To understand the world you have to look at it – by which I mean all of it, at the same time.
That requires a map, but what kind? The infamous Mercator Projection presents a highly distorted view of our planet. Land in the northerly latitudes is massively stretched out – Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Europe and Russia all appear much bigger than they actually are. To get an idea of how distorted a map is, compare the size of Greenland with that of Saudi Arabia. In reality, the two territories are almost identical in area. On a Mercator Projection, however, the cold place appears to be several times bigger than the hot place.
Why doesn't geography get the respect it deserves?
Of course, there’s no way of displaying the surface of a sphere onto a rectangle without distortion. Using a globe instead of map avoids that problem. Suddenly you notice things that most world maps obscure. Africa, for instance is really, really big – twice the size of the Russian Federation (which itself is absurdly large – stretching from the borders of the EU almost all the way to Alaska.)
But even an accurate representation of size and distance is misleading. Population, much more than territory, is what makes somewhere ‘big’. Elie Wiesel once said that “we must see in every person a universe”. In that respect even the smallest human settlement is immeasurably bigger than a vast and empty desert.
It’s worth looking at a map that resizes each country according to its population. Suddenly one sees a new view of the world – dominated, of course, by China and India, while thinly populated Russia and Canada shrink away.
But even this exercise is misleading because it doesn’t account for variations of population density within countries. If it did then London would be as big as Scotland and Wales combined. Furthermore, it’s not just the number of people who count, but the number of interactions between them. That’s why cities tend to be more productive per person than smaller settlements, because proximity facilitates interaction.
Of course, there’s more than one way of overcoming the tyranny of distance. Along the all-important dimension of human experience, transport links shorten and thicken the connections between the people and places at either end.
That’s why one of the most important, but under-reported, stories in the world today is China’s Belt and Road Initiative – a programme of infrastructure investments that spans the entire Eurasian continent plus Africa. Without moving a single border these links are redrawing the real map of the world – not so much by extending China’s reach, but by shrinking the effective distance between it and its ostensibly far-flung partners in global trade and geopolitics.
The jaw-dropping scale of China’s global ambition
The really scary thing is that the Western powers act as if it isn’t happening. It’s an argument made in the New York Times, by Robert D Kaplan.
Europe (the UK included) is now so self-obsessed that we barely noticed that America almost went to war with Iran last month. The US, unlike Europe, has the means to project power around the world, but it uses it foolishly. In the last decade the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq greatly strengthened Iran; and now in this decade confrontation with Iran is strengthening China.
In siding with the Saudis against the Iranians, the Americans think they’re intervening in a regional conflict. What they’ve missed, however, is China’s global strategy.
Using our western categories of ‘Middle East’ and ‘Far East’, we easily think of China as a Pacific power for removed from events around the Persian Gulf. But look at the map: only one country separates China from Iran – Pakistan, a Chinese ally:
“In the southwestern corner of Pakistan, close to the Iranian border, China has completed a state-of-the-art container port at Gwadar, which Beijing hopes will eventually link up with roads, railways and pipelines to western China. And from Gwadar, the Chinese can monitor shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.
“In other words, China is already in the Middle East.”
Belt and Road infrastructure across the Central Asian states provides further links between China and Iran. The latter, as the bridge between China’s immediate sphere of influence and the Middle East is therefore of great strategic significance:
“Iran is at the very center of 21st-century geopolitics. It dominates Central Asian trade routes and sits at the hydrocarbon nexus of the Indian Ocean, with a coastline of over 1,500 miles stretching from Iraq to Pakistan. Iran is the key to China’s plans, just as China’s plans are key to Eurasia’s destiny.”
Kaplan says that, together, China and Iran make an “unbeatable combination in Eurasia”.
Iran, however, is not completely in the Chinese camp. For instance it cooperates closely with India – an important counterweight to Chinese power in Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Kaplan warns the US government against its “myopic war-by-choice strategy with Iran” and its obsession with “the Persian Gulf as a small, distinct region”. He argues that the Chinese “see the larger, more fluid geographical picture” and notes America’s lack of a “big idea” to provide any positive competition.
Europe no longer exists – our future is Eurasian
As to what that big idea might be, I don’t see the US launching its own Belt and Road Initiative. It has enough trouble updating its own infrastructure, let alone anyone else’s.
A more promising avenue would be real ambition on the development of low carbon, decentralised energy and other green technologies. To reduce competition for unevenly distributed resources like fossil fuels and water would go a long way to defusing the ‘great games’ of the 21st century.