This largely explains the recent deal it reached with Eritrea to settle their longstanding conflict: turning Eritrea into a friend would enable Ethiopia to access the sea and engage in maritime trade along one of the busiest routes in the world. As a matter of fact, the Red Sea is an obliged passage for ships sailing between Europe and Asia. Ethiopia has even expressed its intention to build a navy, which is a clear sign of its seafaring ambitions.

The second peculiar case is Somalia. In theory, it is also poised to take advantage from its position on the Indian Ocean, but in practice it is a failed state ruled by armed groups where the central government has not enough power to pursue such kind of maritime policy.

This raises the issue of the threats to sea trade along the Western shores of the Indian Ocean. Somalia is part of the problem, as it has become a hub for piracy. The difficult economic conditions have pushed many Somalis to start attacking cargos navigating along the country’s coasts. This became a serious problem that prompted the international community to organize a military operation to patrol the Somali waters and combat piracy. These efforts succeeded in securing the area and in reducing the number of attacks, but as long as the socio-economic conditions of coastal population do not improve, the risk of piracy will remain.

Then, there are two important chokepoints that connect the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean via the Red Sea, which can be considered as a peripheral area of the Indian Ocean putting it in communication with Europe: first, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait; second, the Suez Canal. Both passages are essential for sea trade, and any interruption would have a major impact on the global economy.

North: India & Hormuz

Located to the North, India is certainly the main regional player. A large and fast-growing economy, it is one of today’s most important rising powers and its influence is growing worldwide. New Delhi considers the Indian Ocean as “its own” maritime space, a vector for power projection and economic growth but also an area to be preserve from the intromissions of hostile powers for the sake of national security. India can enormously benefit from its position protracting towards the ocean midway along the vital East-West sea lanes, and in fact it already taking advantage from it. At the same time, by building a powerful navy it can extend its power abroad and protect its interests. As a matter of fact, New Delhi is concerned over the presence of foreign actors in the Indian Ocean, most notably Beijing. The PRC is indeed investing heavily in the region on the basis of its Maritime Silk Road plan, aimed at creating a string of ports to sustain trade with Europe. This is of central importance for China’s economy, which relies on sea trade for exporting goods and importing hydrocarbons; but some consider that the real objective of the project is to extend its influence in the region by economic means. In a context of broader Sino-Indian rivalry, New Delhi worries about Beijing’s presence in countries like the Maldives or Sri Lanka, considering it as a potential threat to its security. Similarly, India also sees unfavorably the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will connect the PRC with the ocean via the port of Gwadar.

Again, there is also a strategic chokepoint to consider: the Hormuz Strait, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean. This passage is vital for tankers carrying Middle Eastern oil to Europe and Asia and any interruption would have catastrophic economic consequences. Unfortunately, this is not a remote event: in case of a serious standoff between the US and Iran, the Strait would soon become a major flashpoint, since Teheran’s deterrence strategy is largely based on blocking the Strait; which it can do with relative ease due to geographic reasons.

East: the Indo-Pacific

To the East, the Indonesian archipelago and Australia separate the Indian Ocean from the Pacific. Similarly to Somalia, the waters around Indonesia had become infested with pirates in the recent past; and the phenomenon has been reduced only thanks to multilateral military and development efforts. Yet, if the living conditions of coastal populations deteriorated again, the problem may arise once more.

That said, Indonesia and Australia benefit from their position between the two oceans. It allows them to project their power in both directions, to reach the large European and East Asian markets and finally to access Africa with its resources and its potential for investments. Indonesia is particularly relevant in this regard: it is another emerging economy with a great potential, and its virtually controls all the major straits connecting the two oceans: Sunda, Lombok and most importantly Malacca. Indonesia’s growth is largely due to its position on these sea lanes, and Singapore has based its incredible wealth on it. Again, these passages are essential for maritime trade between Europe and Asia as well as for the latter’s energy security; and would become hotspots in case of war, notably between the US and China. If the US Navy closed them, it could seriously harm the tenure of the PRC’s economy. At the same time, they are also essential for American allies like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan; meaning that the US will use its naval power to ensure no hostile power blocks the Straits.

