Struggle For The World-Island

In 2017, Robert D. Kaplan wrote an essay describing the geopolitical eclipse of Europe by Asia in the 21st century, and what this meant for U.S. foreign policy. Though Kaplan used the provocative title, “The Return of Marco Polo’s World and the U.S. Military Response,” his analysis was grounded in geography and history. What Kaplan and others have called the Long European War of the 20th century (World Wars I and II, and the Cold War) gave rise to the beginnings of what could be a Long Asian War in which China and the United States struggle for control of the World-Island.

Kaplan described a “new strategic geography” where “Europe disappears, Eurasia coheres,” and the “interactions of globalization, technology, and geopolitics” fulfill Sir Halford Mackinder’s vision of a Eurasian-African supercontinent that he called the “World-Island” in his 1919 book Democratic Ideals and Reality. Mackinder warned that control of the World-Island meant command of the world.

Kaplan was among the first observers to see a link between China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and potential command of the World-Island. In his essay, he noted China’s attempts “to build a land bridge across Central and West Asia to Europe, and a maritime network across the Indian Ocean from East Asia to the Middle East.” Although China called the BRI “infrastructure projects” reminiscent of the medieval Silk Road, the political and geopolitical implications should have been evident from the outset of the program, which President Xi Jinping announced in September 2013.

Mackinder had written about the migrations of Asian hordes into the settled regions of the Old World, laying special emphasis on the Mongol Empire, which at its height stretched from East Asia to eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East, and from Russia to India, China, and parts of Southeast Asia. The Mongols, Mackinder noted, came the closest of all the Asian invaders to achieving effective political control of the World-Island. The two most important factors limiting the Mongol reach were insufficient manpower and technological constraints. China in the 21st century suffers from neither geopolitical weakness.

The remarkable thing about China’s BRI is how it replicates the World-Island on the map. In a fascinating article in The Diplomat entitled “How China’s Belt and Road Took Over the World,” Shannon Tiezzi shows the geographical evolution of the BRI. In 10 years, the BRI has extended its reach to 154 countries. On the Eurasian-African World-Island, only India, North Korea, Jordan, and a few nations of Western Europe have escaped China’s financial and infrastructure grasp. Indeed, the BRI extends beyond the World-Island to nations in the western and southern Pacific, Central and South America, and some islands in the Caribbean (including Cuba). Tiezzi notes that China has spent $564 billion on BRI-related projects in its 10-year history.

China is not sending armies to the nations of its BRI empire, but it is sending bankers, financiers, technocrats, engineers, and spies. Empire-building in the 21st century comes in many shapes and sizes. What beganas an economic and infrastructure initiative has gradually shifted to politics. The BRI, writes China-expert Felix Chang, “has become a key feature of Xi’s foreign policy.” The leaders in Beijing, Chang explains, have “always regarded the initiative as a way to garner political support and create new spheres of influence.” For China, Chang concludes, political aims of the BRI outweigh economic ones. The BRI was a geopolitical program from the very beginning.

Some observers of the BRI focus their analyses on the land road through Central Asia to Europe, but the maritime aspect of the BRI may be even more important. Robert Kaplan understands that more than most geopolitical thinkers. In his Marco Polo essay, Kaplan noted that “the United States is a maritime power, operating from the greatest of the island satellites of the Eurasian supercontinent.” And in the 21st century, as during the mid and late 20th century, maritime power has both naval and air components. China’s maritime Silk Road is a direct challenge to America’s maritime supremacy. It is reminiscent of Imperial Germany’s challenge to Great Britain in the years leading up to the First World War, and of Japan’s challenge to both British and American naval and air power in the western and south Pacific in the years leading up to the Second World War.

Our response, according to Kaplan, should be “to extend the concept of the Asia pivot to encompass the entire navigable rimland of Eurasia, including not only the Western Pacific but the Indian Ocean as well.” U.S. sea power, Kaplan writes, “is the compensatory answer for shaping geopolitics . . . Here is where the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan meet those of Halford Mackinder.” Mackinder, it should be noted, recognized the value of predominant sea power to island nations such as Great Britain and the United States. His great fear was that a hostile Eurasian land power (or alliance of land powers) could use the immense resources of continental Eurasia to attain maritime supremacy over the island democracies. If that happened, he wrote in 1904, “the empire of the world would then be in sight.” He even suggested that China, with its long oceanic frontage, allied to Russia could achieve dominance on land and at sea.

The immense growth of Chinese naval power and its proclaimed desire to exert control over the entire South China Sea (including reunifying with Taiwan) should be viewed in the context of the maritime component of the BRI. For it is the maritime route from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean that links Eurasia to the Middle East and Africa, just as the land component of the Silk Road links East Asia to Central Asia and to Europe. It is roads, rails, and shipping lanes that can cohere the Eurasian-African World-Island.

The first battle of the Long Asian War may be fought in the South China Sea. China’s pressure on Taiwan has increased exponentially. In a recent 24-hour period, the PLA launched 103 warplanes toward Taiwan, causing Taiwanese spokespersons to warn of escalation should the provocative and dangerous sorties continue. This comes on the heels of China’s recent expansion of its nine-dash line to ten dashes, including one located east of Taiwan. It also comes in the wake of President Biden’s remark while visiting Vietnam that the United States does not want to contain China. The struggle for the World-Island has begun.      

Francis P. Sempa writes on foreign policy and geopolitics. His Best Defense columns appear at the beginning of each month.

Authored by Francis P. Sempa via RealClear Defense,

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