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Essay: Geographical Factors that Shape the Foreign Policy of Asian-Pacific Nation-States

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From the Himalayan Mountain range of Nepal to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, from the Tropical Rainforests of Laos, Cambodia, and the rest of Southeast Asia to the Pacific Ocean itself, the states of the Asian-Pacific and their foreign policy are very much at the mercy of the geographical factors that surround them. The foreign policies of these nation-states have been shaped by the region itself for hundreds of years, during which time the boundaries and alliances have been in a constant state of change. Geographical factors, such as the topology of the country, countries available resources and even neighbouring states, have a huge impact on a nation’s interactions with the region’s different states. These factors have been consistent throughout a nation’s history, for example in Japan, “three-quarters of the land is not conducive to human habitation, and only 13 per cent is suitable for intensive cultivation” (Marshall, 2016), due to these factors Japan was forced to interact and trade with mainland Asia, eventually leading to Japan becoming an industrial and imperial power. Japans lack of natural resources and fertile farmland is not something that can be changed by time, today Japan is the world’s largest importer of natural gas, and the third-largest importer of oil (Marshall, 2016). These geographical factors will always be prevalent in a state’s foreign policy decision making, and in some cases, like China and Japan, are at the centre of why a state conducts policy the way it does.

Geographical neighbours have a big impact on how a state’s foreign policy is formed for a number of reasons. If a country is surrounded by hostile nations, then that state’s foreign policy will be centred on defence, survival and finding strong allies that they can rely on to come to their aid if need be. We can see this when we look at North Korea in the Asia-Pacific region. The North Koreans perceive their neighbour, South Korea, and by extension their closest ally, the United States, to be a military and ideological threat. This has led to their foreign policy being centred on nuclear defence, military build-up and establishing a strong alliance with Chinese on their northern border, which acts as both a deterrent to the USA and a powerful trading ally in the region.

China’s foreign policy, when it comes to its neighbours, is securing their border that they share with 14 different countries. To achieve this security, they use a few different strategies. In 1950, the People’s Republic of China invaded their neighbour, Tibet, and incorporated the country as part of mainland China. This was done for a couple of reasons; to secure Tibet’s rich stockpile of natural resources, but primarily it allowed China to secure its border with India, with Tibet acting as a buffer zone between the two countries. India and China share a 2,100-mile-long border, but due to China’s occupation of Tibet, this border is secured by the Himalayan mountain range. Another benefit of controlling Tibet is that China secured the Tibetan sources of China’s three great rivers, the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong (Marshall, 2016).

The foreign policy implementation of buffer zones between two states that are wary of one another or have a history of hostility has been a tactic of China’s for the past fifty years. Tibet, North Korea, and the Xinjiang province in West China all form of defence against anyone who would attempt to invade the Chinese mainland. North Korea provides an efficient, if somewhat troublesome, line of defence against the United States and their Pacific allies, Japan and South Korea. For this buffer state to remain, Chinese leaders need to avoid a regime collapse within the country. This explains why China has historically opposed international sanctions against North Korea, why China accounts for more than ninety per cent of North Korea’s total trade volume, and also why China, while not wholly content with it, does not push North Korea toward Nuclear disarmament. China relies on its buffer between it and the democratic South Korea, which stations 29,000 U.S. troops and marines, for the relative peace of mind (Albert, 2018). We have talked about how effective Tibet and its geographical landscape are as a buffer zone between China and Japan, with the Himalayas acting as a natural ‘Great Wall of China’ (Marshall, 2016). The Xinjiang province of China is, by a considerable margin, the least populated area of the country, and due to it bordering eight countries provides not only a buffer between them and the Chinese heartland but also a major land trade route. From this, we can see that it is not only a state’s geographical neighbour that can act as a buffer against other nations but also provinces or areas within a state.

Nations like Japan, island states that do not share a land border with any other state, are forced to develop as maritime nations in order to interact and connect with their neighbours. Japan is made up of four main islands, but also incorporates 6,848 smaller islands, of which four hundred and thirty are inhabited. Japan’s island-nation geography allowed it to stay isolated from the countries closest to it on mainland Asia, barring a few skirmishes on the Korean peninsula, protecting it from Mongol invasions in the 14th Century and still provides the country with a form of natural protection in the modern day, as the United States discovered during World War Two, having to ‘island-hop’ their way through to the Japanese four heartland islands.

