The Pulse

The Geopolitics of South Asian Political Stability

A recent essay by Robert Kaplan offers fascinating insight into South Asia’s political stability.

The Geopolitics of South Asian Political Stability
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this week, the well-known geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan wrote an interesting article about South Asian geopolitics entitled ‘Rearranging the Subcontinent.’ Kaplan is the author of an excellent book on geopolitics called “The Revenge of Geography,” and has long argued that geography impacts politics and culture. Although some have argued that Kaplan’s viewpoint is overly deterministic, he argued in another article this week at National Interest that the group characteristics that drive states and nations are “are merely the sum total of a people’s experience on a given landscape throughout hundreds or thousands of years of history.” In Kaplan’s view, one can understand the trajectory of a state by studying its history, geography, and culture, but this does not make any outcome inevitable or not subject to the quirks of random or individual decisions. However, it makes some geopolitical possibilities highly probable.

Kaplan argues that South Asia’s current political situation may not be permanent, saying that “the division of the Indian subcontinent between two major states, India and Pakistan (as well as a minor one, Bangladesh), may not be history’s last word in political geography there. For, as I have previously observed, history is a record of many different spatial arrangements between the Central Asian plateau and the Burmese jungles. I believe that this is generally a valid viewpoint, one, similar to one that I have myself expressed.

The diversity of culture, language, and terrain throughout South Asia coupled with its numerous weak states reminds one of the multi-lingual Austro-Hungarian Empire that was always a step away from disintegration. It would not be surprising if South Asia’s political landscape was rearranged to match its diversity. Yet, the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not fall apart until the extreme stress of World War I and, while it lasted, it provided a benevolent political and economic space in central Europe, the collapse of which left a vacuum that was filled much worse things for most of the rest of the 20th century. Likewise, given the status quo nature of modern geopolitics and the fact that the elites of countries like India and Pakistan are fully committed to their states, it is unlikely that anything but a major shock will cause these states to disintegrate, experience secessions, or change their territories.

This is especially the case with India, which is relatively stable, despite the odds. Kaplan rightly points that that India is in some sense a construction that has few historical parallels, especially the fact that “the geography between today’s northern India and southern India was often divided.” The division between northern and southern South Asia is probably the most enduring, prominent cultural division of the subcontinent. Nonetheless, the geographical and religious ties between present day north and south India make the country of India workable. On the other hand, he also correctly points out that all of northern South Asia was often a single cultural and political unit, one that only recently was divided because of the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh (and Nepal). This northern region, shaped like an upside down “U” consists of the Indus and Ganges river valleys and was historically called Hindustan and Aryavarta. The division of this region lends a sense of artificialness to South Asia’s political geography. There are also strong historical and cultural reasons for this that I believe Kaplan does not emphasize enough in his macroscopic focus on geography but his overall point in valid. South Asia’s current political configuration is the product of British actions and we can’t “assume that this particular British paradigm will last forever.”

This is especially the case for Pakistan. Even without a thorough knowledge of the history and geography of the region, it is obvious that Pakistan is an unstable state for a variety of internal reasons. But geopolitically, it also unstable. Unlike other sprawling multi-ethnic countries like India and Indonesia, Pakistan has done very little in the way of state building and economic growth, correctives that can often alleviate the consequences of a country’s unfavorable history and geography. Although Pakistan is often seen as an artificial creation, Kaplan interestingly points out that this is not necessarily true. While often part of the main culture or state in north India, northwestern portion of the subcontinent has long had a separate and distinct political and cultural history because of its location as the main entry point into the region. It was the region of South Asia most often ruled by empires originating in Iran and Central Asia. Yet despite this, it has rarely existed as its own entity, like modern Pakistan, either existing as the eastern portion of some Persian or Central Asian state or as the western portion of some north Indian state. The ethnic groups of Pakistan transition into Afghanistan and India without any clear division that makes it difficult for Pakistan to act as a coherent, separate unit, especially if it has an incompetent government. It only takes a disturbance to blur Pakistan’s boundaries. As Kaplan argues, this has in fact begun to happen on Pakistan’s western border. Kaplan writes: “Pakistan’s de facto separation from Afghanistan began to end somewhat with the Soviet invasion of the latter country in December 1979, which ignited a refugee exodus down the Khyber and other passes that disrupted Pakistani politics and worked to further erode the frontier between the Pashtuns in southern and eastern Afghanistan and the Pashtuns in western Pakistan.”

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Whether you agree or not with Kaplan, his insights are very interesting and his approach should be seriously considered by analysts.  Although his insights provide a generally applicable method for understanding the general direction geopolitics might take a state, they do not have the power of determining or predicting the future of states,  such as what course the future borders of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan may take. Indeed, no method can provide or predict this information. For those types of predictions, according to Kaplan, one must use the “Shakespearean” method, which operates on no specific formula and is based on insight into human nature and human governments.