Boundaries of countries are often contentious. Most countries seem to want to expand their territories as much as possible. These territories may be on land, at sea, and even on land at sea!

Our geography textbooks teach us that land is formed due to various tectonic forces such as volcanism. In some cases, land has been “reclaimed” from the sea (e.g.: Mumbai and the Netherlands).

There is another phenomenon underway that our geography textbooks fail to tell us about. One well-written and well-illustrated chapter on this would easily cover geography, history, political science, psychology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics in one go.

For a long time, some thinkers have argued that the state (i.e., country) is like an organism. It is born, grows, matures, declines, and collapses (dies). And then, it is born in some other form again, and so on. There are those who disagree with this. Some have taken this idea and applied it to their own ambitions.

In 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) collapsed. With that, Until then, the world experienced a “cold war” – between two super powers, the USA and USSR, antagonistic to each other and fighting in other countries. They wouldn’t talk to each other, at least not in the open. At that time, some described the world as bi-polar (with two poles, opposite ends, the USA and the USSR). Once the USSR collapsed, many “new” countries were born. Now some people say that the world has become “uni-polar” (only one end, one power centre) – the USA.

Meanwhile, in the East, there are two gigantic countries racing to become global powers: India and China. Both have been trying to expand their influence in as many parts of the world as possible. Membership in unions is one way of doing this (see the column on unions that I wrote some weeks ago). Investing money in projects in other countries is another way. Thus, you see Prime Minister Modi traveling to several countries, and various investment commitments, loans, etc. announced from India in those countries.

Likewise, China is also investing heavily – much more than India – in many countries in distant Africa. It is financing large construction projects in these countries. Because of this, China’s influence in these countries is growing and it is able to start shaping the geopolitics there. The USA likewise wants to gain influence in Africa (notice US President Obama’s state visit to several African nations recently).

Why Africa? One word: geography. The minerals and other natural resources, and human labor that Africa provides have enormous potential for economies such as those of China, the USA and, indeed, India.


These efforts expand the country’s influence but not physical territory. Countries also desire this.

China is pursuing a very aggressive policy of expanding its actual physical territory. It has sought and gained strong control over Tibet. China has also claimed territory that India says is Indian (e.g.: northeastern parts of Jammu & Kashmir state, and Arunachal Pradesh). These claims are still going on and there is considerable friction between the two countries.

Overview of territorial disputes involving China. (Courtesy: Wikimedia. Accessed 07 Aug. 2015) Click to view larger image

Overview of territorial disputes involving China. (Courtesy: Wikimedia. Accessed 07 Aug. 2015) Click to view larger image

In the South China Sea, China is claiming several islands in the area as its own while other countries claim them as theirs. If China were to gain military control over these islands, the entire area would become very profitable for China because of the – you guessed it – geography.

These waters are important routes for international shipping. Control of these would give China power over international trade. Also, there are potential oil-rich areas under the sea that could provide much-needed petroleum fuel to power China’s economic development.

Some years ago, India’s INS Airavat while on mission to Vietnam, sailed into the South China Sea. China objected to this. But the controversy was ‘smoothed over.’

In more recent years, China has been actually building islands in the South China Sea by actually pumping sand from the ocean floor to selected locations. Remarkable! Many countries around the world are concerned about this. Also, look at these dramatic satellite images.

China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. (Courtesy: BBC - Accessed 07 Aug. 2015)

China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. (Courtesy: BBC – Accessed 07 Aug. 2015)

China is trying to grow into a super power to rival the USA both in terms of territory and influence. The USA is trying to counter this by extending its own influence into India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The USA already has a very significant military presence in Japan, Philippines, and South Korea.

India’s population is growing rapidly and is very youthful – i.e., a very large part of the Indian population is very young. These young people need to get jobs. For this to happen, India has to create jobs, especially the secondary (manufacturing, processing) and tertiary (services) sectors. Prime Minister Modi’s strategy involves two parts:

  • Encourage job creation within India for our young people (“Make in India”), and
  • Gain influence around the region and the world so that India can gain power. An influential India can grow strongly at home also.

That’s what the Chinese also think for their own country.

And the Americans, the British, and, … well, most everyone.

So, be attentive to geography. Or you will miss the bus. Or the boat.

Things you can do: (all links open in a new tab/window)

  1. Make a table listing all the countries that Prime Minister Modi has visited since taking office and the economic connections (promises of loans, investments, etc.) he has made with each.
  2. Make a table of China’s investments in other parts of the world (especially Africa and the alternative to the Panama Canal).
  3. Check out this map to look at the various ongoing territorial disputes that China has. (The boundaries of Jammu and Kashmir are inaccurate on this map.)
  4. Check out this map to understand the situation in the South China Sea and dramatic photographs of how China is building new islands there.
  5. Check out the series of satellite photographs of the islands that China is building.

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, page 1, on 06 August 2015.


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