Almost exactly 116 years ago, in January 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder gave a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. His paper, The Geographical Pivot of History, caused a sensation and marked the birth of geopolitics as an autonomous discipline. According to Mackinder, control over the Eurasian “World-Island” is the key to global hegemony. At its core is the “pivot area,” the Heartland, which extends from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic.
In 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, deeply concerned with what he saw as the need for an effective barrier of nations between Germany and Russia, Mackinder updated and summarized his theory as follows:
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
Who rules the World-Island controls the world.
Sir Halford’s Heartland model is a grand-theoretical concept par excellence. It is influential to this day, modifications notwithstanding. A notable early revisionist was Nicholas Spykman, whose 1942 book, America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power, sought to “develop a grand strategy for both war and peace based on the implications of its geographic location in the world.” In the Great Game of the late 19th century, Spykman wrote, Russian pressure from the Heartland was countered by British naval power, and it was America’s destiny to take over that role once World War II was over. Some months before the Battle of Stalingrad he thus wrote that a “Russian state from the Urals to the North Sea can be no great improvement over a German state from the North Sea to the Urals.”
For Spykman, the key to world politics was the coastal region bordering the Heartland which he called rimland. He changed Mackinder’s formula accordingly: “Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”
Spykman died in 1943, but his ideas were reflected four years later in President Harry Truman’s “doctrine,” which George Kennan subsequently developed into the strategy of containment. Holding on to the western rimland from Norway across central Europe to Greece and Turkey, and to the Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and Far Eastern segments of the Asian rimland, was the mainstay of America’s Cold War strategy in general, and the rationale behind the creation of NATO in 1949 in particular.
To a geopolitically attuned mind, this looked like a grand-scale reenactment of the anaconda strategy employed by the Union during the U.S. Civil War to slowly strangle the Confederacy. In the end, the U.S. duly strangled the Soviet beast, but containment turned into a massive rollback when the USSR disintegrated in 1991.
Just five years later, in 1996, NATO reached Russia’s Czarist borders. In 2004 it expanded almost to St. Petersburg. All along Ukraine had remained the glittering prize, the key to limiting Russia’s access to the Black Sea, and a potential geostrategic knife in southern Russia’s soft underbelly.
During the same period China was beginning to emerge as a major global power, and over the past decade as a peer rival of the United States. Its growing strength has world-historical implications. A key question of our time—thequestion, in fact—is whether the U.S. and China can manage their relations, in the years and decades to come, without a war.
An optimist would say that the challenge is manageable because it is not inherently insoluble, in the manner of Athens vs. Sparta, Rome vs. Carthage, or Hitler vs. Russia. China is expanding into the Asian Mediterranean because it is natural thing to do in geopolitical terms, regardless of the PRC regime’s party-political credentials.
A realist, on the other hand, may note that major wars almost invariably result from the confrontation between a status-quo power and a rising challenger. Graham Allison, for example, explored the potential of a replay of this scenario in his 2017 book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
No mere axis of convenience
U.S. foreign policy over the past decade—of simultaneously expanding into Russia’s backyard and curtailing China’s attempt to break the First Island Chain—has backfired, turning the two major Heartland powers from the rivals of yore into close partners and putative allies.
Russia has made a decisive eastward turn under Putin. In 2001, China and Russia signed the Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. The relationship has since evolved into a strategic partnership. In 2014, President Xi framed the relationship in openly geopolitical terms: “Further facilitating the all-round strategic partnership based on common interests is a requirement for promoting international fairness and justice, maintaining world peace, and realizing prosperity in both countries. It is also an ‘inevitable choice’ for the development of a multipolar world.”
That partnership has grown stronger over the years. It has disproved much skepticism about its nature and underlying ulterior motives, as well as a lot of Western wishful thinking about its inevitable demise.
This Sino-Russian entente provides evidence that realist concerns trump cultural and ideological differences. There is no natural affinity between their civilizations, of the kind that provide a bond within the EU and NATO (Turkey excepted), and there is no love lost between their peoples. China does not forget the fact that Russia was a full-fledged participant in her 19th century humiliation by the Western powers, when it annexed her Far Eastern region (the Amur basin and the RFE), and dominated Manchuria until the war with Japan in 1904-5. The intra-communist ideological schism of the early 1960’s can be seen, at least in part, as a veneer for various deeper historical grievances.
A historical parallel of an unlikely alliance forged by geopolitical imperative comes to mind. The Wilhelmine foreign policy after Bismarck undermined the fruits of his brilliant diplomatic efforts in the preceding two decades. The Kaiserreich simultaneously pushed the autocratic, deeply conservative, Orthodox Tsardom into an alliance with the French Republic—overtly Masonic, anticlerical, radical—and terminally alienated Britain by building the High Seas Fleet and planning the Berlin-Bagdad railway.
