Mindsets and geography: China changes the map half a world away

Thursday, January 6, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, after agreeing to dismember Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler, described it as "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing."

A few months later, the British and French, however ill-prepared, felt they had to respond with war to renewed Nazi aggression — this time Stalin collaborating with Hitler against Poland. Thus Central Europe, fated to suffer a half-century under fascism and communism, proved to be all too "nearby" for the Western Allies.

"Geography" is as much a question of cultural distance as it is mileage on a Mercator projection. The recently deceased, indomitable physicist and cracker-barrel philosopher Sam Cohen encapsulated this in an essay during the Vietnam War debate. He pointed to 16th-century European cultural enclaves from Nagasaki to Macao to Malacca to Goa to Hormuz to Mombasa to Faro, strung out from Europe around Africa and across South Asia to the Far East. For more than a century, they were "closer" to one another than to their hinterlands because of the ambitions of ruthless Portuguese sailors in sail-driven caravels.

While dramatic headlines dominate our sense of the world around us, "geography" once again is changing that world in new and subtle ways. Some of it is man-made, some from climate change (Al Gore notwithstanding, mostly without human assistance), much largely unanticipated results of galloping technology. A century ago, of course, the Wright brothers transformed the whole concept of time and space. Without moving from our desks, the digital revolution has perhaps changed even more. In the coming decades, such developments will continue to dictate how the world works, probably more than the ravages or contributions of politicians.

Obscured by celebrity-driven news, a noteworthy example of what may be in store on the “geographic front” hardly got noticed:

Beijing has announced another in what USAF Col. Christopher J. Pehrson apparently was the first to label Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy. Naval historians suggest it’s a product of Chinese infatuation with 19th century U.S. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s thesis seapower would dominate world politics. I think more likely they have read Indian historian Sardar K.M. Panikkar, who studied the arrival of modern European dominance in the Indian Ocean. There is another interesting coincidence: Mr. Panikkar as India’s Beijing ambassador warned Washington Mao Tsetung would intervene if UN forces approached the Yalu River border – a caution alas! not taken by Gen. Douglas MacArthur II, leading to the lengthy bloody attenuation of “the forgotten [Korean] war”. Panikkar had even less success warning his Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru about the threat he felt the new Communist China posed for India.

But Beijing's latest gambit is different from its growing list of Indian Ocean port projects, built cooperatively with partners in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, and probably soon to feature Timor Leste. Beijing presents these as solely commercial ventures — just as China's Arabian Sea mini-flotilla masquerades as part of the international anti-piracy campaign even while refusing to take direction from the U.S.-led multinational force. But just as the Portuguese (and later the Dutch and the British) twinned their commercial activities with armed force, many see these new facilities one day hosting Chinese warships. That may already be the case for Chinese submarines.

This time, though, the Chinese announced the successful completion of a 54-mile tunnel built at over 12,000 feet in the Himalayas, connecting, they say, “China’s last county”. Linked to other Tibetan roads — and the railroad leading from western China proper to the mythical Tibetan capital, Lhasa — it marks a strategic breakthrough. The tunnel breaches the continental divide, facing south into India’s Arunachal Pradesh which China claims as Southern Tibet. It’s also where New Delhi suffered a bloody nose in its brief but disastrous 1962 war with Beijing. Unsuccessful border negotiations have dragged on ever since.

Whatever Chinese claims, it dramatizes New Delhi’s failure despite considerable Indian economic progress to build the kind of infrastructure which has propelled Beijing’s economy faster. [Ironically, overinvestment in infrastructure could be the last straw for China’s jerrybuilt economy but that is another story.]

On the Indian side of the world’s highest mountains, repeated government promises to match Beijing’s Tibetan buildup have never materialized. The Indian northeast which the Chinese steadily approach with military transport capability is a thicket of ethnic separatist insurgencies, some of which get at least black market weapons support from China through Burma.

Furthermore, despite denials, there is talk of massive hydroelectric proposals for the upper reaches of India’s Brahmaputra River, which like all South Asia’s major rivers, originate from what may be declining Tibetan glaciers. Interference in their flow would critically impact India and its neighbors. Add this to China’s steady advance through road building and river navigation facilitating growing overland commercial relations with all its southern land neighbors — including even the often hostile Vietnamese — and you see a new Asian “geography”. It is one only the Chinese cope with for the moment, but in the years ahead ….

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