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Four Empires on the Rise

The time has been reached when all nations have to start working on building long lasting cooperation with each other on multiple levels, on all issues, including the Indus Water Treaty and have to treat each other like good neighbors. The treaty has to stand, as this can be a source for future cooperation between India and Pakistan.

Roughly three weeks left on the calendar, a turbulent year of 2016 is rapidly coming to an end. With a constant stream of geopolitically-significant events and the accompanying information overload (or at least information filtered through commentaries of all stripes for those among us that are news junkies), many of the shocks we experienced this past eleven months perhaps seem like a distant memory.

The year began with some deep shake-ups in Eurasia.  There was the ensuing chaos in the stock market and economy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is still in crisis mode currently, with Beijing attempting to prevent capital flight (renminbi has fallen drastically against the dollar [5.8%] this past year).  On top of this is the Chinese government’s continued expansion into South and East China Seas, causing major tension among Asia’s Pacific Rim states.

 Looking at the other side of Asia, there was the collision between the Islamic rivals of Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia (both contending for dominant position in the immediate region). The Syrian civil war – which has morphed into a proxy war of various states – and the catastrophe of the Islamic State’s avowed restoration of the Caliphate, which has caused havoc in the Middle East (by nullifying the borders instituted by the Western imperial powers: “Sykes-Picot? What’s that? Can I dip that in hummus? [Laughter] ”).

 Members of the Islamic jihad movement joined the chorus of attacks targeted at what the perpetrators perceive as infidels. This phase of current crisis in the MENA region rose from the after effects of the 2003 Iraq War (and the premature US military pullout enacted by the Obama administration) and the so-called Arab Spring which occurred under the policies of the past two US presidencies. The situation has been further exacerbated by the military intervention from Moscow in Syria, setting up a deeper presence in the Middle East that is more overt than the Cold War years (back then characterized by support for various secular Arab regimes).

 We also witnessed – and continue to witness – seemingly never-ending political and social disturbances in European Union states surrounding the flood of migrants from the MENA region.  2016 commenced with news of mass number of sexual assaults at a New Year’s celebration in Germany, and uprisings in form of protests and violent riots occurred thought the year. The world political and financial establishments were shaken by the revelation of the Panama Papers in late spring. The deep fracture of the EU, accompanied by rise of domestic populism in states both greater and lesser in power, was only renewed by the results of Brexit referendum in late June. As many of the Brexit supporters (both domestic and across the globe) partied it up after the victory, Islamic State operatives (suspected to be from Northern Caucasus and Central Asian states), struck Atatürk International Airport, leaving 45 dead and bringing to the forefront the debate over EU security in light of Brexit.

 For both the European Union and the MENA region, the seeming demise of the legitimacy of artificiality-created regimes of the 20th century is at the essence of respective crises (‘post-WWII order’ integration for the EU and ‘post-WWI order’ disintegration for the MENA).

 The latter half of the year began with a continuing string of terrorist attacks that struck the EU, most notably the mass slaughter of 86 lives in Nice, France during the Bastille Day celebration on July 14. While the world’s attention was glued to that gruesome butchery of an Islamist terrorist mowing down the celebrants with a truck, a coup attempt ensued in Turkey, with putschists firing on their fellow citizens. The event killed at least 290 and wounded over 1400.

 While the possibility of the coup being staged by Erdogan’s regime has been raised, the Islamist-leaning President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who expressed that the coup was a “gift from God,” responded swiftly with an intense crackdown.  He called for support from those who are loyal to him, solidifying his power over the state apparatus.  Erdogan promised a “New Turkey,” increasingly marginalizing populations that are secular-oriented and pro-Western. Erdogan has pointed out that Ankara may shift away from its EU-considerate policy to an Asia-leaning policy, perhaps joining Shanghai, Moscow, and various capitals of Central Asian states (many of them having Turkic heritage as well) to comprise an updated version of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  The SCO – a counter-NATO land-power alliance with territory roughly corresponding to a good portion of the old Mongolian Empire – is a security bloc dominated by illiberal authoritarian regimes.

