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Geopolitics

Brexit and Britain’s Geopolitics

Brexit is one of the most debated geopolitical issues of our time. More than two years after the referendum that resulted in the decision to leave the EU, it is still unclear what the exit conditions will be like and the prospects of a “no deal” Brexit are looming at the horizon. With such high degree of uncertainty, it is difficult to foresee how things will eventually unfold, but one thing is certain: Brexit will have a sensible impact on Britain in the years to come.

Britain’s geopolitics & history

The history and the foreign policy of the United Kingdom have been deeply marked by its geographic position. As an island off the European coasts, not far from France, it was isolated enough to be sufficiently repaired from foreign threats but close enough to be obliged to care about the Continent’s affairs. Since William the Conqueror’s conquest in 1066, no invader managed to land on the British soil. After a long process marked by turmoil and civil war, a unified kingdom of Great Britain was established in the early 18th century. Thanks to its favourable position protracted towards the Atlantic Ocean, it managed to consolidate and expand its colonial territories. This, combined with its rich coal deposits and with an institutional system favouring capitalism and the technological innovation, allowed Britain to spark the industrial revolution. Gradually, Britain strengthened its fleet and turned into the world’s leading naval power. The Royal Navy became the cornerstone of its national security and the vehicle of its imperial expansion: its supremacy allowed Britain to impede any invasion from the mainland, but at the same time enabled it to extend its influence overseas and dominate maritime trade. Back then it acted as the “balancer” of European politics: when any given power starter becoming too powerful and consequently threatening for its national security, Britain backed a coalition to counter its rise; sometimes intervening directly with its army such as during the Napoleonic Wars. At the height of its power in the second-half of the 19th century, the British Empire ruled over one quarter of the world and was the first power of its time.

But America’s rise and two World Wars determined its decline. After 1945, Britain gradually lost its immense colonial empire and its industry was disrupted by foreign competition. To ensure its security it joined NATO, the trans-Atlantic military Alliance supported by the US to contain the Soviet Union. On the political and economic level, Britain was initially cautious towards the European Integration project, and preferred to promote its own multilateral institutions like the Commonwealth and the European Free Trade Association. Yet, in 1973 it decided to join the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU. Nevertheless, its relations with the EU have always been turbulent. It opposed several integration initiatives and exerted its “opt out” right over several issues, albeit in different forms. In 1992, it rejected to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism and any obligation to adopt the Euro.

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

Geopolitics of Brazil

Brazil is South America’s emerging power. It is the largest and most populous country in the continent; and it benefits from a favourable geographic position, important natural resources and a growing economy. As such, it is taking a more active international role both in the region and beyond. Yet, it must also face notable challenges; notably corruption, criminality, inequality and others; all of which may undermine its rise as a great power.

Geography and Brazil’s rise

Like any other country, Brazil’s geopolitics can be examined as a combination of three factors: dimension, configuration and position.

Brazil covers a total area of about 8,515,000 square kilometres, making of it the 5th country in the world in terms of size. This puts Brazil in a favourable position to dominate the continent, as it can access any region with relative ease. Similarly, its 7,500 kilometres-long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean enables Brazil to easily project its power abroad and to engage in lucrative maritime trade.

In terms of configuration, Brazil’s territory can roughly be divided in two parts. The north-west is centred on the Amazon river basin and its vast rainforest, the largest in the world and a real treasure in terms of biodiversity. The south-east is made up of ridges and mountain ranges crossed by the Parana river. As a matter of facts, watercourses are an important feature in Brazil’s geography: the country has a complex hydrographic system that brings significant benefits to electric power generation and agriculture, which is also favoured by Brazil’s warm climate. Most of Brazil’s 208 million citizens, the majority of which are young people, live in the cities along the coast. This has resulted into vast metropolis where economic prosperity meets overcrowded slums.

But position is Brazil’s most important characteristic. It borders ten nations, meaning all the countries in South America except Ecuador and Chile. None of its neighbours represents a real threat, and not only because relations are generally good: Brazil is simply more powerful than any of them. Even Argentina, the second most influent country in the continent, cannot seriously challenge Brazil’s supremacy due to a worse geopolitical and economic situation. Other states are not a real matter of concern; yet, they are important for Brazil’s own geopolitical ambitions. Brazil wants to extend its influence westwards to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans so to unlock its innermost territories, become the centre of coast-to-coast trade and increase its regional influence. To reach this objective, Brazil needs to keep the URAPABOL area in its sphere of influence. This zone takes its name after the three states composing it: Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. They are seen as South America’s geopolitical pivot, meaning that the power who controls them can extend its influence over all the continent and obtain a dominant position. Moreover, the URAPABOL states were also seen as useful buffer zone against foreign threats and Argentina in particular; even though today the likelihood of a war is really remote. For these reasons, Brazil is …

5 Geopolitical Trends to watch in 2019

In today’s globalised world, many geopolitical events take place every year, and they have a long-lasting effects in time. So, considering what happened on the international scene in the year that has just ended, what are the top five global trends to watch in 2019?

1 – “America first”, America alone?