The eastern part of the Indian Ocean plays a fundamental role for maritime security; and the importance of the juncture between the two Oceans is leading many scholars, analysts and policy-makers to consider them as a single maritime region: the Indo-Pacific. The Indian Ocean is extremely important for states in East Asia because it represents the necessary passage to reach Europe; and the security dynamics of the Indian Ocean and of the Asia-Pacific are closely related. China’s New Silk Road initiative, the forays of its Navy in the waters of the Indian Ocean, the Sino-Indian competition, the free flow of oil from the Gulf and piracy in Indonesia are all strategic issues that tie the two oceanic regions. This explains why the concept of Indo-Pacific is also taking importance in American strategic discourse: the economic and security dynamics of the two areas are so intertwined that they must be considered as a single space. Other powers are applying the same logic, and this is having practical consequences: the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue uniting the US, Japan, India and Australia indicates their willingness to strengthen their political and military cooperation to face shared security challenges like the rise of China; and it represents the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a political and strategic reality.

Conclusion: an Indo-Pacific future?

Many scholars believe that “the future is Asian”, which is even the title of a recent book by Parag Khanna. But Asia’s rise largely depends on trade with Europe and on oil imports from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean. As such, Asian states have major strategic concerns in this area. China, Japan and South Korea need to keep the sea lanes open. India is an emerging power whose influence is growing across the world via the sea. Indonesia is the pivot connecting the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. The United States, the world’s primary security provider, is facing many challenges in both Oceans and is committed to preserving the freedom of navigation. Moreover, the interests of the various stakeholders in the area are sometimes colliding, such as in the case of China and India. As such, with Asia’s importance growing every year in both economic and political terms, the Indo-Pacific is also gaining primary strategic relevance.

That’s all for today guys, thanks for watching another KJ Vid. What are your views on Italy’s recession. Will Italy recover or implode and potentially leave the EU. We would love to hear your views in the comments below especially if you are from Italy.

Please also consider supporting us on Patreon so we can produce more of these geopolitical reports and help to keep us independent from political influence.

That’s all for today, see you next time.

Stabalizing Iraq and Syria

After years of war, it appears that Iraq and Syria are gradually stabilizing. The government forces supported by the US and Russia respectively are restoring their control over the two countries, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State has lost virtually all of its territory. Yet, this may just be an ephemeral peace. The social and economic foundations of the two states remain shaky at best, and many issues are still unsettled; notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the future of the Kurds. Without a comprehensive action to solve such questions, peace in Iraq and Syria will not be achieved on a solid basis.

I’m your host Kasim, welcome to another KJ Vid. In this video we will discuss the future of Iraq and Syria. Just before we begin, we would like to invite you to our Patreon account where you can get the full reports and other perks for our content. Supporting us on Patreon helps to keep our channel independent and create more videos.

Iraq and Syria in chaos

Iraq has been ravaged by conflict with practically no interruption since the US invasion in 2003. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime destabilized the country and resulted in a long insurgency against the occupying American forces. Progress in state-building was slow and limited in scope. The US ultimately withdrew its troops from the country in 2011 by a decision of then-President Barack Obama; but Iraq was still too weak to ensure the authority of the central government over all of the territory. In the same year, the Arab Spring broke out all over the Middle East. In Syria, it rapidly degenerated into a violent civil war opposing the loyalists to President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels; a broad term indicating various armed groups of different affiliation, ranging from those who favoured Western-like democracy and jihadist groups.

Things got more complicated in 2014 with the rise of a Sunni extremist group that would later become known as Islamic State. Exploiting the chaos that reigned in Syria due to the civil war and the power vacuum caused by the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, it took control of large swathes of lands in the northern parts of the two countries. In particular, it seized important facilities such as oil fields and dams in Iraq and it even threatened Baghdad. This prompted the US to organize a multinational coalition to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the terrorist group by deploying special forces and by conducting air strikes. Soon, they also started operating in Syria, where the conflict was about to turn into a major international matter involving various foreign powers that supported the government or the rebels to pursue their own interest.

Russia intervened actively since 2015 to sustain Bashar al-Assad, its main ally in the area. Western powers assisted the rebels and bombed facilities to punish the loyalists for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians. Turkey, who opposed the al-Assad government, became directly involved in 2016 with the main objective of preventing the formation of some kind of Kurdish territorial entity. As a matter of fact, the Kurds had rapidly proved to be an effective combat force in fighting the IS, and received support from the American-led coalition. This allowed them to take control over a large strip of territory at the border with Turkey, who feared the area would become independent or at least a rear base for Kurdish fighters operating against its territory. As such, it conducted several military operations to secure the lands along its borders and expel Kurdish forces. Iran also took part to the war by sending weapons and troops in support of al-Assad on the basis of the common Shia faith and of converging geopolitical interest. To counter its growing influence, Israel also carried out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian outposts.

Now, it seems that the two intertwined conflicts are about to end. In Syria the government is slowly restoring its authority and the Islamic State has lost almost all of the territory it controlled there and in Iraq. Yet, many issues remain unresolved, notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the Kurdish question.

