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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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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 | 18:37 GMT
Taiwan
Taiwan
Taiwan is located along a sea lane in the West Pacific, with the East China Sea to the north, the Philippine Sea to the east and the South China Sea to the south. The island is 180 kilometers off the southeastern coast of mainland China, across the Taiwan Strait. The strait has allowed for communication with the mainland since ancient times, but has also forced the island to confront the mainland's unrelenting attempts to reclaim it. Taiwan consists of two geographic and population cores. The first is the Chianan Plain in the southwestern region, home to Taiwan's earliest civilizations and the island's second-largest city, Kaohsiung. The second is Taipei Basin, home to the island's capital, Taipei. These two cores are separated by rugged mountains and over several centuries have developed their own distinct social patterns and economic structures. The presence of mainlanders, who have been crossing the strait since the 17th century, further compounds the island's socio-political divides. Taiwan's crucial strategic position has put it at the center of regional geopolitical competition for centuries. In the 17th century it was controlled by various European colonial powers, and up until World War II, it switched hands between the Chinese empire and Japanese rulers. Taiwan was the extended battleground of the Chinese Civil War in the mid-1940s and only established itself as an independent, unified polity in 1945. Today, it remains a focal point of power struggles between China, Japan and the United States. The island's primary geographic challenge is to avoid being dominated by external powers while securing a maritime buffer. Both these goals are challenged by China, which is expanding its maritime ambitions in the East and South China seas and remains fixated on eventual national reunification.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:42 GMT
South Korea
South Korea
The Republic of Korea, also called South Korea, occupies the southern half of a peninsula that juts out of the Asian mainland toward Japan. The country shares its only land border with North Korea, which it also borders in the Yellow and East seas. It shares maritime borders with Japan to the east and China to the west. South Koreas primary geographic challenges are overcoming internal fractures to maintain cohesion, and securing its maritime sphere and its southwest lowland pockets from its more powerful neighbors. The ancient kingdoms of Baekje and Silla occupied the distinct geographic pockets of the southern peninsula, standing in contrast to a more unified space where North Korea now sits. The Taebaek mountains run along much of South Korea's eastern coast, largely protecting the country from invasion by sea from this direction. These mountain ranges provide a level of protection to the peninsula's most vulnerable feature: a north-south corridor of lowlands and hills along the west coast. This coast (as well as much of South Korea's southern coastline) is protected from easy landing by countless islands, mudflats and tidal rips. However, the Nakdong River valley at Pusan offers a point of incursion to would-be invaders. From here, they can pass over the lower elevations of the Sobaek Mountains and onward to the western core. This has been the gateway for those seeking to control the peninsula, from the failed 16th century invasions of Japanese Daimyō Toyotomi Hideyoshi to the Japanese empire's later efforts in the 19th century. A North Korean invasion in 1950 (repelled by U.N. forces defending the Pusan Perimeter) highlights another key vulnerability for South Korea: the potential for incursions from the north via the western coastal strip. To hedge against aggression from all directions, South Korea is focused on securing its maritime space, particularly in the south and west. The country has prioritized its possession of Jeju Island in the Jeju Strait and has in the past held claims to Tsushima Island. Disputes with China over the Socotra Rock in the Yellow Sea and with Japan over Dokdo in the East Sea are also important elements of South Korea's overall maritime strategy. The Korean Peninsula's historic policy of isolation was one way of remaining out of the crosshairs of its neighbors, but it has also aligned itself with rival powers throughout its history. Most recently, South Korea has used a third party — the United States — to maintain balance against neighbors that threaten it from sea and land.
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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 | 18:45 GMT
Singapore
Singapore

The city-state of Singapore sits at the southern tip of Southeast Asia's Malay Peninsula. Malaysia lies to its north and parts of Indonesia lie across a strait to its south. The island nation rests near the end of the Strait of Malacca, which links the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and is one of the world's busiest shipping routes. The area emerged in the 13th century as a small trading outpost and gained prominence through its strategic location on the Maritime Silk Road. That location and success repeatedly put it at risk, from Siam and Javanese kingdoms in ancient times, and later from European powers, including the Portuguese and Dutch. It eventually fell into the hands of the British Empire and was later seized by the Japanese in World War II. Since its independence from Malaysia in 1965, it has focused on preserving its dominance of the regional shipping lane that runs near it and on avoiding the domination of outside powers. Though the country is dominated ethnically by Chinese, it has tried to create a distinct national identity. Maritime trade has led to an export-led industrialization that has far outpaced its neighbors, and its vulnerability has led it to develop a strong navy. Now it is striving to maintain a strategic balance among big powers, namely the United States and China, as relations in the region shift.

