Understanding American Geopolitics

American geopolitics is something that every voting citizen should know, but is seldom taught in public education institutions.  With so many trillions of tax payer dollars dedicated to keeping these geopolitical areas open and amiable to US interests, it's only fair that American voters know of at least a couple of them.

the Strait of Hormuz

Or why we care about Iran

With 35% of the world's oil supply traversing through it every day, the Strait of Hormuz is a critical juncture in international politics for a world that relies heavily on oil for day-to-day life.  As the sole sea route between the Gulf of Oman (which connects to the rest of the world) and the Persian Gulf (which is how Iraq, UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia export their oil), if Iran were able carry out threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, many of the largest oil exporters would be unable to ship their resources to the rest of the world.

the south china sea

or why we care about japan & the phillipines

The South China Sea is just as important to maintaining the global economy as the Strait of Hormuz; with half of the worlds commercial goods flowing through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, it remains a hotly contested area for regional and transnational partners. If shutting down the Strait of Hormuz would make it impossible to fuel cargo ships that enable the Western way of life, shutting down the Strait of Malacca would ensure that cargo ships (fueled or not) are unable to get shipments to the Western World.

Since the early 1980s, China has undergone a transition from a self-sufficient state to a major exporter, forcing China to reassess its economic vulnerabilities in order to prevent a repeat of the Opium Wars that enabled Britain to dominate the global market at China's expense. During this reassessment, Stratfor has assessed China will not be able to protect their national economy without securing its ability to import fuel and export manufactured goods through the South China Sea.  China's efforts to increase its ability to project military power and humanitarianism (both being quintessential requirements to being a "super power" in the 21st century) rely heavily on a thriving economy that can only exist with a secure South China Sea.

Historically, securing the South China Sea fell to the Americans, who had the larger stake in securing international trade between World War I and the end of the Cold War, but as more manufacturing was exported to China, the economic risk of leaving the sea unsecured lies more squarely with Beijing. As a result, China has but forth a new initiative to reclaim some islands in the South China Sea in order to protect these critical shipping routes; unfortunately, these islands are hotly contested. 

Stratfor goes on to describe the complex legal battle surrounding China's recent activities in the area surrounding four geographic terms:

  1. Island: According to international law, an "island" is a naturally formed elevation that is always above the high-tide level and is habitable and/or capable of sustaining economic activity. An island is granted a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea and a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, and it can be used to delineate a continental shelf, which has implications for access to subsea resources.
  2. Rock: Also naturally formed and above the surface but not necessarily suitable for habitation or economic exploitation.   A rock is granted a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, but no exclusive economic zone.
  3. Low Tide Elevation: Can be covered by water at high tide but is exposed at low tide.  A low tide elevation is not granted a territorial sea, but it may be used as a base point in claiming territorial waters if it is within 12 nautical miles of land.
  4. Artificial Island: Differs from an island in that it is not naturally formed.  An artificial island is granted nothing other than a 500-meter safety zone

The crux of the issue in the South China Sea's tribunals within ASEAN is the efforts China is undergoing to amplify what it calls "islands" and others call "Artificial Islands" or "rocks" leading to disputes into how far out China controls the South China Sea.

The Caucus States & Former Soviet Union

Or why we care about NATO

If the Strait of Hormuz is vital to securing US oil interests, then the Caucus States are just as essential to keep natural resources flowing into Russia.  The Caucus States, consisting of many Former Soviet Union countries, are a generally accepted buffer between the US led NATO, and Russia.  With all of the gas and oil imports coming through these Caucus States (in particular: Belarus and Ukraine), Russia is dependent on maintaining a working relationship with its neighbors, and is non-too pleased to have these countries courting NATO for membership. 

As the image above depicts the reliance Russia has on these states for natural resources, the recent Ukrainian conflict is depicted below. 

To oversimplify for brevity, Crimea is a warm water port that both the Ukraine and Russia claim they own, and unlike a similar argument raging in the South China Sea, the Crimea conflict is far more critical to Russian interests.  It represents one of a small handful of warm-water ports that Russia is able to use year-round, making it just as essential for the Russian economy as the South China Sea is to China's.  As Russia watches an increasingly global Beijing reap the benefits of global capitalism, Russia likely seeks to rejoin the international community so that it can reassert itself as a global power.

Russia's sudden interest in solidifying its ability to access The Black Sea through the annexation of Crimea is mirrored in the Northern Sea Route and Russia's new territorial claims to the Arctic. As global warming opens up more northern shipping routes, Russia will have more year-round shipping routes that will enable it to participate in the global economy.

As a final bonus:  The Caucus States will not likely be as significant to Russian interests (and therefore US interests) in the future.  As the thawing of the northern caps gives Russia increased shipping routes, it will also give Moscow increased natural resource reserves that will lessen their reliance on imports through The Caucus States as depicted in the image below.