 Moreover, Erdogan also has been stressing that trade between Russia, Iran, and the PRC should be conducted in local currencies, in an attempt to prop up its sliding lira.  Ankara also has recently held bilateral talks with Tehran, engaging in some warming of relationship between the two capitals which has had some tensions during the secularist years before Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) took control of the levels of power. The rise of Turkey as a strong Islamist state would also concern the Communist Party running the People’s Republic of China, which has its own problem regarding a Uyghur secessionist movement in East Turkestan (Xinjiang province), potentially creating a movement to form a jihadist statelet in Central Asia. Recall that series of protests broke out in Turkey after Beijing’s alleged maltreatment of Uyghurs (and government-supported large-scale colonization of East Turkestan by the ethnic Han population) during the month of Ramadan in 2005. Asia Minor and Central Asia are connected by history of a common people.

 The rise of authoritarian regimes is not limited to Turkey.  Indeed, so far as Eurasian geopolitics is concerned, consolidation of the state authority of major regional players, and even the resurrection of old imperial order – one might call it ‘neo-imperialism’– seems to be the track upon which history is currently unfolding. Gone are the days when liberal democracy’s march across the globe seemed inevitable. 2016 may stand at history’s threshold of a new era.

 The Russian Federation, fifteen years since the collapse of Soviet Union, has been surging again with imperial vigor, with spirited intervention into its periphery, on all of its flanks. It has been a customary mainstream view to point out that Russia and its security has been threatened due to the gradual eastward march of NATO since the Soviet collapse. It is commonly argued that Russia, due to repeated invasions by foreign forces throughout its history (such as Mongols, French, and Germans), traditionally envisions its borders as a vague regional “plane” rather than clear-cut “line.”  Thus, a threatened Moscow is engaging in a struggle for security to ward off any encroaching powers and constellation of alliances by bolstering its militarization practices, especially after the Crimean crisis of 2014.

 However, there is another side to this narrative. Janusz Bugajski, Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) headquartered in Washington DC, points out that Russia’s quest for imperial status (at least to unseat US position as the unipolar power) began shortly after Soviet collapse, as early as 1993. Russia’s previous incarnations have all been imperial entities, being inheritor of Byzantine Empire.  Russian regimes styled itself as ‘New Rome’ after accepting Eastern Christianity in the 10th century (and especially after the fall of Constantinople), effectively becoming the ‘Northern Roman Empire.’

 According to Bugajski, Russian Foreign Ministers Andrei Kozyrev and Yevgeny Primakov (although more overtly under the latter than former) during the 1990s had already laid the intentions and conceptual tracks for Russian re-imperialization.  Bugajski notes that Moscow is exploiting the pretext for provision of national security (although Eastern European states joining NATO may not necessarily be military/security threats to Russia, Russia loses significant influence over policies enacted in the capitals of these states) to further expansionism into regions of former Soviet influence.  This strategy is not pursued merely through military tactics, but also through state-sponsored energy giants (such as Gazprom, which operates as somewhat of a private government in itself, possessing a private military, cities, hospitals and schools), exploiting EU energy dependency. Under leadership of Vladimir Putin, this re-imperialization process merely accelerated since 2000 (although seeming cooperation with the U.S. after 9/11 was most likely a temporary tactical move to use the international climate to further Kremlin’s grand strategy). The Kremlin has utilized multi-state alliances such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO, noted above in relation to Turkey) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU– formed in January 2015) to gain influence and establish protectorates in Central Asia in an attempt to block off Western (and also PRC) influence.

 In March 2014, the geopolitical move to secure influence in grain-producing Ukraine (Ukraine also being the location of the Kievan Rus and Principality of Kiev, the roots of the Russian heritage) and access to the Black Sea (via securing the Crimean peninsula) was implemented after the ousting of Russia-leaning Viktor Yanukovych.  The Ukraine crisis in turn started a new round of tension and wargames between Russia and US/NATO states. In 2016, the geopolitical battle spilled into cyberspace.  Accusations of Russian involvement in US presidential race have been hurled about, with assertions of Moscow-backed hackings and passing sensitive information off to Wikileaks (Russian officials continue to deny these charges). FireEye Inc., California-based cybersecurity firm, noted that Moscow practically weaponized the social media-sphere, in essence unleashing another wave of converting cyberspace into a geopolitical battleground, engaging in psychological warfare operations to influence the outcome of the US presidential race.