Sunni Arabs: excluded from power

Sunni Arabs belong to the largest of the two main branches of Islam, the other being the Shias. But even though they are a majority in the Ummah as a whole, their situation in Iraq and Syria is particular.

For what concerns the former, Sunnis are indeed a minority. Most Iraqis are Shias, which also means that they are politically closer Iran, the main centre of Shiism. Yet, Sunnism had its glorious days in the country. During the Middle Ages, Baghdad was the heart of the mighty Abbasid Caliphate, from which today’s Islamic State took many symbols. More recently, Sunni Arabs formed the ruling elite in Iraq during the years of Saddam’s rule. His Ba’athist regime was dominated by Sunnis, which meant that in Iraq a minority was ruling over the majority. But the situation was reversed after Saddam was overthrown following the US invasion in 2003. Since Sunnis had formed the backbone of Saddam’s dictatorship, they were removed from their posts and largely excluded from power to the benefit of the Shias. At that point, the Sunni Arab community became the main pool of recruitment for the anti-American insurgency and then for the Islamic State. The situation has improved since then, but properly integrating Sunnis in Iraqi political life remains a central matter to stabilize the country.

The situation of Sunnis in Syria is the opposite and resembles that of Iraq under Saddam, albeit inverted. Sunni Arabs form the majority of Syria’s population, but the governing elite belongs to the Alawite movement, which is a sect of Shia Islam. This generated much resentment among Sunnis, who felt politically emarginated. As a result, many of them joined the ranks of the rebels when the uprising started in 2011. Now, the government seems close to prevailing, but it will have to establish a more inclusive form of governance to ensure peace in the long term.

The Kurds: a stateless people

In the case of the Kurds, the problem is slightly different. Here, it is not about a religious divide, but rather an ethnic and linguistic one. The Kurds are mostly Sunni and speak their own separate language, and as a single people they count around 40 million individuals. They live in a region located at the crossroad of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Yet, their demands for an independent state have systematically been frustrated, and today they remain a stateless nation with little prospects of getting their own independent country.

Yet, they play an important political role. The lands where they live include the oil-rich areas of northern Iraq. The Kurdistan’s Workers Party, or PKK, has been waging a decade-long insurgency against Turkey to obtain independency or at least autonomy for Kurdistan; but Ankara has always firmly opposed their demands without hesitating to use violence and there is no indication that things will change anytime soon. In Iraq, several tens of thousand Kurds were killed by Saddam’s regime during the ‘80s in what is known as Anfal genocide. Later on, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds became America’s most effective on-the-ground allies in the fight against the Islamic State. But this angered Turkey out of fear that Kurdish-controlled territory could turn into an independent state or a base for operations on Turkish soil. As such, Ankara dispatched its military several times to secure Kurdish areas along its borders. However, this has led to a clash with the US, in a moment when bilateral relations are already strained. Washington has been supporting the Kurds and needs to reward them somehow; but any concession implying autonomy would upset Ankara, who is also an important ally. At the same time, Turkey cannot defy the US because the political and possibly economic retaliation might be too harmful. This has resulted into a stalemate that remains unresolved.

As in the case of Sunni Arabs, solving the Kurdish question will be of central importance for ensuring a long-lasting peace in Iraq and Syria, but finding a common agreement is even more difficult in this case: it is not a mainly domestic matter, but a transnational one involving various stakeholders, which makes finding a solution an even more complex endeavour.

Conclusion: ensuring inclusivity

As we have seen, conflict resolution in Iraq and Syria demands to integrate both Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the social and political life of the two countries. This is essential for granting peace in the long term: if Sunnis are not adequately represented, the Islamic State or a similar organization may soon rise again; while the Kurds may take arms and start a large-scale insurgency that would be difficult to tackle. Unfortunately, actually doing so is not easy. Both groups have powerful enemies and are internally fragmented, and other players can exploit these divisions for their own interests. As a matter of fact, major powers like the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey all have their own interests in the area; which is another complicating factor. In addition, given the large number of tribes, parties, armed factions, ethnic groups that live in Iraq and Syria, finding an agreement that satisfies everyone is extremely difficult. But to prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups or a new violent phase of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and to ensure the stabilization of Iraq and Syria, a solution must be found in this sense.

That’s all for today guys, thanks for watching another KJ Vid. What are your views on CPEC, is it a good thing or bad thing for Pakistan? Is it likely to succeed or fail? We would love to hear your views in the comments below.

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Is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Failing?

