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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:02 GMT
Mexico
Mexico
Mexico is defined by dramatic geographic features that have shaped the country's politics. Forming the southern portion of North America, Mexico borders the tropical Central American isthmus, a broad band that defines Mexico's northern border with the United States. To the east and west, the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental dominate the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts, forming highlands that cradle of the modern heart of Mexico. The desolate Baja California peninsula shields approaches from the western sea. To the east, the tropical limestone outcropping named the Yucatán peninsula dominates entry from the Caribbean into the Gulf of Mexico. Mexico's central valley, which includes Mexico City and the adjacent Veracruz region, form Mexico's core. To control Mexico City is to control Mexico, and the greatest conventional threats to Mexico City have traditionally come from the deepwater Port city of Veracruz. Since the 16th century, Spain, France and the United States — not to mention numerous mutinous factions of the Mexican military — have used Veracruz to threaten and even conquer what is now Mexico City. Mexico's mountains and frontier territories are traditional hotbeds of unrest. From the rebels of Chihuahua to the drug kingpins of Tierra Caliente and Sinaloa, the historical and ongoing challenge for Mexico is to subdue and incorporate far-flung, geographically-isolated communities. The modern expression of this struggle can be seen in today's war with drug trafficking organizations, but it is a pattern that has been repeated throughout history and has been shaped by Mexico's physical geography.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:12 GMT
Japan
Japan

Japan is a mountainous, volcanic island chain located in the western Pacific Ocean. The islands arc from Russia in the north toward the Korean Peninsula in the south. The country has four main islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, plus thousands of minor ones extending through the Ryukyu island chain framing the East China Sea. Japan's rugged terrain and lack of interregional connecting rivers isolated its population into separate, densely populated coastal plains. The Yamato plain, which dominates the "Inland Sea," the birthplace of Japanese civilization. The Inland Sea saw the rise of early Japanese maritime culture and facilitated communication and political control. As Japanese culture expanded over the island chain, the seat of power moved to the more productive and strategically located Kanto plain, Japan's core region and home to Tokyo, the world's largest metropolitan area. The country's primary geographic challenge is sustaining its large population on an island with little arable land and few natural resources. Japan's geography has prompted the country to alternate between periods of isolationism and expansion. When Japan unifies under strong centralized control, it is often drawn toward the continent for resources and land. This happened in the late 1500s and again in the early 1900s, leading to World War II. Given its location, the Korean Peninsula has been the corridor of invasion between Japan and China, and its status remains of strategic importance to Tokyo. The lack of natural resources in Japan continues to force the country to seek them abroad, leaving the country to balance between U.S. naval dominance and China's expanding maritime interests.

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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:04 GMT
Malaysia
Malaysia
Malaysia straddles Southeast Asia's key geopolitical divide, between the mainland and the archipelago. Peninsular Malaysia occupies the southernmost tip of Southeast Asia's Malay Peninsula. East Malaysia, however, is on the island of Borneo, over 600 kilometers away across the South China Sea. Peninsular Malaysia is defined by north-south mountain ranges flanked by coastal lowlands. The nation's core is its west coast from Penang to Johor Bahru, including the capital, Kuala Lumpur. This coastline fronts major east-west trade routes through the Malacca Strait, whose shores are divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Malaysia's primary geographic challenge is to secure this coastline in order to extract revenue from east-west trade. Today, Malaysia's substantial manufacturing center is concentrated in this core region. Johor Bahru also benefits from proximity to Singapore, which left Malaysia in 1965. Malaysia's ethnic minority Indian and Chinese communities are also concentrated in the core, comprising 30 percent of the population. These groups wield outsized economic power and form the basis of the political opposition. Their population growth is slower than the ethnic Malay majority, creating an increasingly volatile political environment. East Malaysia makes up 60 percent of the country’s landmass but has only 20 percent of the population. This sparse population is tipped toward the ethnic Malays and is growing in electoral significance. East Malaysia is playing a growing role in energy production — key to sustaining the country’s decades of steady economic growth. Borneo also fronts the South China Sea, where Malaysia's maritime claims overlap with the claims of the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and China. As Borneo's offshore fields become more important to Malaysia, the nation's South China Sea claims could bring it into conflict.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:01 GMT
Mongolia
Mongolia
Mongolia is a landlocked nation, currently squeezed between two neighbors, Russia and China. Much of it lies on a plateau, but in the west the Altai Mountains rise to Mongolia’s highest point — more than 14,000 feet — while the Gobi Desert stretches across the country’s southern border. Mongolia’s most prominent geographic feature is the vast steppes that create both opportunity and vulnerability. From these steppes, Mongol horse-archers in the 13th century led by Genghis Khan extended control over the agricultural civilizations of Eurasia. But as their technological advantage eroded, these flatlands left Mongolia with few geographic barriers and the empire began crumbling within 60 years. Today, part of the majority Halh Mongol population and traditional Mongolian lands lie within the borders of China, undermining security of Mongolia’s southern border. Because of its climate and geography, Mongolia has the world’s lowest population density. There are fewer than three million people, with a third living in the capital. Traditionally a herding society, agriculture is now less than 15 percent of the economy. Instead, vast deposits of coal, copper, gold and uranium, as well as rare earth elements, have drawn significant international investments but have left Mongolia dependent upon foreign capital and expertise. And without ports, it must rely on China and Russia to export its resources. This leaves modern Mongolia seeking a third neighbor to balance their influence, but isolation limits the ability of an outside power to offset these geographic constraints. As a result, Mongolia remains trapped between its much stronger neighbors.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:33 GMT
Turkey
Turkey

