|World population flows. Courtesy: La Documentation Française|
I have previously called for the need to revisit some of the works of classical geopolitics in order to shed light into some of the security problems in East Asia. I strongly believe those works constitute valuable sources in the development of informed debates and ultimately contribute to better policymaking. The German School of Geopolitics, granted it can in fact be called as such, is particularly instructive in this regard.
In hindsight, however, the theses penned by authors like Friedrich Ratzel, Rudolph Kjëllen, Carl Ritter, Karl Haushofer, and others have some methodological deficiencies which cannot be overlooked. These deficiencies will be especially prominent to prophets and acolytes of today's scientific standards, especially in political science departments where statistical analysis and rational theory set the pace of research projects. These "social scientists" might go so far as utterly dismissing the insights produced by nearly one century of academic enquiry (1860s-1940s), but looking at the undercurrents of strategic behaviour of countries like Japan, China, Russia, one is at least compelled to submit classical geopolitics to more attentive scholarship.
|Friedrich Ratzel. Courtesy: Wikipedia|
One of the defining concepts of the said German School was Raumsinn, or sense of space, extensively explored by Ratzel. It expresses the idea, in wide circulation at the time, that particular communities have a greater or lesser ability to make use of the geographical space in which they are fixed. As Ratzel (2009: 7) observed, "[t]he connection of the enlargement of the geographical horizon with political expansion is too evident to need much discussion." This ability could be generally assessed by the modes of resource exploitation, industrial output, scientific inventions, and other factors of Man's relations with Space.
These communities originally referred to political entities based on a strong sense of ethno-linguistic affinity. The German kultur was obviously the role-model, where sovereign borders were viewed as organic membranes separating communities with different raumsinn. Those with a greater (or stronger) sense of space tended to expand; those with a lesser (or weaker) sense of space tended to retract. A dilemma appears: when does raumsinn match the "right" Man-Space relationship? In other words, how much territory does a community need?
Modern scholarship has been swift in denouncing three of the major faults in such thinking. First, it expresses a positivist interpretation of social darwinism. Second, it is a form of determinism. Third, such intellectual foundations contributed to Nazi indoctrination, and military expansionism. While the first two are critiques worthy of more attention, the latter can only be overcome by a mature and thorough academic scrutiny. These claims notwithstanding, I repeat my call that a comprehensive study is forthcoming.
So how is raumsinn relevant to contemporary case studies, say in East Asia? Three examples should suffice to alert us to the importance of revisiting these classics.
First, Japan. The rising sun only bathes a total surface area of (377,944 km2), nearly half that of France (674,843 km2), and one with only ~12% of arable land (or ~60,000 km2), according to a recent World Bank survey. Incidentally, Portugal's surface is 93,000 km2. However, Japan's population totals ~126.6 million, to France's ~65.3 million, that is, more than double its size. In their resource-scarce archipelago, the Japanese people would find it impossible to maintain their current levels of development (e.g. industrial production, GDP-per capita, technical innovation and so forth). Concordantly, the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere of the 1930-40s and today's grand strategic options of economic interdependence with China and Southeast Asia share the same core principle of a raumsinn greater than the political frontiers of the Japanese state.
Second, Russia. The eurasian colossus boasts a total surface area of a staggering 17,075,400 km2, with a population of "only" ~143.3 million. Provided with huge tracts of land and privileged access to key resources, it has since its eastward expansion constantly faced tremendous problems developing its Far East. One of the incentives Japan has been waiving at the Russians in the context of the Northern Territories/Southern Kuriles ( 北方領土) dispute is the promise of great investments in this region if and when a peace treaty and territorial settlement is celebrated. A case can be presented of a Russian territory too immense to its raumsinn in terms of material development of the land and its population.
Third, China. Its extreme asymmetries provide no easy answer as we look into relations between urban and rural areas, the interior and coastal provinces, between the rich and the poor. The demographic pressure exercise by a population of nearly 1.3 billion people in a country of ~9.7 million km2, out of which a great percentage is occupied by mountains and deserts, does constrain the grand orientations of policymaking. Should we thus be surprised by the repeated expansion of Chinese communities into Russian Siberia due to a want of more arable land and greater living space? And what to say of China's global diaspora? Are they merely the result of poor internal economic and other indexes such as widespread poverty, endemic corruption, and overall political oversight of private affairs? Can we entertain the possibility of psycho-sociological factors pertaining to the relation between Man and Space being at play here?
Given these observations, I must again stress some caveats:
Are populations in all three countries shrinking? Yes.
Do material and ideational factors change over time? Yes.
Is a methodology to study these issues missing? Yes.
Do these caveats prevent us from undergoing new research paths? Hardly so. Deprived of any preliminary conclusions as today's strategic studies community may be, following these questions through could greatly benefit our overall understanding of the historic transformations currently sweeping East Asia. Failing to do so would reveal a conscious neglect on behalf of academia to face the great issues of the age.