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, is a massive infrastructural project announced for the first  time in 2013. It is part of the broader “One Belt, One Road” initiative, launched in the same year and also called OBOR. However, the CPEC has recently received several setbacks that are raising doubts over its completion. So, what is the future of the project?

Why the CPEC?

The CPEC is one of the six “Economic Corridors” that China is creating in cooperation with other countries in the context of the OBOR initiative to improve transportation, intensify trade and boost the respective economies with the broader aim of extending China’s economic and political presence across the globe and ultimately reaching the vast European market. The CPEC should pass through Pakistan to connect China’s landlocked Xinjiang province with the Arabian Sea; and it pursues multiple objectives.

First, Xinjiang hosts significant natural resources but is economically poor and affected by discontent among the local Uighur population. With the CPEC and other region-focused projects, China wants to develop the area so to improve its living conditions, exploit its economic assets and make of it a crossroad for East-West trade.

Second, the PRC wants to open an alternative access to the ocean. Today, cargos sailing to and from Europe as well as oil tankers from the Middle East need to pass through Malacca and other straits, which are extremely vulnerable chokepoints that could easily be blocked by the US Navy in case of war. This would be catastrophic for the PRC, which consequently wants to have an access to the sea that avoids these exposed passages.

Third, the CPEC will foster relations with Pakistan. The two countries are already primary partners, and the project will create closer ties by increasing economic interdependency and by improving the living conditions of locals. A solid bilateral partnership is also mutually beneficial considering their relations with India. Especially for Pakistan, having China as an ally is extremely useful to keep India at bay; but the contrary it is also true, even though Beijing tries to downplay the existing problems with New Delhi.

The CPEC in practice

To reach these strategic objectives, China plans to build a series of infrastructures in Pakistan. By now, it has already invested at least 60 billion US dollars in the initiative; which includes motorways, railways, ports, electric power plants, pipelines and more. Several Special Economic Zones will also be established. All these projects will be connected one with the other to some degree, with the aim to create economic prosperity and link Xinjiang with Pakistan’s southern shores.

A particular relevance has been given to Gwadar, located in south-western Pakistan along the coast next to Iran. It will be the endpoint of the CPEC, and one of its main centres. In particular, Gwadar’s harbour is being expanded and upgraded: it will be transformed into a “smart port” surrounded by a Special Economic Zone that will host a large industrial area. It will be served by a new international airport, several facilities to improve the local living conditions, and it will be linked with the rest of the country and with China by road and train. The port became partially operational in November 2016, when a joint Sino-Pakistani truck convoy successfully travelled from north to south across Pakistan and reached Gwadar where the containers were shipped to overseas destinations. Yet, the remaining projects are still under construction.

As far as other components are concerned, nine of them are already operational. These include a coal-powered electricity generation plant in Karachi and a similar one in the Punjab region, several windfarms and the Quaid-e-Azam solar park, one of the largest in the world. Other thirteen facilities are being completed and are scheduled to become soon operational.

Yet, there have been some setbacks as well. Combined with Pakistan’s shaky financial condition, this has raised doubts over the general tenure of the CPEC project.

The problems of CPEC

The first aspect to consider is that Pakistan’s political and financial situation is not very promising for the future of the CPEC.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was a supporter of the project, but in August 2018 he was substituted by Mr. Imran Khan, who on the contrary has criticized the initiative out of concerns over corruption and lack of transparency. He also complained that the billions of dollars that China is investing in the country bring little benefit to Pakistani workers, as the facilities are almost entirely build by Chinese nationals. This does not mean that he has rejected the CPEC, but he is certainly less enthusiast than his predecessor. In addition, Pakistan is crossing troubled waters in financial terms. According to The Express Tribune, a Pakistani newspaper, the country’s owes 40 billion to China. This has raised the alarm over a “debt trap”; meaning that China may exploit its financial leverage on Pakistan to exert political influence. In this regard, it is true that Pakistan’s net public debt is estimated at 67.6% of the GDP, that its external debt amounted to 82 billion dollars at the end of 2017, and that the federal government must face a chronic penury of foreign currency; which is a problem when having to repay external debts.

Therefore, there are doubts about Pakistan’s financial tenure in the immediate future. The country received various loans from the IMF in the past, but it has rejected the latest 8-billion-dollar bailout plan. Instead, Mr. Khan’s government preferred to demand financial aid to a few “friendly countries”, notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China. This has already brought some fruits. An agreement has been reached between Islamabad and Abu Dhabi for a support package worth 6.2 billion dollars, with 3 billion scheduled to be sent shortly. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s Prince bin Salman will soon sign a deal for building a 10-billion-dollar oil refinery in Gwadar, thus adding further significance to the port city. Cooperation in other sector will also be discussed.