 Moscow’s exploitation of populist leaning politicians is not limited to Donald Trump; Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister known for his hardline stance against the mass-entry of migrants from the MENA region, has been utilized by Moscow since his accession to his current office in 2010. This is used as an instrument to counter-balance the EU. Orbán, who has in 2014 declared that he seeks to end liberal democracy in his country (taking his inspiration from Russian and Turkish statecraft, giving rise to the phrase “Putinization of Hungary”), has remained quite neutral in face of the Ukraine crisis and recent Russian expansionism. Hungary has functioned as an agent for Moscow by extending Russian interests throughout Central European region. Moscow uses the energy card (gas and nuclear) to keep Budapest close to the Kremlin, and prevent the EU from building a unified energy policy in Central Europe.

 One of the founding fathers of the classical geopolitical theory, Sir Halford Mackinder, wrote in his work Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919) on the interconnectedness of Europe and the rest of the Eurasian mega-continent:

 Americans used to think of their three millions of square miles as the equivalent of all Europe; some day, they said, there would be a United States of Europe as sister to the United States of America.  Now, though they may not all have realized it, they must no longer think of Europe apart from Asia and Africa.  The Old World has become insular, or in other words a unit, incomparably the largest geographical unit on our Globe.

 As Mackinder has predicted, the EU project has seen major signs of stalling due to political situations in Asia (the eastern flank of the ‘World Island’) and Africa (southern flank of the ‘World Island’):  Russia intervening in its affairs (the Ukraine crisis and activities in Hungary) and the migrant crisis. All the while Islamist terrorism continues to rekindle the spirit of national sovereignty throughout the Union.

 Looking farther south, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamized modern incarnation of ancient Persian empires that coexisted and warred with foundational empires which the West traces its heritage (Greek and Roman), has become increasingly brazen in its operations against the United States and is increasingly intervening in its immediate region as a result of the Iran nuclear deal.

 Now, well over a year since the signing of the agreement in July 2015, and nearly one year since the agreement went into effect in January of this year, the consequences of the deal have opened a Pandora’s Box of whose ghoulish contents may wreak havoc across the globe.

 While political and commercial leaders in the EU have flocked to Iran as if on a religious pilgrimage to secure sweet contractual deals in areas of investments and tap into the massive economic powerhouse, not only has Tehran conducted ballistic missile tests in October and November of 2015 (and again in March of 2016, and attempted another test in July for missiles integrated with North Korean technology), German intelligence has pointed out that Tehran has already tried multiple times to violate the deal via attempts to secure banned equipment. Additionally, the danger of Iran acquiring nuclear technology may inflame weapons proliferation in the MENA region, sparking an updated nuclear arms race in a place not known for stability, one that would make the Indo-Pak arms race of the 1990s look tame by comparison.

 The latest provocation involved a military vessel of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard pointing its weapon at a US Navy helicopter while engaging in a flyover above international waters in the geopolitically significant Strait of Hormuz. 2016 was replete with similar provocations by Tehran-sponsored forces aimed at the U.S.  Meanwhile, Tehran, which has praised the Arab Spring- triggered political revolutions in the MENA region, has renewed its ties to Hamas , uniting in targeting Israel, in effect trapping the Jewish state with Hezbollah in Lebanon, located to the north. (The relationship between Tehran and Hamas collapsed in early months of 2012 after Tehran proceeded to prop up al-Assad regime in Syria.)

 Mackinder, in his Democratic Ideals and Reality, noted the importance of the Levant (singling out the city of Jerusalem) in the following way:

 If the World-Island [Eurasia] be inevitably the principal seat of humanity on this Globe, and if Arabia, as the passage-land from Europe to the Indies and from the Northern to the Southern Heartland, be central in the World-Island, then the hill citadel of Jerusalem has a strategical position with reference to world-realities not differing essentially from its ideal position in the perspective of the Middle Ages, or its strategical position between ancient Babylon and Egypt.

