The Importance of Vantage Point; The South Asian Adjacency

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Context

One rarely pays attention to where the terminology of Middle East, Near East, and Far East come from. To understand their history, helps to grasp the policies that major powers have adopted overtime to deal with these regions. Every great power at its zenith perceives it to be the center of the world, from where it looks outwards and designs strategies to protect its interests.

According to some interpretations, before WWI the term ‘Near East’ referred to the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, ‘Middle East’ was made up of Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Caucus. While ‘Far East’ was a reference to East Asia, which included China, Japan, Koreas and Hong Kong etc.

The word ‘Middle East’ was coined by and represents the British/European world orientation, which was pretty much adopted by the Americans. According to some versions, the terminology may have been coined during the British reign over India and became popular when the most renown American naval geostrategist of the 19th century, Alfred Thayer Mahab, used it to define the space between Arabia and India. The center of this region was the Persian Gulf, and the region adjacent to it, he term as the Middle East.

Mahab wrote in an article published in the British Journal, National review, in 1902:

“The Middle East, if I may adopt a term which I have not seen, will some day need its Malta, as well as its Gibraltar; it does not follow that either will be in the Persian Gulf. Naval force has the quality of mobility which carries with it the privilege of temporary absences; but it needs to find on every scene of operation established bases of refit, of supply, and in case of disaster, of security. The British Navy should have the facility to concentrate in force if occasion arise, about Aden, India, and the Persian Gulf.”

What Mahab stressed was that like Suez Canal, the Persian Gulf was critical to the British to check the Russians from approaching the British India. After all, at that time the Great Game was primarily between the British and the Russians spanning the Central Asia region. In other words, the Persian Gulf presented the other flank for the British to protect its presence in the Indian Sub-Continent.

The European Frame of Reference

The frame of reference for Alfred Mahab was Europe and the regions that lie towards its East. Thus the naming convention paralleled the geospatial arrangement of different regions east of Europe: Near East, Middle East and Far East. Furthermore, the policies and strategies that were formulated to operate in these regions were primarily suited for western interests; be it the flow of oil and trade, preserving different flanks, or preventing access to adversarial powers.

In present times, these worries have persisted. For example, Iran has the potential of choking the Strait of Hormuz. If this was accompanied by disturbances in Egypt, the Suez Canal could become another clog point. These sea passages are key for projecting power and controlling the flow of trade. Whoever controls them has an extraordinary leverage. Egypt getting warm towards the Soviet Union, and its subsequent nationalization of Suez Canal, had led to a crisis in 1956: with France, UK and Israel invading Egypt.

One of the reasons for the present Russian annexation of Crimea could be that it hosts the its Black Fleet, which is key for power projections in other regions, including the Middle East. As seen in the case of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Egypt, the Russians are attempting to grow its influence in these nations once more. While most of the Black Fleet has been aging, Russian military analyst Prokhor Tebin suggested in a recent article: “The Black Sea also provides the closest access for Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, which is important for both economic and geopolitical reasons.” Meanwhile, in June 2013, Putin had declared Russia will maintain a permanent naval presence in the area (Middle East). “This is a strategically important region and we have tasks to carry out there to provide for the national security of the Russian Federation,” he had stated.

It should be noted that British centers of intellectual thinking have also been pondering over a ‘Return to East of Suez Policy’. This thinking envisions placing land, sea, and air forces across the region, for touch and go type operations. The fear is that Arab awakening, the situation of Iran and Syria, has made the region highly volatile and Britain has to have options on how to respond, independently or in cooperation with NATO, in case its interests are threatened.

The South Asian Vantage Point

The irony is the Middle East as defined above lies actually to the west of Indo-Pak Sub continent. If we were to instead consider the Subcontinent as the center of the world, the proximity of different regions and their respective value alters. For example, the Middle East would then become ‘Near West’ while Europe will be ‘Middle West’ and North America the ‘Far West’. For all intents and purposes, the East Asia could very well be the true ‘Middle East’ for the Subcontinent.

The question then becomes, how would this difference in terminology help to define the interests of South Asia. First of all, it provides for the true vantage point; meaning it would mean seeing the world from ones own eyes. The Europeans defined the regions based on their proximity, geopolitical significance, security and economic interests. Since the end of World War II, one of the underlying principles of this perspective has been the unity of European powers and keeping the conflicts away from the home sphere of influence.

Applying the same principles to South Asia would also require unity of the home region. Similarly a prosperous South Asia necessitates its adjacent regions of ‘Near West’ (Afghanistan, Persian Gulf and the Middle East) and ‘ Near East and Middle East’ (Myanmar, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Koreas, Japan, Hong Kong etc.) to stay relatively peaceful in the long run. On the other hand, if China’s Near South West (South Asia) and Middle West (Middle East) were mired in conflict, it would have a significant destabilizing impact on China. Middle East is the largest source of oil imports for China, which constituted about 52% of its total imports in 2013, while Africa provides about 23% of Chinese oil imports. Saudi Arabia and Angola together make up 33% of Chinese oil imports. (Data Source: US Energy Information Administration.)

These scenarios are more applicable if security concerns severely curtail the extension of globalization. However, if the Trans Atlantic and Trans Pacific trade agreements do move forward, the growing interdependence would make nations and regions to act independently, less plausible.

Nonetheless, as European tensions over Ukraine heat up, and transfer to other regions, the interests of Indo-Pak Sub continent lies in stabilizing its adjacent Near East and Near West and establishing unity in the home sphere. The likelihood of this though is minimal as they are likely to select sides, which could aggravate the situation at the home front and the adjacent areas.