In regard to China, the situation is more complex. Bilateral relations remain good, but there are growing concerns about the completion of the CPEC; at least in all of its parts. In the context of its troubled financial situation, Pakistan has recently announced its withdrawal from the Rahim Yar Khan power station, on the basis that electricity production capability is already sufficient and that consequently the project would not be economically viable. Yet, this may be a political excuse to hide the real problem, namely that there are not the funds for it. In addition, there are delays in the construction of the smart port in Gwadar. In this regard, Chinese companies have allegedly warned that Pakistan will need to pay to cover the additional costs caused by this postponement.

These events have created much speculation about the completion of the CPEC as a whole, especially in India, where major newspapers like the Times of India have reported such news. As a matter of fact, there is a sensible degree of strategic rivalry between Beijing and New Delhi, who perceives its northern neighbour and its close ties with Islamabad as a potential threat. On its part, China has responded to the recent events along a double line. State-sponsored media like the Global Times have soon published articles where they reassure about the solidity of the Sino-Pakistani partnership and about the determination of both sides to end the works on the CPEC. At the same time, they have accused other countries of being “jealous” and of having “aggressive intentions”. It is clear that the message was a response to the news about the recent setbacks of the CPEC project reported by Indian media. By explicitly addressing the recent reports by Indian news channels, the Global Times has also downplayed the entity of Pakistan’s China-owned debt and have suggested third parties not to meddle in the issue; all while affirming that India will also benefit from the CPEC. According to such Chinese articles, which cite the PRC’s embassy in Pakistan as a source for the figures, Islamabad does not owe 40 billion dollars to Beijing. Instead, they claim the debt only amounts to 6 just over billion, including interests.

Apart from this, the security aspect should also be mentioned. The CPEC crosses territories where terrorist and separatist groups are present. Some of them do not see China favourably, and this represents a non-negligible threat to the project. In fact, some attacks have already taken place against Chinese objectives. In August 2018, a suicide bombing injured some Chinese engineers. In November, a secessionist movement called Balochistan Liberation Army targeted the Chinese consulate in Karachi. By now, none of these events has seriously hampered the CPEC, but this may be the beginning of a trend that could hamper the project in the long term.

Conclusion: what about the future?

With such contradictory reports, it is difficult to assess the future of the CPEC and the real entity of the China-laid “debt trap” looming over Pakistan. What is sure is that Islamabad has indeed some financial problems, and that this may negatively impact the project. The recent cancellation of the Rahim Yar Khan power plant and the delays over Gwadar’s smart port suggest that there may already be complications in this sense. Yet, unless Pakistan enters in a serious financial crisis or faces a collapse of the state, it seems that the project will be competed at least in part. That said, the other certain thing is that the CPEC and China’s presence in Pakistan is not viewed positively by India, and in geopolitical terms this is probably the most relevant aspect.

The rise of Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country by population and is one of South-East Asia’s most dynamic economies.

Located at the juncture between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it has the potential to become a leading regional power.

However, its location is also a source of considerable challenges that Indonesia will have to manage attentively in the coming years.

Indonesia’s Geography

The very name Indonesia is revealing: it comes from Greek and means “Indian Islands”. As a matter of fact, Indonesia is an archipelago located at the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, and this is a key factor that has shaped its geopolitical thinking.

In terms of dimension and configuration, Indonesia is a vast but fragmented state. It counts over 18,000 islands; the most important of which are Sumatra, Java, the southern section of Borneo, Sulawesi and the western part of New Guinea.

These islands, covered by a thick rainforest rich in wildlife, have a volcanic origin. This means that Indonesia is vulnerable to seismic events and tsunamis; something that has a negative impact on its human security environment.

The country extends over almost 8 million square kilometres if we take into account its maritime space including the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. Combined with its archipelagic nature, this makes it difficult for the central state to exert its power over all the territory; also, because fragmentation is reflected in demographic terms: the population exceeds 260 million citizens divided in more than 300 ethnic groups; and this has important implications on the country’s geopolitics.

Moving on, Indonesia’s position has a deep impact on its foreign affairs. Located at the crossroad between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia plays a pivotal role for international maritime trade.

Sumatra is the southern boundary of the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways and a strategic chokepoint. But Indonesia also controls other important straits; notably Sunda, Lombok and Makassar. These are all essential for trade between Europe and Asia, but also for the latter’s energy security.

Most of the oil it consumes transits through these narrow passages; which explains their geostrategic relevance. Indonesia hugely benefits from its role as a gateway between the two oceans, but this also brings considerable strategic problems because foreign powers have always been trying to control the archipelago.