 Considering that Mackinder goes on to note the importance of the Suez Canal to MENA geopolitics, Tehran’s forces gaining a foothold in a strategically significant region in Eurasian geopolitics cannot be understated. Iran’s dominance would, if not merely symbolic, shake the world.

 Iran, as noted in a previous piece on the Sudan’s place in the MENA geopolitics, has repeatedly engaged in colluding with regional extremist powers in its quest for influence and dominance of the regional order. Tehran has been an integral part of what it calls the “Axis of Resistance” against the West’s intervention in the Middle East (plus Israel), and manifested this role in manners such as lending full-fledged support to the al-Assad regime, to further its power-projection capabilities in the region, if even in the event of a regime collapse.

 Looking farther to the east, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Xi Jinping – perhaps the fiercest communist ideologue since Mao Zedong – has been on an expansionist march to dominate the entire arc spanning from South Asia, through Southeast Asia, and to East Asia, in a dream of restoring the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the last Han-dominated imperial dynasty which ended in the middle of 17th century CE.

 In response to President Obama’s 2013 move to end the United States’ ‘globo-cop’ status, Beijing has actively engaged in island-building projects (out of pre-existing reefs) in the South China Sea, claiming that practically the entire region is PRC sovereign territory.  The project had already begun in the early 1990s, when a power vacuum formed after the Clinton administration pulled the US military out of the Philippines. (The PRC government began building structures on Mischief Reef as early as 1995, claiming that the structures were for fishing purposes). Not only is the area resource-rich and part of an extremely valuable sea lane network. It is a strategic asset. The PRC’s acquisition of the South China Sea will enable the maritime region to function as a sanctuary for nuclear-powered submarines, which, armed with SLBMs with improved capabilities (such as the JL-3), can pose a grave danger as far as west coast of North America. It is PRC’s Sea of Okhotsk. A study produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in January 2016 predicted that by 2030, the South China Sea will essentially become a Chinese “lake.” In July of 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled that the PRC claim to the South China Sea has no historical basis. Beijing has dismissed the ruling.

 This effort to dominate the South China Sea has not subsided, even with the repeated financial crises China has suffered in the past several years. In September 2014, a joint project between Russia and China was unveiled concerning construction of a sea port in Northeast Asia administered by both states. Located on the Russian coast of Sea of Japan, the completion of the project would be the first step in making Sea of Japan a geopolitically significant ‘internal sea,’ much like Mediterranean Sea served for the Roman Empire and the Gulf of Mexico serves for the United States.  In September 2016, China and the Russian Federation held an eight-day joint military exercise in the South China Sea (“Joint-Sea 2016”).

 Emphasis has repeatedly come down on the PRC’s maritime expansionist strategy. Other than merely being an overt act that disturbs stability in the region, it may also be due to the fact that traditional Chinese regimes were “land-powers” instead of “sea-powers” which is grabbing so much attention.

 Traditional enemies of imperial dynasties on the Chinese continent were invading ground forces instead of naval forces until the last several hundred years.  Major maritime threats began in the early Ming Dynasty.  The Ming regime enacted Sea-ban policy to curb Wokou piracy (comprised of mainly ethnic Japanese – at least in its earlier period – working with disgruntled Chinese armed groups who wished to “stick it” to the Ming establishment) and maritime-based black marketeers. While the famed Zheng He engaged in series of expeditionary voyages in the early 15th century under the Yongle emperor, the project was scrapped due to domestic contention between the land-power faction and sea-power faction, with the former ultimately gaining the upper hand. (Interestingly Zheng He himself was a non-Han sailor of Islamic heritage.  His ancestor was the first Yunnan provincial minister who hailed from Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan).

 Meanwhile, the last major “Chinese” oversea military expansion was during the Yuan Dynasty in the latter decades of the 13th century; it was executed by their Mongolian overlords. Vietnam was invaded in 1258, 1285 and from 1278 – 1288; Sakhalin was invaded beginning in 1264; Japan was invaded in 1274 and 1281; Java was invaded in 1292. All with the exception of the Sakhalin invasion ultimately ended in epic failures.