Over a century later, we are witnessing the emergence of a de facto alliance in the Eurasian Heartland. Russia and China are not natural allies, and they may have divergent long-term interests—especially in Central Asia—but they are on the same page when it comes to resisting what both perceive as the U.S.’s hegemonistic arrogance.
Whereas Russia and China have upgraded their strategic partnership over the past decade, they have not forged a strategic alliance specifically aimed at countering U.S. global designs. This is due to the divergent expectations of the two parties and their differing immediate needs. Russian expectations of Moscow’s pivot to Asia exceed China’s readiness at this time to confront the hegemonistic power in a coordinated manner.
Meta-historically speaking, Russia appears to have been more deeply wounded by communism than China. Russia’s elite has not recovered the ability to think and plan grand-strategically, as evidenced by Moscow’s largely reactive posture over Ukraine.
China, by contrast, is as much the Middle Kingdom now as she has been for two and a half millennia, discreetly contemptuous of foreigners and utterly dismissive of the liberal notions of a converging world.
Russia responds, often clumsily, to an array of immediate threats, real and perceived. China deals with the current challenges, Trump’s tariffs for example, pragmatically, and is willing to make tactical concessions while planning for the long-term methodically and single-mindedly.
Moscow’s prevailing image of China as a future ally, not just a close partner, is unsurprising in view of Russia’s need to confront what it sees as geopolitical encroachment on its vulnerable southeastern flank. It does not fit in with China’s own long-term strategy, however. The imbalance in the two countries’ commitment to a joint grand-strategic project reflects their growing asymmetry in terms of economic and military power and influence.
China’s leaders may expect a major confrontation with the U.S. in two or three decades, but they are far from ready for it now. The trade war is under control; China remains strong in terms of global trade flows and financial solidity. She is harnessing her resources for the great showdown later this century.
Russia’s needs in this respect are immediate, but Beijing thinks it is far too early in the day to up the ante. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s nightmare scenario of a grand anti-American Heartland coalition of China and Russia—a latter-day reenactment of Karl Haushofer’s dream of an anti-British axis between Berlin, Moscow, and Tokyo—is not on the horizon.
China returns to the sea, thanks to Russia
In the early 1400s, China owned the greatest seagoing fleet in the world, with up to 3,500 ships. Zheng He’s epic seven voyages made China an ocean-faring power, present in the subcontinent, Arabia and Africa. After 1433, however, her treasure fleet was destroyed by imperial decree. Even the maps and naval charts were burned. Forward bases were abandoned, including the major one at Malacca. This move eventually resulted in the loss of China’s great power status. Its ultimate consequence was the trauma of China’s century of humiliation, a period from the mid-19th to mid-20thcentury, when it was subordinate to Western powers. It prompted Xi Jinping to remark in 2012, “If one is afraid of the sea he will get drowned in the ocean sooner or later.”
There is still no consensus among historians on what caused the Ming to turn their back on the sea so drastically and so suddenly. Most would agree that a major factor was the need to buttress the Empire’s chronically vulnerable northern frontier. Because of the chronic threat on land, for almost six ensuing centuries China had had no navy capable of facing a major adversary. After the Communist victory in 1949 it developed a large army, able to intervene massively in Korea just one year later; but until the early 21st century the PLA navy had remained an insignificant green-water force.
A new strategy has developed over the past decade, however, accompanied by an impressive shipbuilding program. A seminal moment came in 2009 when China formally adopted the nine-dash line map. The new approach, heralded at the 2012 CCP Congress, was reinforced in the 2015 Defense White Paper: “Traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” In April 2018 Xi reiterated that “the task of building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today.”
It is essential to note that China’s return to the sea became geopolitically feasible because her land borders are now more secure than at any time in history. The ability to develop and project sea power is one of the keys to understanding the importance of China’s partnership with Russia. Unlike the 1400’s, when protecting the vulnerable northern Limes against the Mongols took precedence over the command of the sea, today’s China faces no real threat along her 10,000-mile continental perimeter. The collapse of the USSR was the seminal moment: literally for the first time in history, China’s long northern frontier is safe.
The View from Moscow
For the Kremlin the partnership with China is the keystone of the country’s global strategy. It is expected to further expand, and it is seen as having no alternative. Russian foreign policy is formulated by a narrow elite which is focused both on maintaining and increasing external security and on preserving the domestic stability. Its members are appalled by the paranoid quality of the public discourse on Russia and all things Russian in today’s America, which is more shrill and ideologically implacable than anything seen even in the darkest days of the Cold War.