This continues today: China, the US, Japan and India all have major interests at stake in the Indonesian Straits, and are trying to expand their influence on the country. Finally, the archipelago also hosts important natural resources like oil, gas, minerals, timber and fish. These commodities are a source of wealth for Indonesia, but also another driver for the presence of external powers.

Indonesia’s Geopolitical Thinking

Indonesia’s nature as an archipelago and its “crossroad location”, a concept known as posisi silang, have shaped its geopolitical thinking since it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. Indonesia had to assert its authority over its surrounding seas to ensure its prosperity and security. A first step in this sense was the 1957 Djuanda Declaration, by which Indonesia claimed its sovereignty over all the maritime areas around the archipelago; especially those located between its main islands like the Java and Flores seas.

This stance was later recognized internationally by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. The Djuanda Declaration was the first step towards a more comprehensive doctrine called “Maritime Archipelagic Outlook”, or Wawasan Nusantara Bahari. First formulated in 1966, this Doctrine still stands today. It considers that Indonesia’s location leaves it vulnerable to foreign meddling and that its fragmented geography endangers the unity of the state; but it is also the basis for justifying Indonesia’s leading regional role.

In geostrategic terms, the doctrine considers Java and its sea as Indonesia’s core, which must be protected from external threats. Applying a mandala logic, it identifies three concentric layers that are the base of Indonesia’s foreign and defence policy.

The innermost circle is Indonesia itself, the middle one extends to South-East Asia and Australia, while the external zone includes the rest of the world. The sea is equally important from a geoeconomic point of view.

Indonesia is a trade crossroad, it has an important fishing industry and its waters host important hydrocarbon deposits, estimated to hold 3.7 billion barrels of oil and 2,900 billion cubic feet of gas. As such, securing the sea has a primary importance for the country’s economy.

Finally, in geopolitical terms, it considers the sea as the space connecting the various islands that form its geographically and culturally fragmented territory. This configuration makes separatism easier, and therefore is seen as a threat to the unity of the state; even though it is also argued that the separation of the different national groups reduces the risk of inter-ethnic conflict. Moreover, the sea is the mean by which foreign powers have reached the archipelago in the past.

Consequently, Indonesia believes that controlling the sea is a precondition to preserve the unity and the independence of the state. In this sense, it seeks to achieve resilience both at home and in neighbouring states, assuming that Indonesia is safe only if the archipelago and the surrounding countries are stable.

Yet, Indonesia must face several challenges. Apart from numerous secessionist movements, some of which have been successful, it must also cope with illegal fishing, smuggling, unauthorized immigration and piracy. The latter was once a major problem, but it has been greatly reduced thanks to multilateral efforts and by improving the living conditions of coastal areas.

Terrorism is also a matter of concern, and several attacks have already taken place.

In economic terms, even though Indonesia’s national strategy emphasizes the cohesion of the state and aims to limit foreign meddling, most of its hydrocarbons and of its resources in general are exploited by foreign corporations. In addition, there is a great disparity between urban areas like Jakarta and the rest of the country, especially outside Java.

Indonesia’s power

Indonesia can be considered a middle power, but it is definitely a rising one. Its GDP is the largest in South-East Asia, and in 2017 it amounted to 3.25 trillion measured in US dollars of the same year in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. This ranked the country as the world’s 7th largest economy, and it is projected to become the 4th by 2050. Indonesia’s steady 5% growth rate is helped by low inflation, a budget deficit under control and a public debt representing just 29% of the GDP. Moreover, saving is quite high at around 32% and investments are flowing in, thus paving the way to a continued growth. The trade balance is positive, driven by the export of commodities like oil, gas, coal, metals and palm oil; but also many other low added-value products such as clothing and electric components. Always in terms of PPP, its per capita GDP reached 12,700 dollars in 2017: a still low figure, but a remarkable progress from past levels. Unemployment is only 5.5%; yet, agriculture still retains 32% of the workforce and around 10% of Indonesians live below the poverty line, with 21% remaining at risk. The country also has real problems in terms of corruption and inequality, and must face notable environmental challenges: rising sea levels, deforestation, and extreme weather are already causing notable losses to its economy and are menacing its human security.

Indonesia’s armed forces are also evolving. It spends about 0.8% of its GDP on defence; and in spite of the emphasis given to the sea, the Army has a greater importance than the Navy. Land forces, notably marines and special forces units trained for asymmetric warfare, are indeed important for such a fragmented country; but the Navy remains underdeveloped. It mainly relies on corvettes, and having only 8 frigates and less than 5 diesel-electric submarines seems insufficient, even though it has a good park of minesweepers and there are talks to buy more subs. Similarly, the Air Force only counts around 40 fighters and some attack aircraft. These two branches have quite advanced equipment and are better than those of most ASEAN countries, but Indonesia will need to expand them to affirm itself as a regional power and to cope with challenges like China’s rise.

