Friday, 28 August 2009

The Next Hundred Years

I've always found futurology fascinating. An article in this week's New Statesman by George Friedman that peers 100 years into the future attracted my attention, not least because of the important role that Poland plays in its author's vision.

Friedman asserts that America's global power will wane; three countries will emerge far stronger, economically and politically, during this century - Poland, Mexico and Turkey. Using the analogy of the rise of South Korea since the 1950s, Friedman believes that Poland needs to become a strategic partner for the US - for the best interests of America.

Delighted though I am to see confirmation of what I firmly believe - that Poland is a country on the rise - I feel that Friedman's predictions for the 21st Century are missing something.

Reading and re-reading this article, I'm amazed that its author ignores any mention of what's obviously the biggest geopolitical fault line of them all - the 2,700 mile (4,400km) border between the world's most populous nation, China and the world's largest one, Russia, along the Amur river.

To its south, China - over-crowded; economically dynamic, short of living space and raw materials. To the north, Russia, with a shrinking population, vast empty territories and an economy almost entirely dependent on the exploitation of rich reserves of raw materials.

On the Russian side of the Amur lies the Amur Oblast, population 870,000 and shrinking, and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (a bizarre relic of Stalin's obsession with relocating peoples), population 190,000 and shrinking. By contrast, Heilongjiang province to the south of the Amur has a population of 38 million.

Chinese traders are crossing into Russia with those ubiquitous check pattern cubic bags in which they bring T-shirts and sweaters and tights and cheap consumer electronics. They come from the numerous towns in the north of Heilongjiang and from the north-east of Inner Mongolia. Some of these Chinese traders are settling in Russia, marrying local women (who see them as hard-working and not overly fond of vodka). Ethnic tensions will rise. As they do so, China will start flexing its military muscle to protect its people... Russia's crumbling transport and energy infrastructure will hamper its attempts to shore up the Amur region militarily.

Russia's weakness and China's strength and strategic needs will ensure that there's a casus belli here that's waiting for a spark, a provocation (and Russia is good at thoughtless provocation), something that will cause world opinion to side with an outraged China - and the People's Liberation Army (600 million men and women available for military service) could turn its attention northwards.

It is worth reading about the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict of 1969 to see how a military showdown could escalate. Of course Russia is a nuclear power; but how many of its nukes will be in working order in 2040? The Russian armed forces, mired in corruption, would be no match numerically nor organisationally to deal with Chinese incursions.

How would these look? My guess is that at first, we will see small-scale cross border raids to punish Russia for local anti-Chinese pogroms. The Russians will be unable to repel these raids, China will hold the land despite UN Resolutions. By the end of the century, I predict the Russian-Chinese border will no longer run along the Amur.

From the point of view of the Anglo-Saxon world, this will not be a war of 'an ally' versus 'an enemy'. Like Hitler's war against Stalin, this will be a war of 'two bad guys'. Russia has not been endearing itself to the West in recent years, nor has China. Neither the US nor the EU will want to take sides in a Sino-Russian border conflict. Russia and China will both work hard to sway western public opinion, but the west will simply not care. In bar-room discussions, Joe Sixpack and Eddie Punchclock will conclude that it's a faraway conflict that doesn't remotely impinge on their lives.

But it will be, in my opinion, the biggest geopolitical shakeup of the 21st Century.

Russia needs to win friends in Europe; its short-sighted foreign policy is not endearing the very people it should need as allies. The only way Russia can avoid its fate on the Amur is to join the structures of western Europe - NATO and the EU.

More on this here and here.

This time last year:
Of dams and brass bands

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