The ascension of Donald Trump to the US Presidency has introduced an additional element of uncertainty to the conduct of world affairs. Judging from Mr Trump’s rhetoric, and some of his initial executive orders, such as withdrawing the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the proverbial cat has been set among the geopolitical pigeons.
The Australian government appears to have been completely unprepared for the Trump Presidency, and even less so by his decision to scrap American participation in the TPP. The political response has been one of denial, insisting that the TPP could proceed, and even more extraordinarily, suggesting that China and Indonesia could take the place of the departed Americans.
This displays a degree of naivety that is a matter of concern. Even more concerning is that according to Opposition Trade spokesman Jason Clare following two FOI requests, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had not been asked to model alternative scenarios in the event the TPP fell over for whatever reason.
The TPP has consistently been presented as a trade agreement when manifestly that was not the case. Only 7 of its 29 chapters dealt with trade. Its underlying objectives, apart from benefiting the corporate world and reducing national sovereignty through such procedures as the investor state resolution procedures, was the maintenance of US hegemony in the Asia Pacific region.
The equivalent agreement for Europe, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was intended to fulfill the same function. It is significant that neither China nor Russia in the TPP and TTIP respectively were invited to participate in either scheme, although their geography, economic, military and political power makes their exclusion absurd, unless that exclusion is seen in a wider geopolitical context.
To understand that conceptual framework that led to the US led TPP and TTIP one has to go back to 1904. In that year, the Director of the London School of Economics, Sir Halford Mackinder gave a lengthy presentation to the Royal Geographical Society. In that seminal lecture Mackinder set out the framework of the future world.
At its centre was a unitary landmass that he described as the “world island.” The “heartland” of that land mass was, in Mackinder’s terminology, ‘Europe-Asia’, what we would nowadays call Eurasia. Who rules the heartland, he argued, rules the world island, and who commands the world island commands the world.
Other land masses, including Australia and the United States, were relegated to the status of “outlying islands.”
It has taken a century, but that vision is now being turned into reality. During that intervening century there were two great wars that had a devastating impact on Russia and China; colonial exploitation; and the ruthless pursuit of political, economic and military advantage. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 there was, for a relatively brief period, a sole superpower, the United States.
That the United States intended to retain its dominance was made abundantly clear in the 2000 Department of Defence (US) strategy paper, Joint Vision 2020. That document described the strategic objective as “full spectrum dominance”, by which it meant control of land, sea, air, space and cyber space to the exclusion of all others.
Peter Dale Scott described that objective as “arguably insane” but it has underpinned US foreign policy for that last several decades. By way of dramatic contrast, the text of China’s policies on Asia and the Pacific’s security cooperation released on 11 January 2017 represents the antithetical approach to geopolitical relations.
It was a necessary corollary of the full spectrum dominance strategy that the rise of any competing power(s) had to be opposed by all possible means. This has resulted in the bombing of recalcitrant countries; regime change often involving assassinations; invasions and occupations of countries; and economic dominance strategies that manifested themselves in agreements such as the TPP and the TTIP.
When Barack Obama ended his presidency in January 2017 he had the dubious distinction of being the only US President in history to be at war for every single day of his presidency. His country was engaged in seven overt wars simultaneously, and through 2016 the US air Force dropped an average of three bombs per hour, 24 hours a day, for 365 days.
US special forces, trained in assassination, sabotage and disruption were operating in more than 100 countries. Many of the countries in Mackinder’s ‘heartland’ were victims of these policies.
Much of the information relating to these policies and their effects were kept from the western public. The so-called ‘free press’ has in recent decades become little more than a cheerleader for the destructive, but vastly profitable, excesses of what Eisenhower in his farewell address in 1961 called the “military industrial complex”.
Nowadays we would have to add the vast “intelligence” industry to that matrix. The extent to which the mainstream media supports this complex and perpetual war for perpetual profit did not happen by chance. Operation Mockingbird was a CIA program aimed at capturing editorial control of the mass media.
When that is added to the interlocking directorships and cross-ownership of the mass media with the major elements of the military-industrial complex it is easy to see why the public are fed a constant diet of half-truths, distortions, misinformation and outright lies on matters of public importance.