The Republic of Turkey straddles Europe and Asia, forming a land bridge that links the Levant, Iran and the Caucasus with Southeastern Europe. In stark contrast to its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey is confined largely to the semi-arid, mountainous terrain of the Anatolian Peninsula and the capital-rich lands surrounding the Sea of Marmara. This low-lying region contains the large cities of Istanbul and Izmir and the two chokepoints linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean — the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. This area is the core of Turkey's population and economy. Turkey’s geographic challenge is expanding the economic stability and development of this core into the eastern region of the country. Anatolia’s rugged geography and mountainous terrain make economic and infrastructure development difficult, but has historically helped to prevent land invasions from the east and south. Modern Turkey is working to integrate this largely rural, poorer hinterland into the political and economic mainstream in an attempt to link its current Islamist government to its neighbors in the broader Middle East. However, significant challenges remain. Turkey has fought a decades-long Kurdish insurgency in its southeastern regions, where the Taurus Mountains and the Eastern Anatolian plateau give sanctuary to Kurdish separatist militants. Turkey’s position at the crossroads between East and West provides the country with several geopolitical possibilities. The country is working to serve as a transit state linking the exports of its energy-rich eastern neighbors to consumer markets in Europe. Its location also invites a series of constraints, as reflected by Turkey’s position surrounded by Europe’s economic decline, Iranian ambitions in Syria and Iraq, and Russian interests in the Caucasus.

