Generally, when one thinks ‘Asia’, it is the economic powerhouse China that comes to mind – not a bad thought, considering that country’s rising global influence.
The key to China’s success on the economic front is indeed global; as a self-contained political entity, they could gain but little if one considers only their domestic demand for goods and services.
Anyway, economics is not considered an aspect of geopolitical influence.
The most concise definition of geopolitics is: "The degree of a nation or region’s political power in relation to its geographical position".
Seen in that light, China’s rising dominance of the continent and insistent assertions over Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Seas does help to determine the geopolitical climate in Asia.
Still, China is not the only player in the field of Asian geopolitics.
We need to take a look at the continent as a whole, historically and currently, in order to get an accurate picture of what the situation is and the ramifications it presents.
That will not be a small task; Asia comprises of 48 countries and three dependencies and boasts some of the oldest civilisations on the planet.
To say nothing of the fact that it is home to over half of the global population, a factor that drives the need for careful geopolitical wrangling.
If we’re going to look at the history as well as the politics of Asia that are influenced by geography, we’d better get started!
Historical Influences in Asia
For the longest time – since antiquity even, China and India flip-flopped as geopolitical and economic leaders of Asia.
Records indicate that China benefitted more from trade along the ancient Silk Road; a state of affairs that persists still today through their updated Belt and Road Initiative.
In spite of that difference, those two countries long provided harmony, stability and economic growth to the region.
To be sure, there was conflict.
For instance, during the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th centuries), after China had gained control over the portion of the Silk Road that lies in Central Asia, the Chinese sent a diplomatic mission to Northern India.
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Unfortunately, that state was embroiled in civil war after the death of their long-serving emperor and the Chinese delegation got caught up in it.
In retaliation, they returned with troops from Nepal and Tibet, captured the leader of the faction claiming that their opponents were usurpers and took him to China as their prisoner.
Such squabbles hardly impacted the depth and importance of the Sino-Indian relationship; to the contrary, they enjoyed a centuries-long balance of power.
What brought it to a screeching halt was British colonisation of India.
The Might of the British Empire in Asia
The British Empire had been dealing with India long before actually claiming the entire land as a territory.
Through the waning influence of the Mughal Empire in the early 17th Century, the British East India Trading Company gained a foothold on relations and eventually gained a position of influence over India’s economy and politics.
Their focus eventually shifted from trade to territorial possession and government.
After victory in a squirmish with the French, the trading company’s militia gained control of the Bengal territory, resulting in their becoming a major military and political power.
From there, the Trading Company’s influence expanded beyond the Bengal region.
It is important to remember that the Trading Company was a civilian enterprise that at its height, had a private army twice the size as the official army of Great Britain.
That trading company’s hold on India, acting as an agent of The Crown, lasted 101 years. An uprising among indigenous people against it led the British Empire to make as law the Government of India Act of 1858.
The Crown had officially taken over the government of India.
You might think that all of this was simply about expanding the British empire and that would be a logical postulate... until you consider that a commercial enterprise led to land seizures and making laws.
The real purpose of the British presence, especially the marshal presence in India was to protect trade routes as well as to establish new ones.
Mad for all of the luxurious good from China – the silk and fine china, European countries were all trying to break into the Chinese markets but, with the Chinese’ strict trading policies and their lack of need or desire for foreign goods, few were able to make inroads or establish trade relations.
That changed when the British East Indian Trading Company captured Bengal.
With the better quality opium cultivated in that region, the British trading company had their ‘in’; a shady trade venture that led to the devastating Opium Wars.
Japan, for so long a minor player on the Asian geopolitical stage, took note of what was happening in China.
They were convinced that the Chinese emperor had no real might because his troops were so easily decimated, but they also knew that, after centuries of self-imposed isolation, they had no might of their own.
That set the stage for the Meiji Restoration, in which Japan opened her ports to trade with other nations, far less restrictively than their Chinese neighbours.
That made Japan a front-row player on the global political stage.
U.S. Influence on Asian Relations
One could hardly blame the United States for not getting involved with any territorial disputes outside of their own areas of concern.
During the time that the British Empire took over India, America was still a very young country, trying to establish herself.
That is why we don’t see any U.S. involvement in Asia until after the Second World War, and then, they came with a vengeance and made a lasting impression.
