21st -Century Geography

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 3, 2011 | Go to article overview

21st -Century Geography


Byline: Sol Sanders, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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 U.S. Air Force Col. Christopher J. Pehrson first dubbed Beijing's string of pearls strategy. Naval historians suggest it's a product of Chinese infatuation with 19th-century U.S. strategist Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan's thesis that sea power would dominate world politics. I think more likely they have read Indian historian Sardar K.M. Panikkar, who studied the origins of modern European dominance in the Indian Ocean. There is another interesting coincidence: Panikkar as India's Beijing ambassador warned Washington during the Korean War that Mao Zedong would intervene if U.N. forces approached the Yalu River border - a caution, alas, not heeded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Panikkar had even less success warning his own prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, about the threat 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. …

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