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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:51 GMT
Philippines
Philippines
The Philippines is a collection of over 7,000 islands situated at the confluence of the South China Sea, the Indonesian archipelago, the Philippine Sea and Pacific Ocean. It forms the outer edge of maritime Southeast Asia, and for much of its modern history has served as a gateway between western powers and continental Asia. A former colony of both Spain and the United States, the Philippines today consists of three island clusters: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. Luzon, with the country’s capital in Manila, is the political, cultural and economic core of modern Philippines. It is highly urbanized relative to the rest of the country, boasts a large port and deep harbor, and accounts for roughly one-third of the Philippines GDP. Mindanao has long been a hotbed for political unrest and insurgent movements and is populated by the predominantly Muslim Moro tribes. It is also an important fruit and produce exporter. The Philippines is shaped by sharp geographic, economic and social divisions between a primarily urban north — in Luzon — and a heavily agricultural, poorer south. This, along with the fractured island geography, makes effective national integration difficult. It also undermines Manila's efforts to play a stronger role throughout the South China Sea region or guard against external infringement on its territorial waters, especially from China. That weakness is apparent today, as China's increasingly aggressive moves to assert its own maritime claims test Manila's voice in groups like ASEAN as well as its alliance with the U.S. While the Philippines’ location at the entrance to maritime Southeast Asia makes it geopolitically significant, internal imbalances continue to hamper its ability to actively defend its own claims, let alone project power.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:47 GMT
Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia
Comprising a majority of the Arabian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is surrounded by Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen. The kingdom's main geographic challenges are controlling its sparsely populated territory and maintaining shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz. Surrounded by vast deserts, the central Najd plateau is the core of Saudi Arabia and is home to the country's capital, Riyadh. Mecca and Medina, Islam's two holiest cities, are protected by mountains in the west and flanked by the Red Sea. The security of these cities is a key to the monarchy's legitimacy. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I set the stage for the House of Saud to unify the territory that became Saudi Arabia in 1932. Oil and natural gas have been the country's main exports and source of wealth since their discovery in 1938. A restive Eastern Province holds a majority of the kingdom's reserves and makes the country vulnerable to invasion from the north or the Persian Gulf. Cross border tribal ties also expose the kingdom to unrest in the south on the border with Yemen. A scarcity of fresh water and a small population density limit Saudi Arabia's defensive capabilities. Since the vast majority of Saudi oil exports pass via the Strait of Hormuz chokepoint, the kingdom has historically relied on a foreign power to balance regional rival, Iran and keep the Strait open. As global oil consumption continues to rise, Saudi Arabia will continue to play a dominant role in the Middle East despite its geographic challenges.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:54 GMT
Oman
Oman
Located at the extreme southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, the Sultanate of Oman is a mix of cosmopolitan port cities, rugged mountains and a wide desert interior. Divided by mountains and deserts from neighboring Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, Omanis have integrated themselves with other Indian Ocean communities for much of their history. With few water resources and population centers isolated by topography, Oman's geography has fostered three distinct cores. The cosmopolitan economic elite of Muscat, the tribal groups in Salalah and the Ibadi religious core in Nizwa. Maintaining unity of these cores is Oman's primary geographic challenge. Muscat, Oman's largest port and political and economic capital, is separated from the rest of the country by the Al Hajar Mountains. The al Qamar Mountains surround Salalah, Oman's second largest city and a regional tourist destination. Dhofar's mountains and dense vegetation helped harbor members of a Marxist-inspired rebellion against Muscat's rule for much of the 1960-70s. Oman's government revenues are dependent on oil and gas reserves that are located in the central desert region south of Nizwa. This region was once home to the Ibadi Imamate that clashed with the coastal-based Sultanate for centuries. The Musandam Peninsula, northwest of Muscat, places the critical shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz within Oman's territorial waters. The British granted Oman control over the peninsula during their withdrawal from the region in the 1970s. Positioned between Peninsular Sunni Arab and Shiite Iranian spheres of influence, Muscat has had to pursue a flexible foreign policy strategy to balance between the two regional powers. Oman has traditionally relied on the major naval power of the day — formerly the British, today the United States — to help maintain this balance and protect its sovereignty.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:55 GMT
North Korea
North Korea

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea, lies on a peninsula extending outward from northeast Asia. The country borders China and Russia to the north, the Republic of Korea to the south, and Japan across the sea to the east. North Korea's primary geographic challenge is securing its northern and southern borders from the threat of its much larger regional neighbors. The Kaema Plateau and Hamgyong Mountains comprise much of the northern border region, providing a strong but not unbreachable geographic barrier. The Taebaeck Mountains run along the east coast, limiting the potential for invasion from the sea. Since the time of earlier North Korean kingdoms including Koguryo, The Dandong-Sinuiju gap across the Yalu River in the northwest and the wide Imjin-Han river valley in the south leave the country vulnerable, particularly with the lack of geographic barriers along the north-south axis. North Korea's mountains do provide ample hydropower, and the country also has numerous natural mineral resources and coal, but its terrain and climate limit agricultural activity. Given its larger neighbors, North Korea has two core imperatives. It must secure its southern and northern borders via political accommodation, defensive lines or outward expansion, and it must engender a strong sense of national unity and exploit differences among its neighbors to balance external political pressure. From the launching of the Korean War to the heavily fortified DMZ, from the exploitation of relations between China and Russia to the development of a nuclear deterrent, North Korea's actions in many ways are shaped by similar constraints and pressures as felt by its predecessor kingdoms due to its location and geography.

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