To quell Japanese aggression as well as set up strategic outposts in the Pacific, they set up a series of military bases throughout Japan.
Their purpose was to deter military action and prevent the spread of communism. Today, they monitor military activity in China and Russia and they play a part in regulating maritime traffic in disputed waters.
They also have a military presence in South Korea to deter any military action from the north.
While American troops were active in Vietnam in the last half of the 20th century, they left that country when its government declared itself communist.
It is important to note that, while America is not located in Asia, their strong presence there has influenced and continues to influence Asian geopolitics.
And, while their original purpose for being there, namely halting the spread of communism is passé, they reap substantial economic and political benefit from being a player in Asia.
Their relationship with Pakistan is especially vital to American efforts in curbing global terrorism.
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Pakistan: The Relative Newcomer
As the British hold on India weakened, the governors were prepared to relinquish control of the country but wanted it to remain undivided regardless of popular Muslim sentiment.
Unable to reach an agreement, the Viceroy and Lord Mountbatten finally agreed to partition off a portion of northwestern India; to create an independent state where the Muslim majority would establish their own government and laws.
It was a bit difficult getting their government off the ground; for 23 years, Pakistan operated under military rule, only holding their first democratic elections in 1970.
Disputes over territory with India – the Kashmir region provoked no fewer than three wars, leads them to be uneasy neighbours, driving Pakistan to ally themselves with other Islamic countries, principally Turkey and Iran.
Pakistani politics emphasises relationships cultivated through soft power and they seem to have really hit their mark in relations with China.
Unfortunately, those ties have impacted India rather negatively; because New Delhi has not signed on to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, they have lost significant strategic and political control over the region.
That has left that country scrambling to make itself relevant in today’s political climate. But does Pakistan have more clout in the Middle East?
Where Asian Geopolitics Stand Today
Obviously, there are many more countries in Asia than the ones mentioned here, some of which are also impacting global events, such as:
- Iran, with its threats to block the Straits of Hormuz and its nuclear build-up
- Israel and the ongoing struggle to define her borders
- Russia, turning ever more toward a nationalist agenda while impacting other countries’ operations
- The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, for their vast oil reserves
While each is individually important on the global stage and to world economics, none are quite so impactful on so many levels as the ones scrutinised in this article. You can read all about these and other countries in the Middle East in our companion article.
Even as China extends her influence throughout Asia and the world, they are not letting go of age-old disputes.
The contested islands in the South China Sea, those that Japan calls Senkaku and China identifies as Diaoyu, are a hot topic in the region.
Additionally, China lays claim to the Spratly islands; a claim that is disputed by Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, among others.
As such, there are varying degrees of interference in the South China Seas - and the possibility of China controlling vital maritime shipping lanes, but that is not the only island dispute in Asia.
Japan, the recent host of the G20 summit, is attempting to mend its rift with Russia and strengthen bilateral ties. This issue at hand: four islands off the northwestern coast of Japan’s northernmost province, Hokkaido.
This has been a long-running dispute; since the end of the second World War, to be exact.What has lent the matter new urgency is North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.
In testing their missiles, North Korea invariably fires them east... toward Japan, whose leadership believe there is a credible threat of nuclear attack from Korea in the near future.
It might seem more logical for Japan to approach North Korea directly; however, they have not established formal diplomatic relations, possibly because there is substantial hostility on both sides of the table.
Approaching China might be equally futile. Beijing may well insist on some concession in return for approaching the North Korean government, with whom they are allied. That would perhaps be a concession that Japan may find difficult to afford.
That leaves Japan no choice but to cooperate with Russia in its effort to contain the North Korean threat. So far, the record number of talks have resulted in a stalemate.
Should China do more to rein in their ally, as the global community seems to think they should?
The Republic of China is generally what people think of as Asia and she wields substantial influence throughout the world.
She may be the world’s most populated country, the most progressive and the most economically dynamic... but China is not Asia’s current geopolitical headliner.
That honour would go to a relatively small country with a minuscule GDP and virtually no international trade; a country with a population of just over 25 million – a number that only barely exceeds the population of Shanghai.
For good or ill, North Korea is currently the most geopolitically impactful country in Asia.
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