With Hong Kong’s mass protests in the news in recent weeks, it will probably come across to many as an isolated incident. This incident is perhaps reminiscent of other upheavals exhibited by many countries over the last 20 years per the Color Revolution playbook. However, the reality is that what is going on is just one tiny piece in a large geopolitical chess board that has emerged in recent years in Asia, and one that is definitely accelerating in importance, as emerging economies convert their tax revenues and booming populations into military might.
Hong Kong, handed back to China in 1997, retains the West’s democratic, neo-liberal culture to a large degree, and as a result has come into conflict with their Communist overlords in Beijing. Nearby Taiwan, independent but not widely recognized, also remains in the West’s sphere of influence, and together with South Korea and Japan are collectively used to encircle China and its unstable ally North Korea – although Beijing continues to colonize the South China Sea anyway. China has in recent years launched its Belt and Roads Project; a scheme which uses the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars to re-establish the Silk Road networks relied upon by China in ancient times. This is an investment into logistics in the event sea lanes are closed by an antagonistic US Navy. The scheme however is actually much more sinister, and uses extortion and the debt enslavement of participating weaker economies to seize their national assets a la late American Empire tactics. The most recent examples of this are China’s building of a military base in Djibouti and the acquisition of Sri Lanka’s most productive port.
The latter confiscation is important because the island of Sri Lanka lies to the south of India, which is China’s biggest rival in Asia. This rivalry has also led to Beijing becoming very friendly with Pakistan, India’s most hated enemy. On two fronts, China is attempting to box in India, from the south and the west, just like the West is attempting to box in China from the south and the east, as mentioned above. As demonstrated throughout this year, the India-Pakistan feud is a tinder box waiting to explode, but it is crucial that this is seen within the wider context of China’s sphere of influence.
Russia, sitting on top of Asia and ever watchful, has in recent decades been keen to keep both India and China on side, despite however contradictory this may seem, in order to sell the products of their ever-growing defense industry to these two respective nations. Moscow’s only concern with regards to China is Siberia, where the region’s ever plentiful water supplies are seen as a future area of conquest by Beijing’s ruling elite, as their own water supplies are rapidly decreasing due to overpopulation, pollution and bad management. Vladimir Putin had initially sought to increase the population of Siberia by giving away free plots of land to Russians, especially to military veterans and farmers with young families. However, this scheme has run into problems, as President Xi Jinping’s government have encouraged their own citizens to buy up the land instead, something which the corrupt application system has allowed. Even in the coldest reaches of Asia, a demographic battle is being raged to secure the natural resources in an area that is rarely talked about.
Since 2015 Russia has taken on a much stronger role in the Middle East, most notably in Syria. However it is the connection with Iran which is the most important part of the geopolitics of western Asia. After all, if Bashar al-Assad was not allied with Iran, Israel and the West would have no interest in removing him. Contrary to popular belief, the idea that escorting merchant ships is the only reason for the deployment of American and British warships to the Straits of Hormuz in recent months is wrong. In reality, Iran’s shipping of fossil fuel supplies to Syria has been crucial to the war effort there, and the West, under strong Israeli pressure, has been persuaded to act and stop these shipments.
Israel’s dominant role in scripting the West’s foreign policy concerning the Middle East is obvious, yet it actually has very little influence when concerning America foreign policy in the rest of Asia, the most obvious example being in regards to North Korea. Despite this, the two parts of American influence in Asia – one revolving around Israeli lobbying in the Middle East, the other around America’s rivalry with China and other states – do not often hinder each other. However, this does not mean that America’s support and strategic alignment with Israel is justified, because in reality this relationship is one-sided and deeply flawed.
In the Middle East, the West, Israel and the Sunni Muslim states are on one side, with the Shia Muslim states and Russia and China on the other – although Beijing only plays a minor role. Whether Iran can avoid being invaded and turned into a western client state will largely determine whether the western portion of the scramble for Asia is a victory for China and Russia, or is a victory for the West and Israel, and therefore by knock-on effect an indirect victory for India, too. This is why Russia’s likely victory in Syria is so important, because not only does it allow Russia to maintain its only warm water port in the world on Asia’s western flank, but it also keeps the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah wall of steel intact, something which keeps Israel bogged down at its northern border, and keeps the West’s influence in the area firmly cornered further south in the Gulf.
It is of course important to point out that the alliances do get murkier somewhat when looking into things in more detail. Israel, for example, may oppose China’s minor support for Syria, Pakistan and Iran; but that doesn’t stop Israel and China developing economic ties, ties that were cemented earlier this year. Nor does it mean that just because South Korea and Japan align with America against China, that everything is cozy and calm – this month for example, Japan and South Korea had such a bad falling out that they are no longer sharing military intelligence with each other. The main fault lines are always present and dictate major events, but underneath them are much more fractious quakes that consistently challenge the strength of these alliances.
The citizens of the West, despite having access to more information than ever before, are still largely ignorant about the wider game of foreign policy and geopolitics n Asia. If these citizens think that the world is no longer a chessboard – a situation that has never existed in the history of civilization – then they are in for a shock. The biggest tug of war, in terms of both economic and military significance, is playing out on the world’s largest continent. Much like the very similar ‘Eastern Question’ of the 19th century in the same part of the world, it will come to define the direction of civilization for centuries to come.