Claremont Institute on June 12, 2013, published an article by professor Colin Dueck on “Geography and World Politics”. Mackinder in his book of 1919, Dueck wrote, appears to have been prophetic, in its prediction of a long-term power shift from West to East, reversing the trend of previous centuries. Excerpts below:
During most of the modern era, Europe was at the center of international politics, with the world’s most capable militaries, most dynamic economies, and most assertive foreign policies. As Brendan Simms shows in Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy (2013), the focus of great power competition from the early modern era well into the 20th century was ultimately the Holy Roman Empire and its successor states.
Even during the Cold War, when Rimland nations in Western Europe were finally overshadowed by the actions of external superpowers, the European continent—particularly Germany—remained the supreme geopolitical prize for which those superpowers contended. The end of the Cold War was taken by many liberal dreamers to mean the end of geopolitics. But in reality, it merely introduced a new distribution and ranking of great powers, characterized by a predominant America, a resentful Russia, a strategically incoherent European Union, and a rising set of Asian nations.
As the Chinese economy has grown rapidly, allowing them to build up and modernize their armed forces, there has been a massive shift in relative economic and military capabilities from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The chief focus of international great power competition is now along the eastern rather than the western end of Spykman’s Rimland.
In geopolitical terms, China is not a Heartland but a Rimland power. That is to say, it is accessible by sea and land, with security concerns in both directions. The collapse of the Soviet Union represented a windfall for China, reducing the threat from the north. Starting in the 1990s, Beijing also resolved many of its border disputes with neighboring countries. This has sometimes been taken as an indication that China has few aggressive intentions. But in fact the resolution and security of China’s vast land frontier—an exceptional achievement, by historical standards—allows Beijing to be more assertive and expansionist at sea.
[Comment: Due to the large population of China the question of the borders in the north (to Russia) could in the future be a grave geopolitical problem. This year’s extensive Russian military exercises in Siberia may be a reminder to China that Russia is prepared to defend Siberia militarily.]
In recent years, aware of America’s preoccupations with economic recession and Mideast terrorism, China has begun throwing its weight around in the South and East China Seas, triggering a series of dangerous maritime incidents with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as with U.S. surveillance ships. At the same time, China has built up and modernized its navy, both to lend greater weight to its diplomatic assertions in the region and to protect its extensive and growing merchant marine. As James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara detail in their very useful book, Red Star over the Pacific(2010), numerous Chinese naval strategists explicitly invoke Admiral Mahan and his concept of sea command.
China’s practical goal appears to be command over the South China Sea. Admittedly, the Chinese navy—the People’s Liberation Army Navy, as it is called—is still not comparable to the U.S. Navy, but it doesn’t have to be.
The purpose of the Chinese naval buildup is not to go looking for war with the United States, but to deter the U.S. from acting in the region, notably in defense of Taiwan. Securing control of Taiwan would constitute not only a sweeping national accomplishment for the Chinese Communist Party, but a dramatic improvement in China’s geopolitical situation at sea. What Chinese strategists call the “first island chain,” stretching from Japan to Malaysia, would then be breached. Beyond that, the Chinese themselves may not know how they plan to use their newfound sea power. But history suggests they will continue to define their maritime interests more expansively as they acquire greater and greater maritime capabilities.