"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World" —Sir Halford Mackinder, 1919
With only minor modification, these words of wisdom from one of the early geopolitical thinkers still ring true. The Heartland is once again threatened, just as it was during the World Wars and Cold War of the twentieth century.
While many in the professional American commentariat are bloviating about the current Ukraine/Crimea crisis and raising the specter of Hitler, Czechoslovakia and Munich Agreements, the more significant and longer-term challenge to the post World War II international security architecture is further east: China. Its rise and the increasing potential of more than a tactical entente with Russia should be ringing alarm bells amongst U.S. strategists.
China’s new assertiveness in the South China Sea and its “salami slicing” tactics concerning disputes over territory with neighbors, has already been causing fears in the region to heighten. Sino-Japanese tensions are also coming to a boil. With the precedent now set in Crimea, it is not at all clear that a green light for China to employ similar tactics in its hoped-for sphere of influence has not been given, no matter how unwittingly. However, the United States seems unable or unwilling to confront this increasingly plausible scenario and both its allies and competitors are taking note.
While Russian actions in Crimea are no doubt provocative and, under other circumstances, would demand a major counterbalance to avoid further possible territorial aggrandizement, the larger issue of China should be the primary focus of policy makers’ attention. Yet, instead of prioritizing geopolitical threats, the United States seems to be edging ever closer to resuming the Cold War with Russia at a time when China is quite clearly a greater threat to American interests.
Should China ever succeed in pushing the U.S. out of East Asia through its burgeoning anti-access/area denial strategy (A2/AD), America’s ability to freely trade with 60 percent of the world’s population could be held hostage to its whims. This would represent the greatest decline in American influence since its rise on the global stage at the end of the nineteenth century. This is clearly more problematic than Russian revanchism. Yet, that revanchism can metastasize into something even more pernicious to American interests if the U.S. decides to go full-bore after Russia in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis.
Russia and China are not natural partners and exchanged blows during the height of the Sino-Soviet split in 1969. In fact, this near conflagration is what allowed Nixon and Kissinger to open the door to China and institute the triangular diplomacy that would, over time, become an important component in the eventual demise of the Soviet Union along with overextension in Afghanistan, cratering oil prices, the rise of Pope John Paul II and Solidarity in Poland, general economic stagnation, and the loss of the arms race to President Reagan.
Despite this troublesome history and the not unrealistic prospect that China could pose a long-threat to Russia’s Siberian natural resources, the Bear and the Dragon seem to be finding more and more common ground. That common ground appears to be a common fear of Western (i.e. American) encirclement, Western cultural norms and Western efforts to extend hegemony across the globe. This facilitates an explanation as to why they have cooperated in the creation and expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It also explains why both Russia and China typically vote the same way on U.N. Security Council resolutions and why Russia has sold, and may well do so again, advanced weaponry to China that can eventually be used as part of its A2/AD strategy.
The more cooperation that exists between Russia and China, the more difficult it will be for the U.S. and its allies to appropriately balance either power. This is especially true given the current precarious domestic situation the U.S. confronts with a national debt of over $17 trillion, ballooning entitlements, a weak economic recovery, declining labor force participation, and a rapidly declining defense budget.
These domestic realities are proving to be a major restraint on the U.S. pursuing the kind of robust, proactive foreign policy needed to contain two major near-peer and/or outright peer competitors. The only way to do so is to employ the type of creative diplomacy that has not been seen in Washington D.C. since Richard Nixon left the White House. This analyst has long argued for a “ Reverse Nixon to China ” in order to play the Moscow card in Beijing in a way akin to how the Beijing card used to be played in Moscow.
However, this means prioritizing American national interests. This is something no administration has done since George H.W. Bush, who adroitly managed Soviet concerns over the collapse of its puppet regimes throughout Eastern Europe and the reunification Germany. Sadly, this wise statesmanship has been followed by naivety and the perception of broken promises.
President Clinton helped feed legitimate Russian security fears through NATO expansion, despite what Russia thought were assurances made to the contrary by the elder Bush, and the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis. President George W. Bush supported the “Color Revolutions” and further NATO expansion despite explicit Russian warnings of security concerns and its early support of the U.S. in the post–9/11 War on Terror. And, of course, President Obama’s vaunted “Reset” never meant pulling back from the potential of further NATO expansion, either.
Due to the failures to address legitimate Russian security interests, the U.S. fed into what now looks to be a visceral hate for the West. As this dramatically increases Russia’s estrangement from the West, China waits and recognizes the strategic gains it can have by befriending a wounded and bellicose Russia. China is attracted to the opportunity to obtain high-end weapons that can be reverse-engineered and mass-produced later, cheaper natural gas and a big distraction to the only power that could balance it in East Asia. Depending on how a new Cold War plays out, China may even be able to gain spoils in Central Asia as both American and Russian influence is ground down and China has money to invest. Indeed, it is already investing heavily throughout Central Asia.
While any entente between Russia and China will not be permanent, even a temporary relationship fully embraced at a time of relative American weakness puts Eurasia in play in a way not seen since the end of the Cold War. Cumulatively, it is hard to see how this is not the largest threat to the ability of the U.S. to secure its interests since 1991.
The U.S. must not lose sight of the bigger picture. A “Reverse Nixon to China” can still make tremendous strategic sense, but the window of opportunity to do so is closing. The U.S. should consider Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s advice to move towards something like a “Finlandization” of Ukraine. This is far from a perfect solution, and it will no doubt raise the hackles of those that seek confrontation. However, a confrontation today that results in America’s loss in East Asia tomorrow is not sound strategy. It is a delusion likely to lead to what is America’s ultimate geopolitical nightmare: a Eurasian Heartland controlled by those that oppose it.