Conclusion: Indonesia’s foreign policy today

The maritime dimension, control over the straits, internal stability, autonomy from foreign influences and an active regional role have been the cornerstones of Indonesia’s foreign policy for decades. In 1955, Indonesia held a conference in Bandung that marked the birth of the non-aligned movement of states that did not want to side with neither the US nor the USSR.

Today, it still keeps this stance. Regionally, it supports integration through the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN; and it aspires to become its leader. In its relations with external powers, notably the US and China, it attempts maximizing its autonomy by keeping ties with all of them. Indonesia maintains good political and trade relations with both, but it is worth mentioning that it hosts a significant Chinese diaspora which represents around 1% of the population and runs many successful business activities. At the same time, it also cooperates with other powers. Japan and India are important economic partners and security cooperation is growing, especially with the latter. Indonesia also trades with European countries; which are also important arms suppliers.

It is expected that Indonesia’s foreign policy will continue along this line in the next future: trying to maintain its partnership with multiple countries so to maximize its benefit and freedom of action. But in the evolving international scenery of the Indo-Pacific, where the US maintain a strong presence all while China and India are rising, it will be hard for Indonesia not to take sides.

Will Putin become the Arctic Boss?

Geostrategy of the Arctic’s Chokepoints

 As the Polar ice cap melts, new shipping lanes are opening across the Arctic. Navigation in the area is still in its initial stages, but in the long term it has the potential to transform international maritime trade and to profoundly affect the geopolitical scene. In particular, if this happens, new chokepoints will take a central strategic importance: the Bering Strait and the North Atlantic passages.

The four Arctic routes

The idea of reaching the Pacific Ocean by navigating through the Arctic is not new. centuries ago, explorers risked their lives to find the fabled Northwest Passage. It sails north of Canada and then crosses the Bering Strait to arrive in the Pacific, and it is the first of the possible Arctic Routes. The second one is the Northern Sea Route, or NSR, which is the most debated today. Starting from the Pacific Ocean, it passes through Bering and proceeds along Russia’s northern coasts towards Europe. Then, there are two other options: the least important is the Arctic Bridge, which connects Northern Europe with Canada; the other is the Transpolar Sea Route, that crosses the centre of the Arctic Ocean instead of passing along the coasts like the NSR does. While this is theoretically possible, in practice this area is still covered in ice and therefore it will become navigable only if the Polar cap disappears almost completely.

For centuries, the Arctic ice cap made it impossible to sail across these frozen waters during most of the year, but things are different today. Global warming is dissolving the Arctic’s ice, and this is opening these passages to navigation for increasingly long periods. As a result, the NSR and the Northwest Passage are becoming commercially viable, something this could radically change the world’s maritime trade patterns. The reason is that such lanes are way shorter, and therefore time- and money-saving, than the traditional ones passing through the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This is why more and more ships are already using these lanes and the NSR in particular, even though the trade volume remains only a tiny fraction of the one flowing along the ordinary seaways. But apart from merely economic considerations, Arctic lanes present other geostrategic advantages for the various powers that are interested in their development.

Why the Arctic?

The first country that wants to develop the NSR and Arctic trade in general is Russia. As a matter of fact, Russia is the region’s prominent power: first, because most of the coast around the Arctic belongs to it, and then because of its unrivalled fleet of ice-breakers and of the military forces it has deployed there. Moscow considers the NSR as an excellent opportunity to develop its northernmost territories and ports by providing logistic support to the ships sailing across these waters. Moreover, the Arctic also hosts large oil and gas reserves, which would further strengthen Russia’s stance as a world-class energy supplier. Of course, such projects are technically challenging due to the rigid climate and they require huge investments to develop the necessary infrastructure, but Russia is already working on it; and most importantly it can cooperate with other powers that want to open such routes and access the Arctic’s resources.

As a matter of fact, many Asian countries are also interested in the Arctic. Among them, the most important is certainly China, who is already operating in the region. There are three reasons behind its interest. First, gaining access alternative hydrocarbon sources and reduce its reliance on the Middle East. Second, opening a faster and cheaper shipping lane to Europe and to America’s East coast. The third reason is geostrategic, and it is closely related to the others. Beijing is engaged in a great power competition with Washington, and the traditional southern routes it currently uses for trade with Europe could easily be cut by the US Navy in case of war; something that would compromise its economy and its energy security. Chokepoints like the straits of Malacca, Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb and Suez are particularly vulnerable.

