Nine islands 九州

Continuing on the previous “business-oriented” post on Wodeshudian (Special Economic Zones 經濟特區, this time I would like to share some ideas that have been inspired by two seemingly unrelated sources.

No, the title doesn’t refer to the continuing quarrel about the islands in Asia, but to something much, much older.

As for the sources of inspiration… the first one is a book on the Chinese culture- which actually is focused on the historical development of the written language and how this is intertwined with the development of both culture and institutions (Lavagnino – Pozzi “La cultura cinese”

The second one… few articles from the magazine Foreign Affairs, starting with an older article discussing President Obama’s “Pivot” (, continuing with one discussing China’s defense posture (, and a more recent article on the side-effects of China’s economic development (Osburg “Can’t Buy Me Love”

If you are curious about the title: “nine islands”, according to my books and Wikipedia, was one of the ancient names of China, where the “islands” are nothing more than the areas in which the country (well, continental landmass would be more appropriate, as a comparison for us Europeans) was said to have been divided by Emperor Yu the Great 大禹 through his act on waters (no small feat: remember the Three Gorges Dam? It is just the most recent one in a series of initiatives to extract value from waters in China- see Khagram, Sanjeev “Dams and Development: Transnational Struggles for Water and Power”

“Nine islands” could actually be a metaphor for our own globalized world, were more often than not countries have to overcome short-term (or lingering from the past) animosities, in order to be able to achieve a larger goal.

You are reading this post on a computer, connected through the Internet: do you ever consider how many countries had to cooperate to make this possible?

Yes, Internet is the offspring of Darpa, blah blah blah- but it wouldn’t work if the key “hubs” around the World weren’t connected, and in its current implementation wouldn’t deliver a service around the globe if it weren’t for the web of undersea fiberoptic cables that we remember only after they fail (and China too connected to the Internet, at first with Germany, decades ago- see Gao, Liwei “Chinese internet language: a study of identity constructions” for a short story on how China joined the Internet).

Water and infrastructures make the State “visible”, and have been, in China as within the Roman Empire, the unifying element that reminded on a daily basis what could not be done without a shared purpose.

In the XXI century, we have something physical, e.g. the fiberoptic cables (see map, and something immaterial: from our banking system and its wire-transfers, to joint management of airspace- or do you imagine that planes could fly, without some sort of agreement between multiple countries?

Back to the “nine islands”.

There are many who are talking about a new “Cold War”, but for the sake of a good title on a newspaper, and maybe to sell few copies more of a magazine or book, they forget some significant differences.

It is true that China (see the “Special Economic Zones” outside China post on this blog, linked above) is de facto becoming the main contender on the global stage for the USA, and gradually developing its own internal market.

But China is sitting on a pile of USD (and using it as a diplomatic tool- if not to “buy love”, as the article on Foreign Affairs said, at least to barter influence and future resources in exchange of a currency that is under the control of another country)- and its economy is still more integrated with Western economies, while no COMECON- or Warsaw Pact-equivalent are in place.

So, while a new “Cold War” would probably appeal to those who have still in the drawers of their desks manuscripts to publish or battleplans to recycle, and would be more than happy to “migrate” their whole intellectual apparatus by replacing USSR with China, it is a different world.

If you think about it, the ancient “nine islands” story teaches few lessons: you can build dams, control waters, and therefore separate the resulting “islands”, but you still need a cooperative water management approach (or a shared authority) to make it work.

The XXI century is a century of the “commons”: we showed it in the fight against piracy, as any trading country (China, India, Western countries) needs to lower insurance costs and ensure safe passage to goods; we tried to show it with the International Space Station (but if USA cuts down its own expenditure on that, why should Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India keep afloat what was, in the end, an American project?); we routinely do on the telecommunication infrastructure (yes- NSA, but also others do their fair share of spooking: only, others are probably envious at the staggering size of that operation, way beyond what their own budgets would afford them).

Probably, in our multipolar world there will be more than “nine power centers”- and less.

In the old age of Mercantilism, our countries often reasoned as if the world economy were a zero-sum game, but in the XXI century it is much faster, easier, cheaper to alter flows, alliances, and work on a case-by-case basis (again, look at the fight against piracy, or the war against ISIS).

It is the management of the commons and infrastructures, the shared “virtual boundaries” of interest, that will matter: and recycling conceptual frameworks from the past might be economic in the short run, but look at how good was the Maginot line in WWII…

As I shared often with online and offline friends: we have to forget the XIX century idea of “a global chessboard”- I liked to play Risk (and I often won), but that was a different world.

Right now, a XXI century Risk would involve not just the occasional “power shift” (a coup or a revolution here and there), but a continuous need to check your own assumptions, and consider that, often, yesterday’s enemy might be today’s ally and tomorrow’s acquaintance.

If no alliance is cast in stone (frankly, just look at the alliances of Italy in the XX century- in WWII we had the unusual distinction of having our soldiers made prisoners of war by both sides), then you have to reconsider the level of animosity, as we European showed since the Treaty of Rome that our past internecine wars still stir the waters now and then, moreover as there is always some opportunist that, for short-term political gains or ego-massaging, likes to resurrect ghosts of the past.

The “nine islands” approach requires a paradigm shift, based on identifying some reference baseline (what you stand for), and layers of shared interests- which can be on different timescales.

The side-effect? Less saber-rattling, and more Real Politik, but built on an increasingly common ground: as there are many areas (from water management, to pollution, to managing fisheries and other natural resources, to global immigration and refugees flows) where, in reality, we are all on the same boat.

You might say: but this is geopolitics, not business.

I beg to differ: geopolitics is business, moreover in a globalized world where financial and trade flows know no national boundaries.

For the time being… have a nice week!

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