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History’s geopolitical pivot

June 10, 2018

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IN his 1904 treatise, The Geographical Pivot of History, Halford Mackinder theorised that whoever controls the Eurasian heartland — from the Volga to the Yangtze and the Himalayas to the Arctic — would control the world. Soon after, Nicolas Spyman countered with the thesis that whoever controlled Eurasia’s rim would control the heartland and the world.

Hitler’s decision to open the eastern front against the Soviet Union and the Cold War contest for control of Central and Eastern Europe were heavily influenced by these theories. The demise of the Soviet Union saw Nato move eastward as the US asserted its global dominance. America’s unipolar moment (1992-2003) began to erode after its disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Since then, power has pivoted towards the Eurasian heartland.

The most important reason for this shift is the rise of China. At no time in history has any nation brought so many people out of poverty as quickly as has China. It will soon be the world’s largest economy and the second military power. Simultaneously, Russia has risen from the ashes. It is again a military match for Nato, the dominant power in Central Asia and a critical player in the Middle East and increasingly in South Asia.

Significantly, China and Russia have established a strategic partnership, symbolised by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) whose latest summit is being held in China.

Since the US invasion of Iraq, power has pivoted towards the Eurasian heartland.

The heartland powers aim to extend their influence westward to cover the rest of Eurasia. Several European countries (Hungary, Poland, Greece, Italy, Austria) desire closer relations with Russia. Seventeen European countries have formed a group to promote economic cooperation with China under its Belt and Road Initiative (which will extend to European ports on the Atlantic)

With the heartland under Chinese and Russian control, the focus of strategic competition with the US now is the entire Eurasian Rim: southern Europe, Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia. The European pillar of the American security order is in disarray. The expansion of the European Union is frozen; the UK has exited; southern Europeans are unhappy with the single currency; Turkey is alienated from Nato and the EU; mass migration from the Middle East and Africa has revived racism and eroded European unity. The recent unilateral US trade tariffs, its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and threatened sanctions against Europeans doing business with Tehran, will further weaken the Atlantic alliance.

America’s credibility in the Middle East is on the wane. Russia has carved an important role for itself. Iran has consolidated its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Despite the defeat of the militant Islamic State group, anti-US Muslim extremism has intensified, especially after the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the virtual jettisoning of the two-state solution.

Propelled by Israel, the US seems headed towards a conflict with Iran which could engulf the entire region. Whatever the outcome, the US is likely to become further mired in the Middle East morass. Russia and China will gain by default. Indeed, given their ability to work with Tehran, Tel Aviv and Riyadh, they may be able to restore some semblance of order in the region.

The Sino-US competition in East Asia is escalating. While seeking its help to denuclearise North Korea, the US disinvited China from the annual multination Pacific Rim naval exercises (ostensibly for landing a bomber on one of its claimed South China Sea islands). At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, the US defence secretary declared the US will continue its freedom of navigation forays close to the islands and take further steps to challenge China’s maritime claims. The US intends to send a warship through the Taiwan Strait which is certain to provoke a strong Chinese reaction.

However, the aims of the Obama pivot to Asia — to build a ring of alliances around China’s periphery and exclude it from a Pacific trade partnership — are unlikely to be realised. Trump has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and no Asean member is prepared to confront China. Nor are the three other members of the US-led anti-China quad — Japan, Australia or India — prepared to do so. In the final analysis, America itself is unlikely to risk war with China, eg by blocking access to its claimed islands or encouraging Taiwan to declare independence .

The contest in South Asia is also complex. For decades, China’s strategic partnership with Pakistan has maintained a balance of power in the subcontinent. Since 2005, the US has sought to recruit India as a partner to contain China’s rising power in Asia. The South Asia policy outlined by the Trump administration seeks to maintain the US military and geopolitical presence in Afghanistan and promote an Indo-US security order in South Asia.

China and Russia’s endeavour is to prevent India’s complete military alignment with the US. India has tried to play both sides of the field. Although the US renamed its Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command to acknowledge India’s importance, Prime Minister Modi, while endorsing the freedom of navigation principle at the Shangri-La Dialogue, also underlined the importance of India’s cooperation with China.

Beijing and Moscow no doubt hope that the entry of Pakistan and India as full members of the SCO will facilitate the normalisation of their relations and draw India closer to the Sino-Russian sphere and autonomous from America. This is likely to be a long, uncertain game.

Today’s interdependent world is vastly different from Mackinder’s era of competing empires. The current geopolitical rivalry will be heavily conditioned by several global and shared challenges: unprecedented technological development, new weapons and concepts of warfare, the growing role of non-state actors, the population explosion, climate change and the manifest failure of global and regional institutions to respond to these challenges.

The shape of the new world order will depend in considerable measure on the evolution of the relationship between China and the US. Their national interests can be served more by cooperation than confrontation. Sino-US strategic confrontation could lead to instability in several regions if not a global disaster; their cooperation could accelerate trade, investment, global growth and prosperity for all peoples: in the heartland, the Eurasian Rim and beyond.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2018