China’s Long-Term Strategy vs The West’s Civil War and Short-Termism
While the effectively bankrupt West is tearing itself apart and undermining its society, economy and science, China is not just getting on with it, but forging ahead.
A good starting point in understanding what is happening now, with all the implications current developments have for the U.S. and the West up to 2050 and beyond, is the theory of geopolitics developed by the British geographer Sir Halford MacKinder.
In 1904, Mackinder published an article entitled The Geographical Pivot of History, in which he theorised that the “Pivot Area” – later renamed the “Heartland” – would form the basis of a vast Eurasian empire on the “World Island”
In his 1919 book Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder himself provided the most succinct summary of his ideas:
- Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
- Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island;
- Who rules the World Island commands the World.
Nowadays, some people see Mackinder’s theory of the “Heartland” as rather woolly, even mystical, but as John LeDonne, an independent scholar at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, points out,
…its resilience remains the best proof of its value.
The Russian Empire and the World, 1700-1917: The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment, 1996, p. xii.
After the Cold War, both Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski resurrected Mackinder’s ideas.
Brzezinski, for example, famously argued that without Ukraine, Russia was not an empire.
Brzezinski’s quote is widely known throughout the former Soviet Union and constantly repeated by anti-Americans as “proof” that the West in general and the U.S. in particular caused the Ukraine conflict in an effort to preserve America’s “global hegemony” by weakening Russia and preventing any power from dominating Eurasia because
Cumulatively, Eurasia’s power vastly overshadows America’s.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, 1997, p. 31
This view ignores the fact that the Americans and the Europeans were invited into Ukraine by the Ukrainian government.
Ask people who hold these opinions for proof that the views of Kissinger and Brzezinski really did influence U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine as they claim, and they are invariably stumped.
Nor can they answers questions such as why the U.S. did not veto the WTO accession of Russia (or China for that matter), why it did not attack Russia when it was on its knees in the early 1990s, or, more recently, why it did not prevail upon the European Union to exclude Russia from the SWIFT international payments system, which would have crippled Russia economically?
Any geopolitical theory is just one way of understanding the world.
Both Mackinder himself and his approximate contemporary, the United States naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, noted that since Columbus, it was the rimlands, the coastlands around the Heartland, which had in fact dominated the world because they gave rise to naval powers with long-distance power projection and trade.
The coastlands, the settled areas from Britain to Japan and including India and China, were of course also much more populous, more fertile and richer than the poor soil of the arid steppe to the north.
But militarily, the coastlands could not encroach on the “World-Island” because of their weak armies and because the “World-Island” is protected by Arctic ice in the north and deserts, steppe and mountains to the south and east.
The major weakness is of course the western approach, which offers virtually no natural barriers to interrupt the flat land between The Netherlands and Vladivostok other than the low Ural Mountains.
Any attack on the “World-Island”, Mackinder forecast in 1919, would therefore emanate from Germany, which under Hitler did indeed come perilously close to conquering Russia, an attack from which Russia has arguably never recovered.
It is no therefore coincidence that virtually the only powers that have had any hold on the World Island were peoples indigenous to the region such as the Russians and the Turkic peoples. Only the Mongols have come even close to holding the World Island in its entirety, but their tenure was relatively short lived.
Outside powers therefore had little possibility of entering what Mackinder saw as the most powerful fortress in the world even if they wanted to.
However, Mackinder also argued that railways were superior to ships. As the British and French Empires and later the U.S. found, a naval power requires bases all over the world, and although ships can carry a lot more than railways, they are much slower. Air power also favours land-based powers because they can attack ships from land – or aircraft carriers – and deny access to waterways and ports.
An industrial power in the Heartland could thus build a railway network and enjoy strategic mobility and advantages over a naval power.
Mackinder also raised the spectre of an alliance between major Eurasian powers – the usual suspects are Russia and Germany and, both historically and now, Russia and China. Which brings us to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative
In 2013, China’s president Xi Jinping announced the One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR).
Renamed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016, the BRI could transform Eurasia into the biggest market in the world – Chinese trains have already arrived in London and Madrid.
It could also sideline the U.S., which is not taking part in the BRI or China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
By January 2018, BRI embraced 71 countries accounting for 65% of the world’s population and 40% of global GDP in 2017.
Total investment is variously reckoned at $4-8 trillion. Investment in BRI has slowed recently, but China’s long-term strategy runs to at least 2049, the centenary of the Communist takeover of mainland China.
The AIIB embraces members from Iceland to New Zealand and includes Canada and South America’s biggest countries.
Eurasia transcends China’s BRI & AIIB
Russian Railways, for example, is busily expanding east-west and north-south International Transport Corridors (ITCs) and high-speed freight and passenger lines between China, Japan South Korea and Moscow and into Europe, and from Moscow south to the Black and Caspian Seas and on to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
India’s Connect Central Asia policy is part of New Delhi’s “extended neighborhood” as it tries to balance China across Eurasia.
Russian Railways also wants to attract more freight to rail to cut delivery times and offers direct “door-to-door” freight and logistics services such as “Trans-Siberian in 7 Days” from Russia’s Pacific ports to its western borders and into Europe which avoid China and Central Asia completely.
Russia and Central Asia are vital to China’s BRI and are desperate to become transit routes between Europe and Asia, but the ITCs and increased trade are also crucial if Russia is to shore up its Far Eastern regions given their low population and density compared to the 100 million Chinese just across the border.
Russia has long been exporting oil to China by rail, wants to export HEP to China, and has major oil and gas projects in the Far East.
Russia’s other strategic worry is its “soft underbelly” of Muslim Central Asia and the Middle East.
These former Soviet republics are major drug routes, all are Muslim, and all border or are close to Afghanistan, Pakistan, China’s Muslim Xinjiang province and India.
Russia and Central Asia are also close to the Middle East – hence Moscow’s close ties with Iran and involvement in Syria.
Russia, China, India and the Central Asian republics themselves thus have a vital interest in the stability, security and development of these countries.
China has also suggested cooperation with Russia on the “Ice/Polar Road” as global warming melts the Arctic ice.
A bridge or tunnel across the Bering Straits has been proposed to create a latitudinal rail/road link right around the northern hemisphere across Eurasia and Canada/U.S.
The potential for Sino-Russian-Central Asian cooperation should not be exaggerated. Moscow is desperate for closer ties with China, but our Russian-speaking Chinese experts say that Beijing is very wary of Russia.
Nevertheless, BRI and other initiatives by various countries represent the biggest infrastructure projects on the planet and – if implemented – offer huge opportunities, but also considerable risk with low returns, white elephant projects, long payback times and (geo)political and ethnic problems due to anti-Chinese sentiment.