In a world still ruled by geography, Asians must learn to think strategically

Andrew Sheng says avoiding conflict is vital with globe getting crowded and tensions running high

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 5:58pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:44am

Can Asians Think?" is a provocative book written by the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani, a prolific writer and brilliant thinker. The book is a combative rebuttal of the idea that the dominant Western (read American) ideas are universalist, arguing that the rest of the world has a lot to teach the West.

Rereading it 16 years after it was first published, the questions raised by Mahbubani are as relevant as ever.

I did find the title rather condescending - of course Asians can think! The real issue is whether Asians can think strategically in their own interest, or whether they find the dominant Western values so comfortable that they simply accept that the West is best.

The intellectual tide is going full circle. Since 1998, we have experienced two full-scale crises - the Asian financial crisis that started in 1997, and the 2007 global financial crisis, when even Western intellectuals questioned whether unfettered capitalism was a dead end.

As one Asian leader said, when our teacher stumbles, what does the student do? This strategic question has not been completely answered, or at least the answers are different for different Asian countries.

Now that the West has begun to recover, we are going through a reversal of fortunes. Emerging economies are going to bear the brunt of global adjustment. At least three Asian economies are counted among the "fragile five" (India, Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil and South Africa), and there is considerable worry that China may be facing a hard landing.

US President Barack Obama's trip to Asia was a belated personal confirmation of his "pivot to Asia" policy, involving strengthening bilateral ties with allies in East Asia and working relationships with emerging powers such as China.

The immediate unintended consequence of the policy was the eruption of the Ukraine crisis, whereby Russia took advantage of European weakness and diversion of US attention to effectively bring Crimea back to the Russian sphere of influence.

All of a sudden, the cold war again became a factor in the global risk equation.

The word "pivot" originally appeared in a paper, "The Geographical Pivot of History", delivered 110 years ago by Halford Mackinder, director of the London School of Economics. In his second book in 1919, Mackinder, considered the father of geopolitics, encapsulated his theory of the Heartland in a dictum: "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World."

The Heartland is of course Central Asia, previously part of the Soviet Union, and the World Island is the land mass of Eurasia, from Atlantic Europe to the East Asian Pacific coast, which commands half of the world's resources. Many of today's areas of geopolitical risk are at the frontiers of the Heartland - Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and the South China Sea.

Mackinder's innovation was to examine national strategy on a global scale, recognising that the British empire must use geography and strategic policy to its advantage against competing great powers.

Former British colonies understood very well the British strategy of "divide and rule", which allowed it to rule without expending too many resources. But Britain did not hesitate to apply gunboats or cannons to maintain the strategic balance.

Seen from the long lens of history, we live today in an era of the second Anglo-Saxon empire, with America being the new Rome. Just as the Roman empire shifted its capital from Rome to Constantinople (now Istanbul), in the 20th century, power shifted westwards from London to Washington.

Also in the last century, two island economies, Britain and Japan, played leading roles in world affairs using their maritime power, but by the 21st century, air and technological power have changed the game in favour of the US.

In contrast, Asia has been historically riven by war and territorial disputes.

In his 2012 book, The Revenge of Geography, geostrategist Robert Kaplan argued how politics and warfare were determined throughout history largely by geography. Even though the arrival of air travel and the internet suggest the world may become borderless, the reality is that it is becoming more and more crowded.

The next world war will be fought over water and energy resources, because there are limits to natural resources even as the global population grows.

For the world to avoid global conflict, we will require great skills and mutual understanding, because the risks of political miscalculation and accidents are extremely high in an age of rising tensions due to inequality, chauvinism and religious and ethnic polarisation. As an old African saying goes, when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. In the next big fight between the nuclear powers, there will be no winners.

That is something not just Asians must think seriously about.

Andrew Sheng is a distinguished fellow of the Fung Global Institute