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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:11 GMT
Kazakhstan
The ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan rests in the heart of Central Asia, bordering Russia to its north; China on its east; Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan along its south; and the Caspian Sea to its west. The defining feature of Kazakhstan is the Kazakh Steppe, a large dryland stretching across more than 70 percent of the country. Only 12 percent of the country's land is arable, and the majority of that is in the north connecting into Russia's agricultural belt. There is also a large pocket in the south. This expanse has largely pushed the population of nearly 18 million to the outer borderlands. The steppe is encircled by a series of sizable mountain ranges. The core of the country lies in the corridor stretching across the Shymkent (also known as Southern Kazakhstan) and the Almaty region, where the climate is warm compared with the inhospitable deserts of the steppe. This stretch of land lies in the Syr Darya river basin, creating a fertile pocket of land protected to its east, west and north by mountain ranges. Shymkent and Almaty were some of the largest stopping posts along the Silk Road, and they now have the country's densest population and swaths of the financial, industrial and agricultural sectors. To the region's south lies the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan — a vulnerable point to its core. The Kazakh economy is dominated by its energy sector, making up nearly 20 percent of the gross domestic product. The country exports 78 percent of its oil production, regionally and along large trunk lines to China and Russia. Along with its agricultural and metals wealth, Kazakhstan's energy sector has made the country highly valuable to its neighbors. In recent decades, the country has positioned itself as the financial hub of Central Asia, tying in the banking systems of its smaller neighbors. Kazakhstan maintains strong ties with Russia, which reach back to its empire and Soviet phases. But the government in the capital, Astana, is also developing links to China and other players to balance Moscow. The country tries to maintain working relationships with its smaller neighbors, who have seen bouts of instability. Kazakhstan's challenges stem from its mostly hollow interior, from encroaching large powers and from the potential instability of smaller regions on its border.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 19:09 GMT
Laos
Laos
Laos stands at the crossroads of Mainland Southeast Asia. Fully landlocked, the country is isolated by mountains and surrounded by powerful neighbors, including China and Myanmar to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west. This geography has made Laos closely entangled in its region's geopolitical competitions. Since it was established as an independent entity in the 14th century, Laos has oscillated between serving as a land bridge for trade and communications and acting as a buffer between its more powerful neighbors. During its history, Laos has acted as both a vassal state and an invasion frontier for its larger neighbors. The country's primary geographic challenge is to secure its borders against threats from its powerful neighbors. The western highland means Laos has shared trade, ethnicity and religion with present day Thailand and, to lesser degree, Myanmar, but it also invited repeated invasions until the Laotian border retreated to the natural geographic barrier of the Mekong River. To the east, the Annamite Mountain Range and Annam Highlands provide a strong, albeit passable, barrier to Vietnamese expansion. Despite the protection they bring, the country's rugged mountain ranges and Mekong River tributaries also make Laos difficult to govern. Because of this, Laos has been vulnerable to external exploitation throughout its history. On the other hand, the mountains provide ample water for hydropower and numerous natural mineral and coal resources, though the terrain and climate limit agricultural activity. Because of its landlocked status, resource scarcity and powerful neighbors, Laos has limited options to secure sea access, economic lifelines or a strong defense. It has typically gained these by exploiting differences among its neighbors, accommodating them politically or by gaining the backing of an external power, as it did with France in the early 20th century. Today, enhanced road, rail and power linkages with Indochina place Laos at a crossroads for trade and communication. However, this also means China's expanded influence in the region puts considerable pressure on Laos.
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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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