Seen from Moscow, the U.S. narrative is unrelated to Russia’s actual policies. It reflects a deep odium of the elite class towards Russia-as-such. That narrative has two key pillars. In terms of geopolitics, we see the striving of maritime empires—Britain before, and the United States after World War II—to “contain” and if possible control the Eurasian heartland, the core of which is of course Russia. Equally important is the cultural antipathy, the desire of the Western “woke” left not merely to influence Russian policies and behavior but to effect an irreversible transformation of Russia’s identity.
The Russian policymakers have concluded that, Trump’s efforts notwithstanding, there is slim probability of a new chapter in U.S.-Russian relations, a détente which would be based on the realist assessment that America and Russia have no “existential” differences and share many actual and potential commonalities. They reject exceptionalist claims that the so-called indispensable nation of the U.S. upholds a superior model of social and cultural thought and action which should be imposed everywhere, but in Russia in particular.
China, by contrast, is not seeking to impose any ideological demands on the Russians. She shares their distaste for the U.S. quest for hegemony and has complementary economic interests. The issue of China’s increasing de facto dominance in the partnership is not considered a major problem. Even Beijing’s rising clout in the formerly Russian-dominated Central Asia and the allegations of creeping Chinese colonization of the Russian Far East (RFE) are seen in Moscow as secondary issues compared to the perception of a real and present existential threat posed by NATO’s eastward expansion, by Western penetration of the former Soviet space—strikingly embodied in the Maidan coup—and by the apparent ultimate objective of regime-change in the Kremlin, which the former U.S. Ambassador in Moscow Michael McFaul strikingly described as “de-Putinization of Russa.”
While the theme of growing Chinese presence in the Russian Far East (6 million people, under one person per sq. km.) touches a raw nerve among many Russians, who fear it in the context of the huge and growing economic and population imbalance between the two Eurasian giants, this does not affect policymaking at the highest level. Privately, officials point out that China has enormous underdeveloped and thinly inhabited lands of its own. Settling additional millions of the Han in the northwestern privince of Sinkyang (the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region)—and thus outnumbering the often restive local Muslims—certainly takes precedence in Beijing’s strategic planning.
As for Central Asia, it seems that Russian policymakers consider the current balance of forces mutually advantageous. Chinese capital and technology boost the region’s economic prosperity and therefore political stability, which Russia can no longer provide by herself. Chinese politicians do not want to foment political unrest, and both sides seem content to work together in building a Chinese-Russian condominium between the Chinese-Tajik and Chinese-Kyrgyz borders in the east and the Caspian Sea in the west.
Russian decision-makers see no alternative to the Chinese bond. Bilateral relations have been accompanied by the development of a multilateral institutional framework, starting with the Shanghai Five (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) in 1996, and the founding of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation five years later. It is possible that a billion and a half Chinese will find Russia’s vast, de facto unpopulated, resource rich spaces between the Urals and the Pacific irresistibly alluring at some future date. That possibility will not influence either side’s grand-strategic calculus, however, for decades to come.
Implications for the U.S.
The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, presented almost exactly two years ago, envisages aggressive measures to counter Russia and China and instructs the military to refocus on Cold-War-style competition with them. It reflected the National Security Strategy unveiled in December 2017, which asserted that, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”
In reality, away from the groupthink inside the Beltway, America’s confrontation with China and Russia, which would entail the risk of war, is both unnecessary and avoidable. The “challenge” America faces from them is entirely dependent on the definition of her interests. In other words, it is in the eye of the beholder. The challenge of China and Russia to the U.S. is routinely misrepresented as far graver than it is. This is primarily due to the tendency of the foreign policy community and its corporate abettors to reject any traditionally structured hierarchy of U.S. interests.
It is unlikely that the U.S. could pursue a strategy based on improving its relations with Moscow without changing the position on Ukraine, NATO expansion, sanctions, etc. Reexamination of those positions is intrinsically desirable, however, regardless of other outcomes. Russia’s lingering sense of insecurity vis-à-vis China, especially in view of their growing power asymmetry, demographics, and the colonization of the RFE, is overshadowed by the perception of American malevolence. The unease with China could become more visible if Moscow’s perception of a sustained challenge from the West were to be diminished.
It would be in the American interest, as well as that of Russia and Europe, for a genuine reset vis-à-vis Moscow. Only then the existential challenge common to all of them—that of resurgent jihad, of Europe’s demographic crisis and of the pan-Western moral and cultural decline—could be properly addressed.
Source: Chronicles Magazine