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China’s Rise Is a Threat the US Has Faced for a Century

China’s Rise Is a Threat the US Has Faced for a Century

Monday, 25 October, 2021 - 05:15
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

The US-China rivalry can be seen through many lenses. It is, as President Joe Biden has said, a competition between democracy and autocracy. It is a contest between an established power and the upstart seeking to claim its place. It is a race to master advanced technologies that will drive economic growth and military strength in the 21st century.

But most fundamentally, the rivalry is the latest chapter in the central story of modern geopolitics — the clash between Eurasian empires that seek to control the world’s strategic “heartland” and the maritime powers that seek to thwart those designs.

The terminology comes from British geographer Halford Mackinder, who — in a brilliant lecture delivered in 1904, and then in updates in 1919 and 1943 — made two basic arguments about the course of global affairs.

First, technological progress, symbolized by the completion of railroads spanning Russia’s vast territory, had made it possible for strong, well-organized states to project power across the vast Eurasian landmass. Second, the end of the age of exploration and imperial expansion had eliminated the safety valves that had previously dissipated great-power tensions by directing them outward.

The coming era would thus feature intense, violent collisions. Ambitious Eurasian states would try to expand, militarily or otherwise, across that supercontinent and the vital industrial “crescent” — made up principally of Western Europe and East Asia — on its flanks. If successful, they might use that position to control the adjacent oceans, as well. This meant, Mackinder warned, that Eurasian aggrandizement must be opposed by the world’s great sea powers, especially the US and UK, as well as whatever threatened the continental allies they could find.

Mackinder equivocated, over time, about whether Germany or Russia was the primary threat. His intellectual interlocutors, such as Yale University’s Nicholas Spykman, deemed it more likely that countries located in the Eurasian “rimlands” — Spykman’s renaming of Mackinder’s crescent — would overawe the heartland than vice versa.

But nuances aside, the main geopolitical events of the 20th century — World War I, World War II and the Cold War — were indeed contests between aspiring Eurasian hegemons and countervailing alliances led by overseas powers. Indeed, Mackinder’s intellectual heirs ran US policy: As the historian John Lewis Gaddis and I pointed out in a recent essay, the golden rule of American statecraft for at least a century has been to prevent hostile states from using Eurasian primacy as a springboard to global empire.

The US-China competition should be seen as the next go-around. China’s naval buildup and maritime coercion are meant to make it pre-eminent in the East Asia and its oceanic approaches. Meanwhile, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a tangle of infrastructure projects, trade deals and geo-economic endeavors reaching from Southeast Asia to Europe, are intended to pacify China’s continental frontiers and spread its influence across the world’s largest landmass.

“Access to Eurasia’s resources, markets and ports,” writes my former Johns Hopkins colleague Daniel Markey, “could transform China from an East Asian power to a global superpower.” These projects could be mutually reinforcing: If China eliminates threats on one periphery, whether maritime or territorial, it can then devote greater attention to the other.

All this is a familiar challenge for Washington: As early as 2002, Defense Department official Andrew Marshall channeled Mackinder in writing that America must wage a long competition with China “for influence and position within the Eurasian continent and the Pacific Rimland.” The US has responded by strengthening barriers to China’s Pacific expansion — most recently, the Aukus partnership with Australia and the UK, which is about far more than a contract for nuclear submarines — while seeking partnerships with powers, such as India, that can contest Beijing’s Eurasian gambit.

Why does this geopolitical backstory to the US-China competition matter? For one thing, it reminds us that China’s behavior, and its resulting rivalry with America, is more normal than we often think.

Beijing is using 21st-century tools such as fiber-optic cables and 5G telecommunications networks to influence other countries. It aims to create a high-tech authoritarianism that will be smarter and more economically efficient than anything that came before.

China hasn’t yet engaged in anything like the rampant military aggression that characterized prior Eurasian struggles. But broadly speaking, Chinese statecraft fits comfortably within the contours of contemporary global politics. There really is nothing new under the sun.

Yet reading Mackinder also reminds us that China faces long strategic odds, because bids for Eurasian primacy have usually ended in disaster. The reason is relatively simple: A hyper-powerful country located within Eurasia would pose a mortal threat to the countries around it, which gives them strong incentive to band together — and to ally with the New World superpower whose fundamental strategic interest lies in stopping any rival from attaining hegemony in the Old.

For years, China skillfully avoided this trap by building economic power while downplaying its geopolitical agenda. It quieted diplomatic and military resistance by offering real commercial gains to countries it sought to influence.

But recently, Beijing’s conduct has become brasher and more alarming. So it has begun to trigger the type of encirclement — the revival of the so-called Quad, the formation of Aukus, the hostility of countries from the Western Pacific to South Asia and beyond — Mackinder might have envisioned.

China’s Eurasian challenge isn’t surprising to those with a long historical memory. The surprise would be if Beijing managed to succeed.


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