Similar considerations are at the base of Japan’s and South Korea’s presence in the Arctic. However, in their case the security dimension is different: they fear that China, or a Sino-American war, may disrupt trade along the traditional routes; and because of this they want to open the alternative seaway to Europe.

But will the NSR actually solve their strategic problem?

The new chokepoints: Bering and the North Atlantic

The traditional shipping lanes are effectively exposed to threats. The US can easily block them, but China and other powers also have some capacity in this regard. In addition, piracy can also be a problem. So, China and other Asian countries consider the Arctic routes as a safer alternative. However, they also have their narrow passages, which will assume a great strategic importance if Arctic trade develops.

The first and most important one is the Bering Strait, and 82-kilometres wide channel that divides Siberia and Alaska. It is the only connection between the Pacific and the Arctic, making of it the prominent strategic passage for Polar trade. In other words, who controls Bering also controls the shipping flow across the Arctic. Now, this power can be either Russia or the US. But for them, the Strait is not only important due to trade: it is also a matter of national security. For Russia, it is the only point where it can directly attack the US territory with ease short of using ballistic missiles. Due to the presence of a developed oil industry, hitting Alaska would allow Russia to damage America’s economy and to create a useful diversion. This eventuality, in turn, means that the area takes a significant military importance for Washington as well. Additionally, if Arctic trade develops, blocking the Bering Strait would allow the US to damage both China and Russia, its two main competitors. It is therefore not surprising that both America and Russia have military bases and perform manoeuvers around Bering, whose militarization is expected to continue as long as more and more ships travel through the Arctic. It is likely that both sides will deploy Anti-Access / Area Denial assets along its coasts as a mean to ensure their control over it by impeding the enemy forces to operate.

As far as China is concerned, Bering will also take a major strategic importance. But while its naval build-up will allow it to deploy its Navy in the area, China will have to rely on Russia to ensure that the Strait remains open. This implies that its access to the Arctic could be seriously hampered in case its relations with Moscow deteriorated, which is a possibility that should not be excluded in the long term due to a series of possible contrasts that may emerge. Moreover, from Beijing’s perspective Bering is not even the first chokepoint to be crossed to reach the Arctic: before, its ships need to pass either through the Korea Strait or the La Pérouse Strait. The former divides Korea and Japan, while the latter separates the Japanese island of Hokkaidō from Russia’s Sakhalin. Both are extremely vulnerable, since the US or even Japan may easily block them and deny China its access to the Arctic.

The second susceptible area is located at the other end of the NSR. It is not a single strait; rather, it is a group of maritime zones that connect the Arctic with the Atlantic. Each of them is sensibly wider than Bering, but they are narrow enough to allow a great military power like the US to mount a blockade capable of disrupting the regularity of trade flows; especially considering the performance of modern missiles and aircraft. Among these areas, the most famous and relevant is certainly the GIUK Gap, which takes its name from the initials of the three countries forming it; namely Greenland, Iceland, and the UK. Once the maritime frontline of the Cold War, it lost its importance after the fall of the Soviet Union. But if the NSR becomes a viable lane, its strategic importance will emerge once again; also because the Russian Navy is becoming active in the Atlantic once again and because Chinese ships may follow. That said, there are two other passages in the Atlantic: first, the North Sea; second, the Davis Strait, which divides Canada and Greenland and is one of the extremities of the Northwest Passage. The US and NATO can block both of them quite easily.

Finally, it should be noted that such areas work in both senses: cargos travelling from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Arctic also need to cross the aforementioned passages. This means that Russia, and to a lesser degree China, may block them to damage Western economies; even though this would also harm themselves. Thanks to its powerful military and to its favorable geographic position, Russia is particularly well placed to act as the “Arctic seaways gatekeeper” and exploit this to exert pressure on the West or, if necessary, on China.

What future for Arctic trade?

By now, the importance of the Arctic’s chokepoints remains limited, because the trade volume across the region is still very low. But as the Polar ice cap shrinks and the Northern shipping lanes are developed, these passages will acquire a greater relevance in both economic and military terms.

Yet, the Arctic seaways will not resolve the chokepoint problem for China and other Asian powers: they will simply move it to the North. Nevertheless, such countries will probably develop such routes, because their economic sense remains as long as peace reigns: they are faster and cheaper than traditional ones. Moreover, energy deposits should not be forgotten as well. It will take decades, but the Arctic routes can reshape the world’s maritime trade; and the northern passages will become a great power battleground in case war breaks out.

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