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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 | 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 | 18:30 GMT
United States
United States
The United States encompasses territory spanning from the Arctic Circle and Central Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic. The Greater Mississippi Basin is the United States' core and serves as the underpinning of its role as a global superpower. The basin hosts an extensive network of navigable rivers that overlay the world's largest contiguous piece of arable land. This naturally interconnected river system facilitated integration among settlers and allowed for cheap transport of goods, providing the United States with the ability to feed itself efficiently and rapidly build up industry and capital to expand west. The Midwestern core gave early America strategic depth, while an expanding U.S. coastline, naturally indented with deep harbors, provided its opening to the world. After reaching the Pacific coast in the mid-19th century, the United States found itself insulated by two oceans. On the continent itself, geography again has worked in the country's favor: lakes to the north and deserts to the south insulate the United States' population centers, with both Canada and Mexico facing too many natural constraints of their own to seriously rival it. This unparalleled level of wealth and protection gives the United States options that few to no countries can claim. For one, the United States has used its wealth and security to build up the world's largest navy. Control of the world's major sea-lanes gives the United States the power to facilitate or deny trade to allies or rivals of the day. The onus therefore is on the United States to carefully manage its engagements abroad and build up strategic allies to protect its overseas interests and preserve its strength at home.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 16:41 GMT
Iceland
Iceland
Iceland is an island country situated at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Most of Iceland’s terrain is uninhabitable. The island's interior, known as the Icelandic Highlands, is a combination of glaciers, volcanoes and lava fields. Two thirds of Iceland’s 320,000 inhabitants live in the lowlands surrounding Reykjavik, the country’s capital and largest city. Protecting Reykjavik (Iceland’s core) is the country’s main strategic imperative. The Icelandic economy historically depended heavily on fishing, which still provides 40% of export earnings. In recent decades, Iceland's economy has diversified into manufacturing, service industries and finance. Balancing its isolation with external economic integration is Iceland’s primary geographic challenge. Iceland has especially strong cultural and political ties with the other Nordic countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, because the island was under the rule of the Norwegian and Danish monarchies between the 13th and 20th centuries. Iceland became independent in 1918, and a republic was declared in 1944. Iceland's location also makes it geopolitically significant for Europe, particularly in light of the growing relevance of energy resources in the Arctic area. Moreover, Iceland’s location in the so-called GIUK (Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom) gap is strategic for naval military operations in the North Atlantic. Because of its geographic isolation, Iceland has to make a constant effort to keep strong economic ties with the rest of the world. The country therefore has to continuously reach a balance between maintaining independence and fostering deep ties with its eastern or western neighbors. The population's indecisiveness concerning Iceland's EU membership reflects that struggle.
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Regions & CountriesJanuary 23, 2020 | 15:14 GMT
El Salvador
El Salvador
The tiny country of El Salvador is typical of Central America's geographic challenges. Nestled south of Honduras, southeast of Guatemala and northwest of Nicaragua, El Salvador's landmass is small — even compared to its neighbors. Throughout most of its history, El Salvador was an agricultural society. The mountainous terrain and relative isolation from the rest of the world encouraged subsistence agriculture but very little profitable economic activity. Despite the growth of some industry, such as textile manufacturing, in the late 20th century, El Salvador remains a very underdeveloped country. This underdevelopment fostered stark political divisions in the country's society. Abroad, El Salvador is perhaps best known for a 13-year civil war between communist-backed forces and the U.S.-backed government. The war ended in 1992, but the country remains politically split along economic class lines and between the left and right. The main political parties in the country are those organized around members of the now-disbanded leftist guerrilla movement and the right-leaning government. Illegal migration and violent crime remain the principal concern in El Salvador for the United States. El Salvador is simply too small and too resource-poor to sustain its population. Explosive population growth in the mid-20th century, endemic poverty and civil war caused mass migration abroad. More than a million Salvadorans fled the country, mostly to the United States. After the conflict, violent crime — mainly in the form of criminal gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18, and their numerous cliques across the country — compounded the migration problem. To this day, remittances from Salvadorans living in the United States are one of the main sources of foreign income for the country's economy. For the United States, neither of the security concerns from El Salvador are first-tier foreign policy priorities. Instead, they are persistent issues that some administrations choose to take more seriously than others.
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