China rising: what would Mackinder do?

Will China follow the course Mackinder plotted in relation to Tsarist Russia, turning inward once maritime expansion is checked?
Andy Yee
6 August 2010

In a lecture in 1904, British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder predicted how the Russo-Japanese War would have its effects fed back to Europe. With its ambitions in the Far East thwarted, Russia renewed its interests in the Turkish straits and the Balkans, putting it into a collision course with the Austro-Hungarian empire and Germany. This further heightened the strategic tensions already building up in Europe, which would finally explode into the Great War of 1914. To understand the current rising maritime tensions in East Asia, current geo-strategists would do well to re-read Mackinder.

At the Asean Regional Forum on 23 July US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the US had a ‘national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.’ This is the first time the US openly supported a multilateral approach to the South China Sea dispute, representing a major diplomatic challenge to China, which has long adopted a ‘divide and conquer’ approach of dealing with rivalling Asean claimant states on a bilateral basis. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reportedly responded to the US provocation with a strong and emotional statement.

Nor is the situation in the Yellow and East China Seas any better. At the end of July, the US and South Korea began a major military exercise in the Sea of Japan, including the 97,000-ton George Washington aircraft carrier. Less high-profile but nevertheless significant, Japan unilaterally extended the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a little island in the East China Sea named Yonaguni on 26 June without consulting the Taiwanese authority. This would facilitate Japan’s deployment of significant fire power on Yonaguni, and monitoring of the disputed Diaoyu Islands and even the Chinese oilfields in the Xihu depression.

The US is a predominately maritime power. Isolated and protected by two oceans, the strategic threat of the US comes from the emergence of a land hegemon dominating the Eurasian landmass. During the Second World War, that threat came from Germany and Japan, which controlled either end of Eurasia. In the Cold War, that threat was the Soviet Union. The defeats of these powers crucially depended on America’s forward deployment and support to friendly regimes.

Today, China is perceived as the rising challenger. By itself, China is a self-sufficient continental land power, occupying the eastern edge of the Eurasian landmass. China borders on fifteen countries and has the longest land frontiers in the world. But what’s unique about China is that it also has an 18,000-km coastline, bordering the Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea. In other words, China is both a land and maritime power.

Historically, China could fulfil its maritime ambitions only if certain favourable conditions existed. First, China’s land frontiers had to be secure and free from the constant threats of armed nomads. Second, there had to be political interests in maritime expansions. Third, returns had to be high enough to sustain the costs involved. China turned away from the sea due to the lack of one condition or another.

In the Yuan dynasty, China was part of the vast Mongol empire which spanned the Eurasia landmass. Without the problems of border security, the Mongols showed a great interest in developing maritime power. Unfortunately for them, their major invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 ultimately failed. Amphibious attacks on peninsular southeast Asia and the distant island of Java also turned out to be costly but ineffective battles.

At the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), China, in pursuit of treasures and vassals, despatched formidable voyages into maritime southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, sailing as far as the middle east. The legendary seven great ocean expeditions of Zheng He symbolised China’s maritime power during this period. China's maritime periphery extended as far as the Indian Ocean, with tributary states stretching from Sulu, Brunei, Malacca, Samudra, to Ceylon, just to name a few.

However, these tributes often paid for opportunistic reasons rather than as a serious gesture of allegiance, and many only paid once, as a result of Zheng He’s expeditions. These voyages were subsequently terminated because of the high costs and low returns. Constant threats from armed barbarians at the borders further diminished Ming dynasty’s maritime ambitions. In 1525, an imperial edict ordered the destruction of all ocean-going vessels, ending China’s nascent push into the sea. The subsequent Qing dynasty (1644-1911) showed little interest in maritime power, a strategic mistake which would become apparent in the ‘century of humiliation’ beginning from the 1840s when the self-contained civilisation was forced open by western maritime powers.

