The Obama administration has been talking about a pivot to Asia as a major policy shift, but not much has come of it, because our involvement in the Middle East is proving as sticky as ever. This is no surprise given the influence of the Israeli lobby. Meanwhile the Chinese, in terms of historic geopolitical trends, are eating our lunch.
The ancient and honorable field of studies known as geography fell out of favor in America after World war II. This was unfortunate for many reasons. One of more important ones was the classic distinction geographers drew between the Eurasian heartland and the coastal regions, dubbed the rimland. In terms of modern history the rimland was more important, and remained so as long as British naval power remained unchallenged, and even after that when its global reach was replaced by our navy. However, if you look at the totality of the human experience, the heartland has been at least as important as a fountainhead of the action. Pastoral tribes from the Central Asian steppes have repeatedly pushed outward and often subjugated their neighbors both east and west, well before navies evolved to where their masters controlled all the countries that really mattered to them.
The United States is a rimland nation, with no historical memories of serious threats from bordering societies. China, with comparable land and resources, is quite different. Mongol invasions and problems with other neighbors punctuate China’s long history. So it is natural that as the Chinese become stronger their eyes turn not just to old enemies like Japan but also to the enormous landmass that stretches to their west, lands where sea power is irrelevant all the way to the historic power centers of Europe.
After a long slumber, China is awakening, and acting in ways that reflect its historic involvement with all its neighbors, including its landlocked ones. Something like our belief in “manifest destiny” is being born governing China’s aspirations to its own west. The first phase has been consolidating their hold over the Tibetans and the Uighurs. They may not have succeeded in converting these groups to their culture but they have gotten them under their control. Now they are reaching out farther to the west and southwest to create political bonds and important physical links to the weaker nations on their borders.
Current Chinese leadership is pragmatic and its efforts to extend China’s reach to the west and south are economic rather than military. A huge recent economic aid offer to Pakistan, looking to establishing modern transportation links clear to the Indian Ocean at Gwadar, is matched in kind if not scale with help being proposed in Nepal. (According to one report they are even talking about building a tunnel under Mount Everest). All this is being accompanied by plans to create modern links from China to the former Soviet central Asian republics reincarnating the old silk route of Marco Polo fame.
If we forget about being a rimland nation for a moment and look at what China is doing along its western frontier in terms of the heartland concept, China’s current efforts emerge as a major geopolitical pivot. Forget about the Middle East for the moment, what matters in this context is Russia. Putin is going to take the emergence of the sleeping giant south of its vast and sparsely populated Siberia very seriously indeed. Should we?
Evidently not. The people that determine our foreign policy these days came after geography was abolished from most college curricula and evidently have never heard of the old heartland-rimland analyses. If they could elevate their sights they would realize that Russia is not the emerging power that needs to be balanced, it is a resurgent China that one way or another is headed toward absorbing the resources and establishing some degree of control over large chunks of the heartland. Any objective analysis of our nation’s long term strategic interests would require serious effort to shore up our own ties with Russia and ability to influence the course of events in that geographically central country.
Dream on. Hoping for a more realistic foreign policy these days is like believing in the tooth fairy. Meanwhile we have Victoria Nulands sticking their thumbs in the Russian bear’s eye over the Ukraine. We act as though we had a death wish.
We really are an exceptional nation. No other country in the world could be as stupid.