It even extended in 1967 to the CIA formulating the term “conspiracy theorist” as a pejorative adjective as a response to growing public skepticism about the Warren Commission’s fairytale report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The intimidatory success of that campaign of denigrating those who question the official version of a range of significant geopolitical events is currently seen in the very poor mainstream media coverage of events as diverse as 9/11, Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine.
The repetition ad nauseum of certain phrases such as “Chinese aggression” in the South China Sea, or “Russia’s aggression” in Europe are designed to implant in the public mind a particular version of events. That such assertions, as with Saddam’s WMD, are entirely free of fact troubles them not at all.
An even more common ploy than ‘conspiracy theorist’ is the simple suppression of relevant information. Very few people are aware, for example, of the 1999 civil trial in the US, where after a trial lasting more than three weeks (with zero mainstream coverage) unanimously concluded that Martin Luther King was killed as the result of a conspiracy involving the FBI, the Memphis Police Department, and the Department of the Army.
Similarly, very few know about the agreement signed on 8 August 2014 between Australia, Belgium, Netherland and Ukraine that no results of the investigation into the shooting down of MH17 would be released without the unanimous agreement of all the parties. This agreement gave the prime suspect, Ukraine, a veto over the investigation’s results.
Constant engagement in foreign wars exacts a price, in this case twofold. On the one hand there is an enormous financial cost, not being met from domestic resources.
A US national debt of approximately $8 trillion dollars when Obama assumed office in January 2009 has ballooned out to nearly $20 trillion when Trump took office in January this year. As Alibaba CEO Jack Ma pointed out at the recent Davos summit, although scarcely reported in Australia, in the past 30 years America has had 13 wars at a cost of $14.2 trillion dollars.
The other part of the equation is that there have been insufficient funds to invest in America’s own infrastructure, which is in a parlous state. (16). President Trump has announced an intention to spend $1 trillion dollars on infrastructure upgrading, but at the Asian Financial forum held one day before the Davos meeting, the China Investment Corporation chairman, Ding Xuedong pointed out that even bringing US infrastructure up to date, i.e. not making new investment in new projects, would require $8 trillion dollars. Even the US does not have access to that level of investment from domestic resources.
We therefore have, on the one hand, a decaying empire endlessly fighting wars of choice, and by bluff, bluster and bullying desperately trying to cling to the vestiges of superpower status.
On the other hand, reverting to Mackinder’s world island, we have an entirely different geopolitical and economic model. Over the past twenty years China has been constructing a wholly different economic framework. Unlike the Americans who treat every exercise as a zero sum game, i.e. one where they must win and someone else must lose, the Chinese approach is perfectly encapsulated in President Xi’s terminology of “win-win.”
This fundamental reorientation of geopolitical affairs had a significant starting point (one of several) with the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). There are currently three levels of membership of the SCO.
Members: China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Observers: Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia.
Dialogue Partners: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.
India and Pakistan joined the SCO in 2016 and Iran is likely to become a full member in 2017. A look at the map shows that they span the whole of Mackinder’s ‘world island’.
The next major development chronologically was the formation of BRICS, (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) in 2006 with the first formal summit in 2009. They provide the key links to three different continents; have three billion people, and a GDP in excess of $16 trillion. Significantly, BRICS has its own development bank and its members (as with the SCO) increasingly trade in their own currencies rather through the medium of the US dollar.
The next significant grouping in chronological terms was the Eurasian Economic Union with initial moves begum in 2000 and a formal treaty signed in 2014. Its members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. It encompasses 183 million people and a GDP of more than $4 trillion dollars.
It will be noted that there is an overlapping membership here with the SCO and BRICs. The EEU and SCO entered into a formal trade relationship in 2016.
In November 2012 at the ASEAN summit meeting in Cambodia, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was founded. Its membership consists of the 10 ASEAN nations, plus China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia and New Zealand. The RCEP represents 46% of global population, 40% of world trade, and has a GDP of $17 trillion dollars. With the demise of the TPP it is the only significant trade grouping in the Asia-Pacific region that has Australian membership.