The United States impact on relationships between states in the Asia-Pacific cannot be ignored when we are considering how neighbouring countries interact with each other in the region. The United States has played a major role in shaping the foreign policy of the regions states since the early 1960s. The United States recognises that a united Asian-Pacific could threaten its dominance and interest in the area, and eventually maybe threaten the United States mainland itself. Michael Mastanduno identifies that “since the United States does not want to encourage a balancing coalition against its dominant position, it is not clear that it has a strategic interest in the full resolution of differences between, say, Japan and China or Russian and China. Some level of tension among these states reinforces their individual need for special relationships with the United States.” (Mastanduno, 2002) Despite the United States lack of a physical border with any of the Asia-Pacific states, the influence that it holds in the region means that the states within it have to shape their foreign policies around and in response to decisions made by the US. We saw this recently when the United States launched its trade war against China in July 2018, it forced a change in foreign policy by both Tokyo and Beijing bringing the countries closer together due to Washington’s actions, leading to a raft of new economic deals between the two countries. This definitely isn’t something that the United States will approve of, but it does effectively show how far Washington’s influence reaches.

Essential oils, gases and other natural resources are at the heart of our 21st-century states. We rely on them in every facet of our everyday lives, so those that control the supply of these essential resources hold incredible power over those that do not. China and India alone account for thirty-six per cent of the world’s population, and Asia as a whole account for almost sixty per cent and covers thirty per cent of the Earth’s land area (National Geographic, 2012). Substantial amounts of natural resources and goods are required in order to sustain these 21st Century states. However, if a state cannot produce or claim these resources, its foreign policy has to be centred around how to acquire goods, products and resources. A prime example of this is Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century. By the turn of the century “Japan was an industrial power with the third-largest navy in the world”, as a result of industrialisation, a growing population and a growing empire, after its occupation of Taiwan in 1895 and its annexation of Korea in 1910, Japan had to look outside of its borders for the oil, coal, and metals it needed to supply itself.  This led to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1932, an area in the Northeast of China that was rich in coal, fertile soil and various minerals, then the full-scale invasion of mainland China in 1937. Japan went on to sweep across the whole of South-East Asia, into Burma, Singapore and the Philippines, all in order to feed its ever-growing industrial machine and empire (Marshall, 2016). Japan’s foreign policy had been directly influenced by the geographical factors that affected it.

China is the opposite to the Japanese islands, it has been blessed with a rich amount of resources, which allowed it to become one of the world’s largest economies in the world. China is the world’s largest producer of aluminium, gold, tin, and coal. The ability to export these resources and trade with other nations has been a major factor in the growth of the Chinese economy and its status as a world superpower. However, these resources cannot last forever, and with the drastic growth of the populations of India and China, stockpiles of oil and coal are running out at a drastic rate, so countries in the region are in constant search for new sources of energy in the area. This search for energy has led to many territorial disputes between the region’s states, primarily between Japan and China in the South China Sea.

Due to the Industry in China being highly energy-intensive, requiring three times the average to produce one US dollar of GDP, and the fact that China’s primary energy alternative to oil, which has to be imported, being coal, which has a huge negative impact upon the environment, Beijing is at the forefront of the search for sustainable and non-polluting sources of energy in the region (Eades and Cooper, 2010). This search for energy is at the heart of the territorial dispute between China and Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the South China Sea. The islands are near important international trading lanes (Roy-Chaudhury, 2016) and estimates say that the oil reserves in the South China Sea may amount to over two hundred billion barrels, second only to the amount in Saudi Arabia (Fabi and Mogato, 2012). So, whoever controls the South and the East China Sea, controls the shipping lanes and oil reserves within it. Japanese diplomats say their country “discovered” the islands in 1884 and annexed them in 1885, while the Chinese claim that the islands have been part of the Chinese order since at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) (The Economist, 2012). In order to secure these geographically important islands and the area surrounding them, Chinese leaders have used their superior military capabilities to send military ships into the Senkaku waters, have established an ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ (ADIZ) in an area which encompasses the Islands and have used dredging and land reclamation methods to begin turning a series of reefs and atolls in disputed territory into islands complete with runways and artillery positions (Marshall, 2016). This group of 5 uninhabited islands and rocks have caused international, foreign policy crisis, all because of the geographically strategic position they hold in the region.