President Trump’s “America First” policy was put into practice various times in 2018. He introduced new tariffs to protect the US economy; he abandoned those agreements that he deemed contrary to America’s national interest; he criticised allies for free-riding on the US in security issues.

This is a trend that will continue as long as Trump remains in the White House, and that will have an important impact on the global order. For decades, the international system was centred on the US and its commitment to sustain its rules and provide security; albeit with limitations and largely for its self-advantage. But now, Washington prefers pursuing a narrow definition of its own national interest. This has already raised concerns with traditional partners; most notably with the European members of NATO to whom he demanded to spend more on defence. This divergence between the two sides of the Atlantic has cast doubts over the tenure of the Alliance. All this happens in a moment of renewed tensions with Russia, who in turn is taking benefit from the situation because in case of a confrontation, it will have to face a more divided and therefore weaker NATO. This uncertainty over the future of the Alliance damages European but also American interests: alienating its traditional allies risks to isolate the US and to reduce its international influence.

All this happens in a delicate moment for the US economy. While its GDP grew of almost 3% in 2018, its monetary policy is object of political debate as Trump accuses the Federal Reserve of being the “only problem” of America’s economy. If the Fed keeps on raising the interest rates to contain inflation, the US growth will slow down. This will also combine with the effects of tariffs plus the considerable public and private debt. Moreover, American stock markets have lost much value in the past year: the price of shares according to the Dow Jones index dropped of around 9.5% in 2018. And if the US economy slows, the rest of the world will follow.

2 – China’s economic slowdown

The world’s second-largest economy is also facing troubles. While it is predicted to grow of about 6.6% this year, which is still extraordinary given its size, the rate is no longer a double-digit figure as in the past. The Chinese economy is also slowing down, and this will inevitable have repercussions on the global scale. As economic prosperity is considered fundamental for social stability and for the rule of the Communist Party, the government is taking measures to maintain a steady growth. This explains various initiatives like “Made in China 2025” aimed at upgrading its industry, the huge investments in high-tech, or the far-reaching …

The role of ports in the global economy

Ports are maritime commercial facilities usually located on a coast or shore that contains one or more harbours where ships can dock and transfer cargo as well as people. Ports constitute a major component of the global transportation sector and are linked to the expanding world economy. In other words, ports are a means of integration into the global economic system.

As the WTO-agreements since the 1980s lifted several pre-existing international trade barriers, manufacturers all over the world vertically disintegrated their production systems into geographically dispersed and flexibly organised supply chain systems . The international trade regime began allowing manufacturers to relocate their production and assembly plants to more cost-efficient locations in developing economies.

Ports have been at the hearts of commerce for centuries and they only kept gaining more significance . Before the invention of aeroplanes, sea had been the main mode of transport for settlers, travellers and migrants for centuries. They played important roles in the industrial revolutions and act as a catalyst to industrialisation. While early ports were mostly used as harbours, today they are more often referred to multi-modal distribution hubs having transport links using sea, river, canal, road, rail and air routes.…

Is Sri Lanka, China’s New Colony?

China & Sri Lanka: an enduring alliance?

China’s rise as a global economic power – and potentially a global political power too – is attracting more and more attention. From the so-called “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to China’s increasingly aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, the activities of the People’s Republic are one of the biggest stories in international relations.

Whilst in the West, and particularly in Britain and America, the debate is often centred on whether the inexorable side of China represents a threat or an opportunity, the countries living in close proximity to China are scrambling to come to terms with the reality of Chinese power.

Some countries, notably Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, find themselves in territorial disputes with China as a result of the People’s Republic aggressive boundary setting moves in the south China Sea.

In addition, there is the more long-standing political dispute between China and Taiwan centred on the former’s claims of sovereignty over the latter. What all these myriad territorial and political disputes have in common however is the involvement of the United States.

In nearly all cases the US intervenes on behalf of states who feel aggrieved by China’s actions in the South China Sea and beyond. Whilst Washington justifies its own aggressive actions – including challenging Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly islands – as part of its drive to ensure “freedom of navigation” in disputed maritime areas, the reality is that the US is above all concerned with the prospect of China displacing America as the dominant regional power.

But there is another side to the rise of China, both in its immediate environment, regionally and more broadly in a global setting. This is a story of successful Chinese outreach to multiple states, characterised by massive investments in infrastructure and resulting political influence.

One of these states is Sri Lanka, a country strategically perched next to India in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka has come a long way since gaining independence from Britain in February 1948. In the 70 years since independence Sri Lanka has established relatively stable political institutions, in addition to successfully prosecuting a quarter century long counter-insurgency campaign against Tamil separatists in the north and east.

Sri Lanka is important to China for many reasons, much of it revolving around the island nation’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean and its proximity to China’s great rival India. In addition, Sri Lanka presents China with a wide range of investment opportunities which in the long-term can help entrench Chinese influence in the country.

China’s strategic motive

In keeping with its emerging great power status China’s approach to foreign policy is shaped primarily by strategic considerations. To that end, the Chinese leadership has identified three core strategic rivals and potential enemies, namely India, Japan and the United States. Historic Chinese relations with all three powers has been marked by high tension and conflict, particularly with India and Japan.

Therefore, the thrust of Chinese foreign policy is to blunt …

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