For the five years since its inception, the Australian media have barely mentioned the RCEP and it is only with the demise of the TPP (a fact not fully grasped by the Australian government that there has been a flicker of reawakened interest.
Australia’s involvement is regarded with suspicion by many of the RCEP nations who, as Escobar noted, view Australia as a “Trojan horse” for the Americans. Nothing that Australia has done in the intervening 18 months since Escobar’s analysis is likely to disabuse some RCEP members of that notion. The reported comments of the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in the SMH will only reinforce that suspicion.
Another potential avenue of trade development that has been met with studied indifference by the Australian government is the Free Trade Area of Asia and the Pacific (FTAAP) launched in Beijing at the APEC meeting held there in late 2014.
The one sign of the Australian government actually taking a positive step in defiance of the wishes of Washington was in joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Its initial 57 founding members have expanded to 70 by the end of 2016. The only notable omission from the Asia-Pacific region is Japan.
All of these developments, as important as they are, do not match in scale and ambition the concept popularly known as the New Silk Roads, but more accurately translated from the Mandarin as One Belt, One Road (OBOR).
OBOR is giving shape and function to Mackinder’s vision of a world island. Launched in a speech given in Astana, Kazakhstan, in October 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is the world’s greatest infrastructure program.
OBOR is actually both land and maritime based. The land routes extend by intended high speed rail links from China to Europe with northern (from Vladivostok) central and southern routes.
Additional routes extend eastward on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a $46 billion dollar road, rail and fibre optic development. It will terminate at the Chinese controlled Pakistan port of Gwador on the Arabian Sea. One of its many advantages is that it will bypass the Strait of Malacca, a vital waterway through which more than 70% of China’s oil currently passes.
One of the annual exercises carried out in the Strait of Malacca is a joint US-Australian exercise (Operation Talisman Sabre), which practices blockading that vital Strait as part of an overall strategy of encircling and “containing” China. The very existence of this exercise and its objectives is but one illustration of Escobar’s ‘Trojan horse’ analysis.
Gwador links not only to the Arabian Sea and its role in the Maritime component of OBOR, it is also close to the Iranian border. Iran has already constructed a high-speed rail link on its side of the border and that will link with Gwador as part of the OBOR mosaic of networks.
A further southern component of OBOR is the Chinese-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CIPEC) linking Kunming to Singapore. Again, it is a land-based vehicle for evading the vulnerabilities of the Strait of Malacca.
The maritime component of the OBOR will provide linkages extending to East Africa, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe ending in Venice where it will link with one of the main high-speed rail links from China.
The scale of the projects is astonishing. As of July 2016 China had more than 900 contracts in place or under negotiation with a propose investment value of over $900 billion dollars. This was in addition to a separate contract worth over $400 billion signed with Russia for the supply of natural gas.
The implications of these developments are barely acknowledged in Australia where even basic factual information is often seriously lacking. There are two implications of the above geopolitical and economic developments that are worth brief additional mention.
The first of these major implications is that it is not simply a question of building transformative rail, road, water and fibre optic links with the more than 60 countries already part of the OBOR network.
It is clear from a number of official policy pronouncements from the political leadership of key countries, including but not limited to, China, India, Russia and Iran, that the transport and communications infrastructure are only a part of the development process.
The policy intention is to develop the economic base of the participating countries. There will be multiple benefits for all the participants (Xi’s win-win strategy) but of particular note is the inference to be drawn from the resource potential from some of the key countries in the Eurasian component of the OBOR. The following table illustrates the point.
Country Main Resources
- Iran Oil, natural gas, copper, bauxite, coal, iron ore, lead, zinc, tin.
- Kazakhstan Bauxite, copper, gold, iron ore, coal, natural gas, oil
- Kyrgyzstan Coal, gold, lead, uranium, zinc.
- Mongolia Copper, gold, molybdenum, fluorspar, uranium, tin, tungsten
- Russia Coal, natural gas, oil, timber.
- Tajikistan Antinomy, gold, silver, tungsten, uranium.
- Uzbekistan Coal, copper, gold, lead, molybdenum, natural gas, tungsten, uranium, zinc.
