Lesson 306 – Global chess: the game of geopolitics

Geopolitics is the science that studies the behavior of political entities (sovereign states, countries, international organizations …) in their foreign relations. Geopolitics analyzes the political and economic movements that these entities carry out and tries to understand why those decisions have been made.

Why is China investing so much money in African countries? Why do European countries have a military alliance with the United States? Why does Russia support Iran? Why does the United States support Israel? Why does Morocco have agreements with the European Union? All these questions must be answered from the point of view of geopolitics, to understand how geography, international politics and national interests combine.

Global chess: the players

We can divide the world into two main blocs. Differentiated by their history, culture, and economy, the two blocks have different geopolitical interests. The western bloc (The Core) and the emerging bloc (the most powerful countries within The Periphery) are not engaged in a direct war on a global level (a Third World War), but they do face each other through local or regional conflicts, with cyberattacks or with the so-called financial warfare.

  • The western bloc includes powerful countries like the United States, France, Germany, Japan or the United Kingdom, and other countries like Spain, Italy, South Korea, Sweden, Austria, Australia, Greece, Belgium… We could call them the Economic Triad, where the traditional economic powers are located (see G-8). The leader of the western countries is without a doubt the United States, home of the most powerful army in the planet and cultural leader (through music, cinema, trends, language, technology…) of the world.
  • The emerging bloc includes those countries in the Periphery that have managed to grow and develop at a higher rate during the 21st century. The Periphery has poor countries like Congo, Bolivia or Afghanistan, but also some important economies like Indonesia, Nigeria or Mexico. Above all of them, we can highlight five powerful states: China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Russia (see BRICS). The leader of the emerging countries is China, the fastest-growing nation in the world in the 1980-2020 period.

UN’s Security Council serves as a referee in this geopolitical game. It includes five states: France, United Kingdom, China, United States and Rusia. That means both blocs have representation in this organ, whose aim is to keep global peace. In the Security Council all decisions must be taken unanimously, if one of its members votes NO, that decision is discarded. For example, if Russia wants to invade a territory, it has to have the approval of the Security Council. If not, global peace could be at risk…

Analysts call superpower those states that have much more power than the rest. The world has seen many superpowers during its history, from the Roman Empire to the British Empire or the Soviet Union. After the Cold War (1947-1991), it seemed that the United States was meant to be the only superpower, and established its own global empire. Nevertheless, the fast industrialization of an old empire brought a new superpower to the international chessboard: China.

A superpower is characterized by having a large population, a strong army, a strong economy and a position of power in the whole world, being able to invade territories militarily, changing governments in other states and imposing sanctions over foreign governments. A superpower is respected and feared by the rest of the states, that are aware of their subordinate position.

Global chess: movements

In this global chessboard, each country makes its own movements. Although countries are usually aligned with a bloc (western or emerging), that does not mean that they are always going to act following the orders of the bloc’s leader (US or China). If we learned something in Unit 2 is that each state is free and sovereign to make its own decisions, and no other state can force them to do anything.

The following are examples of geopolitical movements, that is, political entities cooperating between them. Remember: a political entity is no necessarily a state, it can also be an international organisation.

  • Example 1. China in Africa. China is investing billions in Africa, building large infrastructures in the continent, in exchange for land to cultivate. China’s government and some African governments have made an important deal that will benefit both sides: the large population of China needs a constant production of food, and Africa has the natural wealth to lend China some territories. In exchange, Chinese engineers are building airports, highways, railways, dams and industries in Africa. ➡️ Read this article: China y África, un matrimonio con éxito
  • Example 2. Military bases in Syria. A military base allows a country to maintain control over a region. Rusia has no Mediterranean coast, so they have made a deal with the Syrian government to build a couple of military bases in this country’s coast. Syria earns money from Russia and Russia gets a strategic location to control the Mediterranean with their warships.
  • Example 3. NATO. Some countries in the Core agreed to form a military organisation, and so they created NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), to cooperate between them and protect themselves. NATO’s Army is one of the largest in the world, and helps members of the organisation when they are in need. If a member is attacked, the others must answer.
  • Example 4. Morocco and EU. The European Union pays billions each year to Morocco in exchange of protection against the migrant flows that come from Africa. As the gate to Europe, Morocco accepts that money and keeps migrants away from reaching the Core, using violence against them.
  • Example 5. Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. No government dares to ask the Saudi government to change their laws in order to fulfill Human Rights, because everyone on Earth need Saudi petroleum to fuel their economies. The power of the black gold!

Global chess: future of the game

With a population of over 1,3 billion, China is meant to lead the world, economic-wise and maybe even politically. We don’t know if they will ever spread their culture, challenging westernization, but for sure China will establish the rules in trade, finances, technology and geopolitics. Why is that so? We can point several reasons.

  • Having the largest population on Earth also means having the largest workforce, therefore an important factor of production: labour. China is the country with the most workers available, so it’s no wonder that every company in the world wants to relocate there.
  • Having the most dollar reserves, even more that the United States! That means China is, actually, the richest country on Earth. China can buy whatever it needs, invest as much money as it wants, whenever and wherever it wants. Infrastructures, industries… even land! China can buy whatever.
  • Having both strong Primary and Secondary sectors (low-skilled jobs, based on labour) and also very strong Tertiary and Quaternary sectors (knowledge-based economy). That allows China to have both agriculture and industry and, also, the most advanced technologies. It has a very diversified economy.
  • Having the largest army in the world. If the US has around 1,3 million active soldiers, China’s Army has 2,1 million, plus 500.000 reserve personnel. In the 21st century we may not have a Third World War, but for sure having military strength helps a state be respected -and feared- by others.
  • Having good international relations. China’s millenary diplomacy has always based on the no-intervention in other states affairs. That way China avoids earning enemies, although its economic policies sometimes generate mistrust among other countries. For example, in 2018-2020 there was an important trade war between the US and China.
  • Having succeeded combining communism and capitalism. Applying communism in home policies and capitalism in abroad policies, China has managed to control its population and territory completely and firmly and, at the same time, open itself to the world, welcoming companies from abroad to establish in its shores. That way, there’s political stability (there’s no democracy, no political parties) and economic growth (new companies are created, foreign companies arrive).

We’ll see if China finally takes over the world and imposes its terms and conditions. Until that day comes, let’s think of the pros of having a multipolar world. We better hope the power keeps being shared by some, instead of being in the hands of a single nation.


➡️ La partida de ajedrez de Estados Unidos

➡️ El ajedrez global: el juego de la geopolítica

Possible exam questions

Possible question 1

What is geopolitics? Why is it important?

Possible question 2

Why are the US and China considered as superpowers?

Possible question 3

Explain one international relation thinking in geopolitical terms.

Possible question 4

Why is China supposed to overtake United States as the predominant power in the world?