 While multi-state tensions in the South China Sea dispute have gathered constant attention, much has been neglected concerning Beijing’s strategy towards Indochina.  While the former strategy concerns expanding via eastern sea, the latter strategy expand via western land. Geopolitically significant are the Mekong and Irrawaddy Rivers, flowing from the Tibetan Plateau into bodies of water surrounding the Indochina Peninsula (the Mekong flows into South China Sea; Irrawaddy flows into Andaman Sea). This makes the Yunnan Plateau an extremely critical geopolitical region as a gateway for China via Tibet under its control.

 Beijing is currently spearheading a project to build a three-branched railway system along the north-south axis of the Indochina Peninsula. The project, dubbed the ‘Kunming-Singapore Railway,’ which is set to be completed in 2021, ironically was originally conceived as a 19th century Western imperialist project seeking to link the continental interior with the coast of Indochina. (The PRC is interestingly taking up where the Western empires left off despite Beijing’s supposed Communist “Anti-imperialism.”)  One hypothesis about the reason Mao Zedong set the capital in Beijing, and not in Nanjing as previously, was to emulate the imperial dynasties of the past). The completion of the railway system will further entrench the presence of the PRC in Southeast Asia, using Yunnan province as an operational base. This will complement the ‘string of pearls’ strategy (a name coined in 2005 by US consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton – the firm made famous as a former employer of Edward Snowden) to surround economically emerging India with military and commercial facilities funded by the PRC.

 US president-elect Donald Trump’s ten minute-long chat with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen (a call initiated by Ing-Wen a week after nuclear-capable PRC bombers encircled Taiwan) has been re-stirring up the controversy surrounding PRC-Taiwan relations. The PRC government asserts that Taiwan is an indispensable part of its territory under the ‘One China’ policy. Beijing views Taiwan – an island to which the Nationalist government (KMT) was driven after the post-WWII Chinese civil war – as a prime geopolitical asset in its dominance of surrounding maritime territories. Taiwan is situated at the juncture of South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Philippine Sea. Taiwan possesses Mount Yu (elevation of 12,966 ft), which has an iconic status for the Taiwanese people, even commemorated in their currency (backside of NT$1000).  If this mountain falls into the hands of Beijing, the situation not only would serve to crush Taiwanese national pride but also potentially function as a military/surveillance outpost to monitor the three regional seas, bolstering Beijing’s power projection capabilities in a significant way. Taiwan is indeed a geostrategic prize for the PRC.

 Turkey, Russia, Iran and PRC have another common element in their rise:  These states are increasingly showing their presence in Sub-Saharan African (SSA) states, courting both government and private entities with goals of providing investment, handing out aid, building partnerships, engaging in cultural exchanges, develop energy projects, increasing trade and facilitate mineral extraction (wealth of which SSA is blessed with in abundance) – all in an attempt to use the region as a springboard to soar to global heights.

 Turkey during the past decade under Erdogan’s rule has not only substantially increased interaction with states in the MENA region, but also with SSA states. Erdogan nostalgically attempts to raise Turkey to the prestige of the Ottoman Empire, which during the 19th century installed dominion over the Sudan (via khedive of Egypt). The relationship between Ankara and SSA states has not only been one of economics, but one also founded in the bonds of Sunni Islam, which is dominant in the northern region of SSA (Christianity is dominant in the central and southern regions).  Diyanet (the Directorate for Religious Affairs) led a meeting of Islamic leaders from 21 African countries in November 2006 to synthesize Ankara’s foreign policy with African Islamic societies. A follow-up meeting was held five years later in 2011. An example of this state-religion alliance can be glimpsed in Turkey’s support for the Islamic Development Bank to facilitate industrialization throughout Africa. Turkish foreign policy and Islam are increasingly becoming intertwined in this way.

