29 May 2021

Look to Classical Geopolitics to Understand China’s Challenge

By Francis P. Sempa

Winston Churchill once remarked that Soviet Russia was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” China today should pose no such problem for Western prognosticators. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have made it clear that their goals are to replace the United States as the world's leading power and replace today's "liberal" world order with one based on their autocratic system. And they are attempting to achieve those goals by extending their influence and attaining effective political control of as much of Eurasia-Africa as possible.

Western strategists and statesmen need to become acquainted or reacquainted with classical geopolitics to understand the challenge that confronts us. To start with, they should read Sir Halford Mackinder’s 1904 paper “The Geographical Pivot of History” and his 1919 book Democratic Ideals and Reality. Mackinder viewed the Eurasian-African landmass as the “World-Island” that combined unmatchable human and natural resources and potential insularity for a great power or alliance of powers that controlled its key regions. Mackinder warned that a great Eurasian power or alliance of powers could use the vast resources of the World-Island to build such a powerful navy that it could become the world’s most powerful land and sea power, emulating Ancient Rome’s effective control of the Mediterranean Sea and its surrounding lands. Today, add into that equation air, space, and cyber power to fully understand the nature of China’s challenge. In fact, a recently published novel of a future war between China and the United States, written by a former Marine/special operations commander who served several combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and a retired American admiral, emphasizes the danger of China's growing cyberwar capabilities

After reading Mackinder, Western observers should delve into Nicholas Spykman’s two masterpieces: America’s Strategy in World Politics (1942) and The Geography of the Peace (1944). Spykman, like Mackinder, viewed Eurasia as the world’s dominant landmass and warned U.S. policymakers to prevent any Eurasian-based power from controlling the key power centers of the continent—what he called the Rimland (Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia). Spykman believed that whatever power controlled the Rimland of Eurasia controlled the destinies of the world. Spykman reminded his countrymen that America’s security depended on a balance of power on the Eurasian landmass.

Last but not least, Western policymakers should consult the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, especially his book The Problem of Asia (1901). Mahan, like Mackinder and Spykman, understood the centrality of Eurasia to global politics. Mahan believed that America's greatness was tied to its command of the sea. He foresaw that the United States—effectively a continental-sized island—would overtake Great Britain as the world's leading maritime power and become the "holder" of the Eurasian balance of power. Today, it is American sea power—what Mahan called her “command of the sea”—that undergirds the liberal world order that China seeks to replace.

China’s military policy and foreign policy manifest an understanding of classical geopolitics, and their military strategists have invoked Mackinder and Mahan. China’s Belt and Road Initiative involves extending Chinese economic and political influence across Central Asia into Europe and Africa and simultaneously using its growing naval power to control the East and South China Seas, the Indian Ocean, and the melting Arctic Ocean. This is China's attempt to extend its influence throughout the World-Island.

China’s strategic alliance with Russia presents the same geopolitical nightmare as the Sino-Soviet bloc of the early 1950s did, which caused Washington’s policymakers to adopt the advice of NSC-68—which warned about hostile control of the Eurasian landmass. The threat now, however, is even greater because China’s economic power is greater than the Soviet Union’s ever was, and there is no ideological baggage to cause a rift in today’s Sino-Russian alliance as there was in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, China and Russia have moved closer to Iran, and China is courting the Saudis to increase their influence in the Middle East.

There is no sense that the Biden Administration understands any of this. At the recent meeting between Biden national security officials and their Chinese counterparts in Alaska, U.S. officials attempted to scold China for its human rights violations only to have their Chinese counterparts turn the tables on them by invoking Democratic Party talking points on America’s “systemic racism.” Biden did meet with Japan’s Prime Minister, and high-level defense officials of both countries expressed concern over China’s military exercises near Taiwan. But Biden also imposed sanctions on Russia and called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer,” neither of which helps to drive a political wedge between the two giant Eurasian powers—which is what we should be doing.

The Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and now the Biden approach of engagement/competition with China has been and is a failure. U.S. engagement has done little more than fuel China's economic and military growth as Wall Street, and U.S. capitalists confirm Lenin's prediction that the capitalists would sell the communists the rope with which the communists would hang the capitalists. President Trump and his national security team understood this. They had gradually shifted U.S. policy away from engagement and in the direction of containment. Trump had advisers, such as former Secretary of state Mike Pompeo, deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, and special adviser Michael Pillsbury (author of The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower), who understood the nature of China’s geopolitical challenge.

What would a Chinese-led world order look like? The CCP controls a repressive surveillance police state that imposes “social credits” on its citizenry, enforces an information “firewall” to censor anything it deems dangerous to its continued rule, stamps out freedom in Hong Kong, commits genocide against the Uyghurs, and threatens to forcibly annex Taiwan. If we fail to meet China’s geopolitical challenge, the world, in Winston Churchill’s memorable words, “will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

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