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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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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:57 GMT
New Zealand
New Zealand
New Zealand is an island nation at the southwestern edge of the Pacific Ocean, lying around 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) across the Tasman Sea from the Australian island of Tasmania. Geologically, New Zealand is part of a distinct continent known as Zealandia that also includes the French territory New Caledonia. Geographically, however, it is grouped within the broader Oceanic subregion of Polynesia, which is an assortment of over 1,000 islands to the northeast of New Zealand that includes Tahiti, Samoa, Easter Island and Hawaii. Travelling from Eastern Polynesia, New Zealand's original inhabitants, the Maori, arrived by boat around 800 years ago. In the 18th century, British colonists arrived as an after-effect of Australian settlement. Though it is comprised of over 600 islands, most of New Zealand's current inhabitants live on either the South Island or the North Island, with the North Island accounting three-quarters of the country's population. New Zealand's exclusive economic zone, on the other hand, is 15 times the size of its landmasses. Agricultural products dominate New Zealand's exports, with the lion's share destined for Australia and broader Asia. Unlike neighboring Australia, New Zealand is unlikely to develop a significant mining or hydrocarbon sector to diversify its economy. In the maritime realm, New Zealand has an unrecognized claim to a wedge of Antarctica known as the Ross Dependency as well as a loose federation with the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue. Like Australia, New Zealand's main geographic challenge is to overcome both its remote location and its tiny population. New Zealand's strongly pro-trade policies and collective security agreement with Australia and the United States seek to ensure that sea lanes remain open and that New Zealand is safely under the umbrella of the dominant global maritime power's protection. At the same time, it must balance these security ties with its interests in maintaining access to growing markets in the Asia-Pacific such as China.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:27 GMT
Vietnam
Vietnam
Vietnam is located on the easternmost edge of the Indochinese Peninsula, with China to the north and Laos and Cambodia to the west. Its more than 2,000 mile-long coastline abuts the Gulf of Tonkin, the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. These seas create both direct access to the wider Pacific Ocean and a critical buffer to Vietnam's long and narrow land territory. Modern Vietnam consists of two geographic and population cores — the Red River Delta in the north, home to the capital of Hanoi, and the Mekong River Delta in the southern lowlands, where Ho Chi Minh City sits. These cores are separated by over 1,600 miles and connected by a thin and largely mountainous coastal spine, only around 30 miles wide at its narrowest point. Despite mountains and jungles, the northern Vietnamese core has a long history of invasion by forces from China. This almost continuous pressure from the north in part forced Vietnam's early rulers to expand the country's boundaries, first southward, to the Mekong River Delta, and then westward, into present day Laos and Cambodia. Historically and today, the natural geographic separation of Vietnam's northern and southern cores has exacerbated the two regions' social, cultural and political divide — leaving the country vulnerable to invasion by foreign powers, whether Chinese, French or American. Vietnam’s primary geographic challenge is to secure buffer space both on land and sea. Today, Vietnam's need for space and security in the South China Seas pits it against China, also in the throes of maritime expansion, thus adding a new dimension to Vietnam's longstanding struggle to carve space for itself against its larger northern neighbor.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:59 GMT
Myanmar
Myanmar
The core of Myanmar is the fertile Irrawaddy River valley. The region, a long, flat area that is relatively easy to consolidate, is vulnerable to invasion from the surrounding mountains, particularly the Hengduan Mountains along the northern border with China. Invading Mongols and the now-dominant ethnic Burman, for example, twice overthrew governments in the Irrawaddy valley. Though control of Myanmar's surrounding mountains provides security for the valley's core, it can also stir conflict with the various ethnic groups that inhabit the border regions. As a result, Myanmar has never completely solidified its own territory. The country borders Bangladesh and India to the west, but a mountain chain separates and protects it from those neighbors. To the northeast, likewise, high mountains and rugged jungle provide a formidable barrier against China. The Shan Plateau to the east poses less of a physical challenge, allowing various ethnic groups to move easily across political boundaries. Historically, the absence of a barrier has facilitated Myanmar's communication with Thailand and Laos, while also making for more frequent conflict with them. Myanmar's location makes it a natural bridge between the Indian Ocean basin, Southeast Asia and southern China. Coupled with the country's energy resources — including oil and natural gas — its position has made it a target for foreign intervention, whether overt, as with the United Kingdom or Japan, or less direct, as with China's recent ports, pipeline and transport infrastructure projects. Foreign interference, like internal ethnic conflict, is a perennial concern for Myanmar because of its physical geography.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 18:36 GMT
Thailand
Thailand
Located in Southeast Asia, Thailand is bordered by Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. The core of modern Thailand lies on the flat, rich lowlands in the central Chao Phraya River basin. This basin is one of the world's most fertile agricultural areas, growing mostly rice and fruits. As a result, it became a political and economic center, where Bangkok, the country's capital, was founded. Thailand’s strategic location between Indochina and the Andaman and South China seas, along with its agricultural resources, has historically made it a target of foreign invasion. Therefore, Thailand’s main geographic challenge is protecting its core from invaders while consolidating power in its diverse outlying regions. Protected in the north by mountains and the Khorat Plateau, Thailand’s biggest external threats have come through the Tenasserim mountain range from Myanmar or from Cambodia to the east. But Thailand’s central location also helped prevent its colonization, as the French and British used it as a buffer between each other's empires. Thailand’s geography has also presented internal challenges. In the northwest, mountainous terrain has prevented the area from being easily controlled, fostering political struggles in modern times between these provinces and Bangkok. Annexed in the early 20th century, southern Thailand has an ethnically Malay, Muslim majority and continues to resist Bangkok through low-level insurgency and violence. Although Thailand's size, location and arable land allow it to exert influence regionally, its unwieldy periphery and occasionally hostile neighbors will continue to present it with challenges.
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