Today’s China seems to resemble the conditions at the beginning of the Ming dynasty. First, China’s land borders are largely secure. It now exerts strong, if draconian, control over the buffer regions of Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. The demarcation of its land border with Vietnam in December 2008 signifies that China has settled border disputes with twelve of its neighbours, leaving only India and Bhutan.

With regards to these two countries, China generally enjoys the geographical advantages of the Himalayas, making attack by China easier and defence simpler. What tips the balance further to China’s favour is its pace in developing military infrastructure at the border. India views China’s all-weather railway to Tibet, which includes the world’s highest tunnel at 16,000 feet, with suspicion. Belatedly, India started a project in June 2010 to build a tunnel to bypass the deadly Rohtang Pass on its side – decades after it was first proposed.

Second, China has strong political incentives in developing maritime power. Since the economic reform and opening of 1978, China has become increasingly dependent on natural resources imports and foreign export markets for its rapid economic growth. China’s sea lanes of communications and supplies are under US control. While one could argue that the US does not have the intent to disrupt China’s overseas interest, given their close economic interdependence, a nation’s security cannot be based on the mercy of another. This concern is expressed as the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ by President Hu Jintao in November 2003 – over four-fifths of China’s energy needs sail through the US-patrolled Malacca Straits.

What now remains uncertain is at what costs China is prepared to confront with the US in the maritime arena. If the moves in recent weeks demonstrate that the US has not abandoned the principle of forward deployment, its recent joining of the East Asia Summit further shows that it intends to be at the centre of Asian institution-building, in order to counterbalance the threats posed by a rising power in Eurasia. At first glance, China is quick to symbolically retaliate. At the end of July, it staged live-fire exercises in the South China Sea. Its artillery forces also staged an exercise on the east coast at the same time.

However, it remains a fact that China lacks far behind the US, and its ally Japan, in maritime projection capabilities. China also has to carefully manage the costs of a fully fledged arms race in Asia. In response to China’s acquisitions of submarines, Japan signalled last week its intention to increase the size of its own fleet. China is yet to reach a decision on whether to counter this strategic imbalance at sea – on one hand, developing maritime capabilities will drain China’s limited resources away from land forces, draw unwelcome attention and even fuel a regional naval arms race; on the other hand, China cannot rely on the goodwill of the US in guaranteeing access to supply and trade routes.

In light of recent developments, it is time to appraise seriously whether China would turn away from the sea, and choose to vent its strategic interests inland, just as Russia chose to re-focus on Europe following its defeat in the Far East by Japan in 1904. In fact, China’s ‘New Silk Road’ strategy has been developing for some time. China is building strategic and economic relationships with Russia and Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Gas pipes are stretching from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Xinjiang. Further afield, pipelines are also planned from the port of Gwadar in Pakistan through central Asia to China.

In the meantime, the banking industry is speculating a prospering $2.8-trillion Asian-focused network of trade routes. HSBC’s Stephen King predicts that the relationship between emerging markets will strengthen and forecast that they will grow about three times faster than rich nations this year and the next. Last year, Royal Bank of Scotland’s Chief China Economist Ben Simpfendorfer published the book The New Silk Road: How a Rising Arab World is Turning Away from the West and Rediscovering China, in which it is said that trade ties between China and middle east alone make for a modern Silk Road.

Of course, the completion of China’s new Silk Road into central Asia, the middle east and Europe is far from assured. The ‘reset’ of US-Russian relations and the OSCE’s involvement in central Asian affairs all represent sources of strategic competition. But one thing that is certain is that China will not miss any opportunities to revive the Silk Road, as shown by Cosco’s bold bid for struggling Greece’s premier port of Piraeus last month. Mackinder’s geopolitical concept of an expansionist Heartland power probing the weak spots of the surrounding inner crescent (a notion expanded upon in Spykman's theory of the Rimland), and the Tsarist tactic of suddenly switching the initiative from one sector of its periphery to another might provide insights into how China might switch its strategic focus from its maritime periphery to the heartland of Eurasia.

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