 Russia has been cementing relationships with SSA, as in the former Soviet days, and it has been extending far beyond the traditional arms trade. Unlike Turkey, Russia does not have significant cultural commonality with SSA. While Eastern Christianity, a branch of Christianity that Russia inherited, had a major presence in the SSA’s Horn of Africa (as in the MENA region) – much of Christianity there was uprooted after centuries of Islamic expansion. Currently much of the Christian denominations in SSA region are varieties of the Western Christianity, being Roman Catholic or Protestant (one third of Christian churches are charismatic). Thus Moscow lacks the deep cultural assets that Ankara can utilize in its favor, although Eastern Orthodox communities have been slowly growing in the newly independent South Sudan.

 Iran has a stake in SSA region as Tehran unleashes its efforts to build networks in the region. While Islam in the SSA is mostly Sunni, Shia Islam has been growing steadily for the last several decades, especially in West Africa, where there are pockets of Lebanese Shiite settlements who left Lebanon after the civil war. Uranium-rich states (such as the Democratic Republic of Congo) and sources of secondary Uranium sources (i.e. phosphates) are Tehran’s major targets in SSA. With the 2015 Iran nuclear deal already being challenged behind the scenes by Tehran, SSA will continue to be an attractive region to secure instruments for Tehran’s geopolitical and nuclear ambitions.

 China also has massively expanded its state-backed activities in SSA for well over a decade, using chaos, corruption, and instability in the region (often produced by borders created by old imperial powers without any regard for ethnic and linguistic distributions) to its advantage. Targeting the fields of mining, oil and energy predominantly, the ever-opportunistic Beijing sells its projects (dominated by natural resource interests meant to keep the PRC’s economic engine rolling) stressing mutual benefit (although much of the reaped interest are for the PRC – it’s known that Chinese companies operating in SSA tend to hire Chinese employees instead of locals, although there may be instances that there is a scarcity of high-skilled workers locally). China also asserts that it will not intervene in the domestic affairs of SSA states.

 It is worth noting that Sir Halford Mackinder, founding pioneer in the field of geopolitics, asserts in his 1919 work Democratic Ideals and Reality that there are two Heartlands: One is the well-known Northern Heartland located in the general region of Central Asia. The other is the Southern Heartland, located in the interior of SSA. The penetration of the four rising states mentioned above in the SSA region is the 21st century empires’ struggle for the Southern Heartland. And the chess pieces are being assembled on its chessboard.

 Over one hundred years ago, a chain of revolutions and uprisings shook the global political landscape. Commencing from the 1905 Russian Revolution, and spreading to Qajar Dynasty Persia (1906) and to Ottoman Empire (1908-09), the fires of revolution also functioned as a catalyst to trigger the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, ending the Manchurian Qing Dynasty that dominated the Chinese continent for nearly three centuries. (The Manchurian imperial bloodline made a temporary comeback in the 1930s as the Empire of Manchuria, established by Japan as a buffer against the Soviet Union.) Unfortunately, many of these revolutions did not produce lasting stability, and were often incubators of civil wars of which the effects are still felt in the 21st century.  Interestingly, these empires are the previous incarnations of the very states that are currently involved in movements for imperial restoration.

 How will these four authoritarian land-power Eurasian states influence the course of 21st century history? How will the future global demographics play into the rise of these states? Many major powers today are predicted to experience increases in aged population, and/or population decline by the end of this century. Population size often (although not always) translates into national potential and power. Yet all states explored above, not only the PRC due to its “One Child Policy” and Russia (these two issues are well-recognized), but also Turkey and Iran are seeing demographic crises or full-blown disaster on the horizon. The rise of some of these states may perhaps be more of a short-term phenomenon than a long-term one if nothing is done to avoid the predicted collapse. (Economist David Goldman argues that the Iran nuclear deal was a compensation for possible demographic collapse in Iran in coming decades).

With Donald Trump’s presidential victory, 2016 may truly prove to be a watershed year for those around the world to etch in to their minds.  It may be the year that accelerated a reshuffling of geopolitical order that will echo, manifesting most likely in a chain of crises for years to come. However the course of this incoming presidency – already beset with chronic unpredictability – will move the world, expect heated Eurasia-based geopolitical struggle to remain an integral part of international society. The importance of geopolitical analysis will only increase, for the survival of states, businesses, and most importantly common people across the globe in a world in which lasting security seems ever brittle and illusory.

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