Toward the end of World War II, the godfather of geopolitics, Nicholas Spykman, offered his famous analysis that was to become a rule of thumb for many strategists ever since: Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia, and who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world. In this ‘Asian Century’, Eurasia is dismissed as having lost its important after the Cold War. But China is rediscovering the importance of Central Asia and is hoping that this could lead to the geopolitical reorganization of ‘Asia’ itself.
There are two proud itinerant traditions in Chinese history that did much to extend the reach of its civilization, the trade and tributary system. The first is the seafaring one best exemplified by Admiral Zheng He’s leading the Ming dynasty’s immense Armada of hundreds of vessels on seven epic voyages that went as far as Indonesia, India, Africa and even Arabia some six hundred years ago.
The second is China’s significant role in the development of the land-based Old Silk Road which connected East, South and West Asia with Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. At its peak, the Silk Road ran for 7,000 miles and served as an established route for traders, missionaries and soldiers across Eurasia for over 3,000 years.
When we view modern China, it is Admiral He’s seafaring tradition that we warily respect and perhaps fear. After all, the West primarily views the geostrategic significance of ‘Asia’ as a maritime continent—as it has been since World War Two. China has the most ambitious and fastest growing submarine and ship building program in the world; while possession of an operational aircraft carrier is still the ultimate symbol of military power.
China’s emphasis on extended its influence in East and Southeast Asia—especially through its maritime presence—is predictable. After all, it imports most of its energy needs and over four-fifths of these sail through the US-patrolled Malacca Straits. But China remains at a huge disadvantage to its east and southeast by virtue of its maritime encirclement by the US and its network of littoral allies and partners. Its great strategic vulnerability is reliance on energy imports that is received via ships. The current advantage lies with America and its allies for precisely this reason.
But although geography is permanent, geo-strategy is not. China is seeking to change the geostrategic parameters of the existing game for influence in Asia and this is where its second great itinerant tradition—through the Old Silk Road—comes in.
For most geo-strategists, Central Asia is mostly irrelevant because the region lacks individual and collective clout and is characterized by an apparent strategic emptiness. When China emerged from isolation, the geostrategic organization of littoral Asia had already been in place for decades. But this ‘strategic emptiness’ in Central Asia presents new opportunities for China to rebuild its own influence and to be creative.
While attention is focused on the naval rivalry simmering in East and Southeast Asia, China has been using a ‘New Silk Road’ strategy that it hopes will reshape geo-strategy in Asia.
First, it is attempting to build its own ‘hub-and spokes’ system in the region although it is still early days. Bear in mind that through the multi-lateral organization of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia is in practice building strategic, economic and diplomatic relationships with China rather than separate ones with each other.
Second, Old Silk Road routes offer China the prospect of growing relief from reliance on sea-based energy imports leaving the Strait of Hormuz (22 miles wide and patrolled by the US Fifth Fleet) and the Malacca Straits (1.6 miles wide and patrolled by the US Seventh Fleet.) For example, there are pipelines linking Kazakhstan (with 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves) to Chinese refineries. There are gas pipelines stretching from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and ending in China. Just like the Old Silk Road, plans to develop pipelines from the port of Gwadar in Pakistan having successfully negotiated ‘sovereign guarantees to the port’s facilities with Islamabad.’ It is proposed that these pipelines would wind its way all the way to Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province.
Third, if Central Asia experiences a new economic renaissance via energy resources, Beijing has plans to be the future hub between Central Asian states and those in East and Southeast Asia just as states like Japan and Singapore traditionally existed as the key pillars of influence of a maritime based Asia.
There are inherent limitations to even the best laid plans. For example, an Afghanistan leaning toward the US and India would seriously compromise proposed gas pipelines stretching from Gwadar through Afghanistan and into Turkmenistan. Even if the Kazakhstan-China pipeline operates at full capacity, more than half of China’s oil needs will still come from the Middle East. When it comes to geostrategic reconstruction, India is making its own attempts to become an Asian rather than just a South Asian great power.
Even so, as far as China is concerned, broadening the geostrategic construction of ‘Asia’ to include Central Asia makes sense. By creating a second, land-based center of strategic importance, it is well placed to dilute the traditional geostrategic order based on control of the seas in Asia. Despite some distance to go in Beijing realizing these plans, current strategists would do well to re-read their Spykman.