TODAY marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Communist East Germany decided to allow its people to move freely to West Berlin.
To Cold War warriors, the Wall’s collapse marked symbolically the end of the Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet Union, its allies and the rest of Europe.
With the benefit of hindsight, the Berlin Wall was an artificial barrier dividing Communist Eastern Europe and Western Europe that was bound to fail. In the age of free information flows, the Eastern side saw how Western Europe was getting more and more prosperous. Its fall enabled the re-unification of Germany, with the creation of the euro as the monetary glue that sought to bind Europe politically.
Political analyst Francis Fukuyama thought in 1990 that the fall of the Wall signalled the “End of History”, in which the unipolar American neo-liberal order would prevail forever. Contrary to expectations, 30 years later, the game between the Great Powers has not only been revived, but intensified into a “Revenge of History”, in which not only Russia, but China and other players have emerged to challenge the present order.
In the 19th century, when America was more isolated, the European powers fought what was called the Great Game for political hegemony. The intellectual godfather of this game was the then director of the London School of Economics, Halford MacKinder. His 1904 paper “The Geographical Pivot of History” placed geography at the heart of foreign diplomacy and strategy.
MacKinder basically saw the world as three large continents – Eurasia – the largest stretching from Atlantic Europe to Eastern Siberia; the North and South American continents and finally Africa. Because the Americas and Africa were then relatively insular, he saw the Great Game as a struggle for the Heartlands, which covered essentially central and eastern Europe, strategically placed between Western Europe and East Asia (China and Japan) and the oil-rich Middle East in the South. He was remembered most for his quote: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World Island (namely Eurasia); Who rules the World Island commands the World.”
What Mackinder failed to see was the rise of the United States into the Great Game after the First World War. Yale Professor Nicholas Spykman spelled out what became US geopolitical strategy for hegemony in his 1943 book that argued that what really mattered was the Rimland. This is the coastal region surrounding the Heartland, namely, Western Europe, Middle East, India, South-East Asia and East Asia. Spykman saw correctly that the Heartland was too under-developed to matter.
In short, Spykman argued that with sea and air power, America can control the Rimland and effectively “contain” Russia as the world’s most powerful continental power. This Cold War thinking still permeates American strategic thinking, seeking today to “contain” China as well as isolate Russia. Consequently, American military and strategic involvements since the Second World War have been all in “borderland” countries in the Rimland, such as South Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan etc. Borderlands are important “buffer zones” between Great Powers, because they maintain the balance that keeps the world in a delicate peace.
Today’s Great Game is even more intense than the Cold War, because China is much more deeply embedded in world trade than the Soviet Union. China’s Belt and Road strategy has now been welcomed by Russia because it opens up the economic viability of the Heartlands. Furthermore, global warming has meant that with the melting of the Arctic Ocean, cargo ships can now sail in the summer months between Asia and Northern Europe, opening up the Arctic north.
The Great Game has also changed with the arrival of cyber-technology, because competition has moved from land, sea and air to space, cyber-space and finance. Global borders drawn during the colonial periods are disappearing everywhere, but conflicts and intrusions (through migration, pandemics and disputed waters) make the borderlands more dangerous than before.
This last week, the Great Game has been in trade. In Bangkok, at the third Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Summit, 15 countries, essentially 10 Asean countries plus Japan, South Korea, China, Australia and New Zealand announced that they have concluded text-based negotiations for an agreement to be signed sometime in 2020. India decided not to join.
Last year, 11 countries signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) which is a trans-Pacific trade agreement between Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam (from Asean) and Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru from the Americas.
Noticeably, the United States is excluded from both arrangements.
Notice further that even as the United States espouse “America First”, the rest of the world is engaging in different alliances that are both overlapping and also competing. The world is essentially uncomfortable with the United States asking everyone to choose sides, and using finance, tariffs and sanctions on allies and rivals alike.
Geography still matters in politics. When several nights of protests in Santiago, Chile occurred and 20 people were killed, this was considered by the international media as due to local grievances. Santiago is not in the borderlands.
But when Hong Kong protestors raise the Stars and Stripes and ask for help from Washington DC, they enter deeply into the new Great Game at everyone’s peril. Countries in the borderlands like Syria, Yemen and Iraq all quickly deteriorated into civil war because of Great Power intervention.
Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell to re-create Berlin as the capital of Germany. But if the Hong Kong protests continue, will Hong Kong become less like Berlin, but more like Beirut, another financial centre in the borderlands that became a casualty of the Great Game?
Tan Sri Andrew Sheng comments on global economics from an Asian perspective. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
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