To the Australian reader one thing will immediately stand out. All of the countries in the above table (all of whom are associated with the SCO) as well as literally dozens that are part of the OBOR network produce all of the commodities that have driven Australian prosperity over the past 30 years.
Furthermore, all of these countries are or will be linked directly to China through high-speed rail and other linkages. As such, they are invulnerable to US naval control or attempted control of the sea approaches to China.
There is also a political dimension. It would in this writer’s view, be natural for China to give preferential treatment to countries with whom it has friendly relations. In this context, Australia’s close and subservient alliance with the United States; its willingness to host US military facilities whose main objective is the “containment” of China; the absurd posturing of some political figures; and the willing participation in provocations in the South China Sea in particular will all have been noted by the Chinese leadership.
The second implication flows from the first. What we are witnessing is a fundamental realignment of the geopolitical world, giving shape and texture to Mackinder’s vision of more than a century ago.
In many respects, what we are observing is an updated version of the old Silk Roads established by the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BCE. That ancient trading system lasted for more than 1500 years until the mid-15th century CE.
Then as now Iran was an essential component of the Silk road. When President Xi went to Iran in January 2016 it was the first official visit by a Chinese President for 14 years, but it acknowledged a relationship that had existed for more than 2000 years.
Modern Iran, apart from its resources noted in the table above, is a country with a 3000-year-old culture, which gives it another commonality with China. Despite US led sanctions led by the US on false allegations of a nuclear weapons program it has achieved the 9th highest literacy rate in the world, without discrimination as to gender.
In November 2016 China and Iran signed a defence cooperation agreement and in the same month signed a $10 billion dollar arms deal with the Russians. Those and related developments should give pause to the political posturing that marks so much of aggressive western commentary on Iran.
The integration of Iran, through the SCO and OBOR into a new geopolitical order is symptomatic of the battle being fought on the wider front for leadership in the 21st century.
As White has noted, the South China Sea is not about rocks, reefs and international maritime law. The issues, he says, are simple and stark: “America wants to remain the leading strategic power in Asia, and China wants to replace it. The stakes are therefore very high.” Judging by Bishop’s reported remarks the Australian government supports the American struggle to retain US supremacy in East Asia and elsewhere.
The dilemma facing the United States, and by extension Australia, is encapsulated in the differing perspectives of two former leading exponents of geopolitical strategy, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
In a lecture given in 2016, Kissinger said that the “long-term interests of both countries (US and Russia) calls for a world that transforms the contemporary turbulence and flux into a new equilibrium which is increasingly multi-polar and globalized. Russia should be seen as an essential element of any global equilibrium, not primarily as a threat to the United States.”
The “erosion of US military-technical advantages” by contrast alarms Brzezinski. Such erosion spells the end of America’s global rule. To Brzezinski, that is highly undesirable, as the result, he argues, would “most probably” be “global chaos.”
Kissinger and Brzezinski differ in their proposed solutions. Whereas Kissinger sees an alliance with Russia as advantageous, Brzezinski would prefer siding with China. Both men therefore effectively argue for a divide and rule strategy, with the desired end result being the retention of US global dominance, albeit tempered by the necessity of co-operation with one or other of the world’s global superpowers.
That ambition does not equate with the geopolitical realities of which the reemergence of China and the enormous potential of the OBOR and its associated economic and financial strategies to fundamentally reorder the geopolitical structure as foreseen by Mackinder more than 100 years ago.
The election of Trump brings those competing strategies into sharp relief. The choice for Australia should be an obvious one. Do we cling to the old Anglo-American certainties that have underpinned our foreign, defence and trade strategies in the post world war 2 era. That way risks consigning to the status accorded Australia as an “outlying island” and like the US, sinking into an abyss of irrelevance through the continued pursuit of out-moded strategies.
There is an alternative available. Australia could seize the opportunities offered by OBOR, the RCEP and the FTAAP and join the greatest geopolitical shift to its advantage of the past 100 years.
The thought that there might be a middle path is sadly delusional. Australia has pursued that perilous path and found itself embroiled in a series of foreign policy disasters from Vietnam, though Afghanistan, to Iraq and Syria to name only a few. Our grandchildren will not thank us for making yet another wrong choice.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.