Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
As a newly married couple in 2004, we were planning an Italian trip, each was respectably employed on H1 visa then. We were not drinking Kool-Aid, so we prepped all the papers before we reached the Italian consulate in NYC for our Schengen visa. Since the Consulate could not trust us, we had to have each hotel, airline, and health insurance provider fax them directly accounting for each day of our European stay and had it triple-checked beforehand. A (very) disinterested looking man at the counter checked letters from individual employers confirming our employment, he looked up and blurted out to the effect “But it does not say you’ll have a job after your holiday. How do we know that you are not going to become wards of a generous state once you land in Italy?”
Let that sink in. We, each with US graduate degree, living and studying / working in the US for over five years by then, were looking to become state wards in a failed European economy! We stormed out and walked to the nearby Egyptian Consulate with just our Indian passports but no papers. We walked out with a visa in 15 minutes, then booked a flight into Cairo connecting through Rome. We saw enough of Italy from 30 thousand feet above, and never in life have I spent a single dollar in Italy, professionally or personally.
I was reminded of our European experience this week when I read that US went behind the continent’s back to forge a defense relationship with UK and Australia. Awkwardly named as AUKUS, this new partnership build on the Quad – a partnership comprising US, Japan, Australia, and India –meeting this week in person. The cornerstone of AUKUS is a USD 90 billion agreement to supply nuclear submarines to Australia, thereby ensuring its deep-water capabilities to face an ever-intransigent China. This new contract replaces, somewhat sneakily, an existing USD 40 billion contracts Australia had with France for diesel-electric submarines with significantly lesser capabilities. Quad is expected to announce over USD 100 billion in new defense contracts soon, bolstering maritime strengths of member nations. On top, US just announced its biggest-ever single shipbuilding contract of USD 22 billion for nine Virginia class nuclear attack submarines. The cold peace over maritime supremacy is just heating up.
Three things jump out. First, the high seas are the battleground, just like the days of old empires. Second, how insignificant Continental Europe outside of Germany, comprising original old empires, is in this new world. Third, it is all about states’ positioning for the new bipolar world.
Let’s start with a dirge for old Europe. I am truly fascinated by how inconsequential – irrelevant really – Continental Europe outside of Germany has allowed itself to be. Long deemed to be the likely battleground in a land war between Superpowers, Continental Europe outside of Germany has singularly proved incapable of harnessing the human capital that still washes ashore –as my encounter at the Italian Consulate evinced, a Black or Brown face is nothing but a likely imposition on their resources. Jaded by centuries of infighting and inbreeding of the ruling class, not to mention two world wars, they are directionless, looking for a savior, or a bugaboo. Torn, pathetically, between States’ identities and a self-devouring imposition, the European Union, Europe finds it hard to look beyond a good life of wines, cheese and meat, or occasional salubrious weather by the beach. Hollowness of the Russian menace is out in the open now, its guts have no glory but emaciated peoples ruled by the ogres of elites, themselves decrepit in disgusting indulgences but cocooned because of proximity to those who rule with iron fists. Continental Europe is was important only when Russia was a threat and now that Russia no longer is, Europe is all but an afterthought outside of Germany. AUKUS fiasco is not the end of the story, only a beginning.
As old empires prove themselves irrelevant, old ways of global domination are making a serious comeback. The Cold War was – on paper – fought as a battle of supremacy between two competing ways of life with the obvious winner. The new battle is over who rules the seas. 85% of global trade travels the waves in supertankers, bulk carriers and mega-container-ships, among others. 93% of all data travel undersea in fiber optic cables. 70% of oil and gas extracted every year start spend much of their journey in the open oceans, much of it through Asian ports. The global economy is at a crossroads as to manufacturing – old adages of instinctively looking to the East for a sweatshop is no longer an obvious solution. Even if countries, including the US, decide to re-shore there’s no getting around the movement of raw material, machinery and finished goods; the cheapest – most environmentally sensitive – way to move mountains is by the sea. For countries dependent on trade, especially China, it is even more acute; far back in 2003 the President of PRC Hu Jintao lamented the “Malacca Dilemma”, China’s existential dependence on passage through the Malacca Straits, chokepoints controlled by the US and its allies. No wonder why China is so eager to obtain blue-water capabilities to operate in “the far seas”, it is a way to ensure wider safe passage in times of geopolitical disturbance. If without nuclear fallout, a sea-battle is one with the least collateral damage, making one more likely in a confrontation between Great Powers than one with human infantry and artillery over vast terrains.
During the Cold War, military strategists pondered greatly over the Fulda Gap. Fulda Gap is the route Napoleon’s army took to withdraw, is an obvious route for Soviet tanks to roll from East Germany into NATO countries; war-gaming The Fulda Gap became an essential part of any NATO exercise. In the future, Luzon Strait will replace Fulda Gap. Luzon Strait lies between Taiwan and The Philippines, connecting South China Sea with the Philippine Sea. Vast majority of Chinese energy and goods flow through Luzon Strait, and any conflict over Taiwan is almost certainly to start over the Strait. China sees its burgeoning naval might to provide an effective counterweight to the US, bully neighbors into favorable trade deals, and thwart undersea snooping with use of advanced technology, including, possibly, nuclear barrages. To neighbors, the Dragon has little to offer but its talons. For the few who were fooled by the snake-oil charms of One Belt One Road, true self of the Red Menace revealed itself in but a jiffy; no wonder friends of China are the autocratic regimes in North Korea, Pakistan, and now, Afghanistan. Countries in the region more confident of their own standing – and more firmly opposed to the Communistic Dystopia – are banding together in opposition, as in the Quad. Separation between two coalitions of the willing will soon travel continents – Africa is likely the next battleground in this new bipolar world.
By 2050, PWC predicts three of the five largest economies by PPP will be in Asia, with China at the top and India coming in second. Not a single Continental European country outside of Germany counts in the top 10 (Germany and the UK appear at 9th and 10th positions, respectively), no wonder these countries have to learn to swallow a snub or two. They can choose to fall into willing arms of China or Russia, but something tells me history, or own vanity, will prevent such a turn of events. Continental Europe outside of Germany have no choice but remain bucolic nut not bountiful, argumentative and hypocritically self-righteous, indignant but incapable, full of self-pity, self-loathing even, but without drive to get out of the funk, perennially searching microaggressions to justify self-victimhood.
Quad hugs China with a coalition of freedom-loving countries, AUKUS cements the relationship between English-speaking countries with thriving immigrant populations. By design, US is the essential element in both. As we livestream this movie, I am calling for an encore. Are you?