A countries natural geography is a huge determining factor when a state is shaping its foreign policy. A nation’s borders are usually shaped and carved out by significant geographical features. Due to the region’s diversity of environment, these border features range from rivers, mountain ranges, rainforests and desert plains. The geography of the region has played an integral role in the foreign policy of the region. The Yalu river, which acts as the border between China and North Korea, was a hot point during the Korean War in the 1950s as the US marched toward the banks of the river before the Chinese committed forces from across the other bank. Due to North Korea’s isolation from the outside world, even from its closest ally in the Chinese, the Yalu river has only a few bridges that have been built to cross it, all of which are under constant heavy guard. This ensures that Beijing has a way of cutting itself off from a land invasion from the Korean peninsula.

China’s border with Mongolia stretches for 2,906 miles and is straddled by the Gobi Desert, which acts as a natural early warning system and line of defence against any army attempting invade from the North as an army massing in the desert would be spotted weeks in advance of an attack. Any invading army would also have to have enormously long supply lines across uninhabitable desert terrain. The true importance of this natural line of defence is due to the Russian threat that lies beyond Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. China and Russia’s border conflict in 1969, to which resolutions only came in 1991 with the Sino-Soviet Border Agreement, cannot have been forgotten by Beijing, especially with its focus on securing its borders as we have discussed earlier.

China’s border with Laos is hilly jungle terrain, which makes passage by the military very complicated. However, this border geography is likely to change in the coming years. There is a prospect of expanding mining operations within Laos due to the prevalence of many natural resources in the area; oil, natural gas, coal, hydroelectric potential and mineral deposits. This has led to an increase in deforestation of the jungles, which in turn could lead to its border with China being more vulnerable to a military force, like China, who is looking to expand its stockpile of essential goods and resources for its ever-growing population.

The Pacific Ocean itself possibly has the greatest influence over the regions foreign policy. Half of China’s 1.3 billion people live on the industrialised East Coast of the country, and the country’s coastal GDP contribution is around sixty per cent of its total. Chinese foreign policy when it comes to the Pacific, as it is with its land borders, is all about control. It desires control over the majority of the international shipping lanes that come through the South China Sea. They are attempting to accomplish this goal through many different strategies, but primarily through the use of military aggression in the area. Also as we have discussed earlier, the Pacific Ocean potentially has massive oil deposits that, because of the advances in technology, can now be harvested by those that can claim territory in the Pacific. So many nations foreign policy will now be directed towards trying to prove that they have legitimate claims over land in the South China Sea and the Pacific itself.

Geographical factors have a large determining influence over the Asian-Pacific states foreign policies and how they interact with each other. Who and what kind of state neighbours your own, the abundance or lack of natural resources available to any individual state, and the geographical features which shape the borders and the nations themselves. Weaker countries have to take into account the foreign policies of their more powerful neighbours when determining their own. They would seek an alliance with their powerful neighbour or seek an alliance with an equally powerful state in the region or even with multiple smaller states that can unite together to become stronger. When concerning natural resources that states need to survive in the modern day, they must look to the resources they have available to them or trade with other nations to procure any minerals which they lack the ability to produce themselves. Many Asia-Pacific nations foreign policy in the 21st century focuses on finding new ways of searching the nearby geography for new energy that was previously unobtainable without modern technologies. We just have to look at the increase in mining on the seabed of the South China See to see this, something that would have been impossible even thirty to forty years ago. The geographical features that shape the region’s borders and countries themselves will not be changing anytime soon, except maybe the rainforests of Southeast Asia, which are disappearing due to increases in deforestation. The Gobi Desert is actually increasing in size and the Himalayas will still be a geographical factor that will continue to influence the Indian and Chinese foreign policies toward one another for the foreseeable future.

From our analysis, we can see that the geography of a region has had huge effects on the foreign policies of states within the Asia-Pacific throughout history and will continue to determine the foreign policies of states well into the future.

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