South China Sea: The
Image Credit: U.S. Navy (Flickr)

South China Sea: The "Heartsea"?


Last March retired U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Patrick Walsh gave an interviewwithAsahiShimbun in which he likened the South China Sea to a new “strategic pivot”—nooooo, not the pivot word again!—in the Asia-Pacific region. Admiral Walsh summoned up the ghost of land-power theorist SirHalfordMackinder to illustrate his analogy. Mackinder was a founding father of geopolitics and a foil for Alfred Thayer Mahan. In an indirect riposte to Mahan’s thesis that command of the sea was a decisive force in history, Mackinder summarizedhisargument (in 1919) thus: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

Bracing stuff. Eurasia was the World-Island in Mackinder’s lexicon, while the Heartland lay in Central Asia. It was the “geographicpivotofhistory,” to borrow the title of his famous 1904 essay. The great power that held sway over the region could exploit its “interiorlines,” along with rapid advances in land transportation—mainly railroads—to move forces about more nimbly than navies could around the periphery. Their geographic positions situated Russia and Germany for struggle over the Heartland. Mackinder thus foreshadowed the bloodlettings of the world wars.

Walsh’s thesis is intriguing. Some thoughts about the geopolitics of Southeast Asia, though. Is the South China Sea really a watery Heartland (Heartsea?) from which a dominant power can rule the rule the World-Ocean—presumably the combined Pacific and Indian oceans—and thence the world? This seems a bit much. It certainly occupies a central position at the juncture between the two oceans. The power that commanded South China Sea waters and skies, and could exclude rivals, would enjoy the advantage of easy, relatively economical strategic mobility. It could move forces to and fro from southeast to northeast, or into the broad Pacific. Thus far the analogy to the Heartland holds up. Interior lines work.

On the other hand, there exists an exterior line of communication by which mariners and airmen can bypass the South China Sea. Ships and planes could pass between northern Australia and the Indonesian archipelago, avoiding a central power that ruled Southeast Asia. It would have been far harder to circumvent Mackinder’s Heartland, bounded as it was by the Himalayas and Hindu Kush to the south. There’s also the small problem that the power that commanded the Heartland—Russia, then the Soviet Union—ended up ruling neither all of Eurasia nor the world. Central Asia was a central position, but it proved harder than Mackinder foresaw to harness it effectively. In this sense the South China Sea, which is heavily populated, rich in resources and commerce, and home to well-trafficked shipping routes, may actually be a better Heartland than the arid one that captured Mackinder’s imagination.

Admiral Walsh may have conjured up Mackinder to make a point about how the Heartland thesis influenced strategists a century ago. Those who subscribed to the idea of a geographic pivot were apt to attach inordinate value to controlling Central Asia. In that sense the age of Mackinder offers a cautionary tale for today. China is presumably cast in the role of Russia when you transpose the Heartland thesis to Southeast Asia. Beijing certainly places enormous value on its “indisputable” claims to regional islands and waters. But there’s no Germany nearby to act as a counterweight to an aspiring hegemon. Nor does a faraway great power—a Great Britain—occupy an India, adjacent to the Heartland, from which it can contend for mastery of the geographic pivot. The United States’ strategic position in Southeast Asia cannot begin to approximate that held by British India a century ago.

A parting note on the Heartsea thesis. The South China Sea is not the first expanse for which pundits have advanced extravagant claims. Maritime enthusiasts on the subcontinent are fond of quoting an apocryphal passage from Mahan, to the effect that whoever commands the Indian Ocean will rule the world in the 21st century. If not just India but all powers with interests in South Asia embraced that logic, the region could become a crucible for conflict—whether the logic is sound or not. Policymakers, strategists, and ordinary citizens must think carefully before accepting the seductive theories put forward by a Mackinder or Mahan. Caveat emptor.

David Lloyd-Jones
September 4, 2013 at 20:02

Barney Rubel writes ", if you go through the simple drill of adding up the numbers in categories such as population, arable land, available fresh water, GDP and a couple of others, sorting them into two columns, one having China and nations that it could consider allies (Pakistan and North Korea?) and the other having the US and nations that could be considered friendly (in a peacetime competition), you find that China is overwhelmed.  "

This is certainly true.  On the other hand if you put China, the US, and their allies in one column and their potential enemies, e.g. North Korea — and Antigua can certainly be considered an economic enemy of Macau and of Nevada — then you  find North Korea and Antigua in the losing column.

Since any policy which puts China and the US on opposite sides is on its face ridiculous, this latter balance is more relevant than Rubel's.


August 25, 2012 at 21:38

@Vic "errantis voluntas nulla est", the Chinese in all due respect have made a mistake in claiming the entire South China Sea, it is eronous and does not help the bilateral relationship of our two countries.

Hence, the Philippine stand being overpowered by Beijing in terms of Economic and Military Power is seeking a legal remedy hence trying to get the issue to the ICJ. Wherein, the Economic and Military Supremacy of Beijing would be mitigated at best. 

The Philippine Claim and the ICJ is "indivisibiliter ac inseparabiliter".
Oh, and God be with you also! Vox Populi, Vox Dei.

filipino defender
August 23, 2012 at 23:15

you people godfather please don't make laugh to jokes that are not funny our claims are base on international law your claims are laughable at best

Barney Rubel
August 23, 2012 at 17:55

Jim Holmes' final line is worth repeating: "Caveat emptor."  Any grand theory is bound to leave out critical variables, so exceptions in practice will make swiss cheese of it.  Having said that, to make sense of a complex world, we still need to engage in some analysis and reductionism.  In my view, Mackinder's theory of the potential dominance of the heartland was based on a rather simple underlying equation: industrial power = naval power.  A united Eurasia seemed to him to have more industrial potential than anywhere else, thus if it could be "organized" (to use his term), its industrial power would produce a navy that would command the seas.  As it has thus far turned out, Eurasia has not been unified and the aggregate industrial power of the "periphery" has out-gunned that of the Heartland.  
There is an alternate equation that one could concoct that is orthogonal to Mackinder's; movement trumps position.  Over the course of the last several centuries, this equation seems to have more descriptive power.  In order to have movement and mobility on a global scale, one must have command of the sea.  If one does, then one enjoys the following strategic benefits: sanctuary for one's war economy, credible and effective contact with allies (including countervailing continental powers), and an array of strategic lines of operations from which one might choose.  The major cases of the Napoleonic Wars, World War II and the Cold War all seem to fit.  World War I can also fit, but the draw at Jutland and the failure at Gallipoli  substantially reduced the Allies of the third benefit – alternate strategic avenues of approach, but the first two benefits told in the end.  In this formulation, it is the global exterior position that is dominant (although I am not comfortable with the deterministic sound of that).
China is certainly a manufacturing giant, and several of the world's key container hubs are on its coast.  Nonetheless, if you go through the simple drill of adding up the numbers in categories such as population, arable land, available fresh water, GDP and a couple of others, sorting them into two columns, one having China and nations that it could consider allies (Pakistan and North Korea?) and the other having the US and nations that could be considered friendly (in a peacetime competition), you find that China is overwhelmed.  The key is that there is a global system that has been stitched together after WWII, and which is now highly interdependent economically.  As France, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union all found out, you might be strong, but you can't fight City Hall.
I think Admiral Greenert has it right when he calls the South China Sea a "strategic maritime crossroads."  The term "Heartsea" is a bit oxymoronic, since it seems to imply that positions at sea are critical, but the sea, to channel both Mahan and Corbett, is about communications and movement.  What is important about the SCS is not allowing China to choke off maritime communications by territorializing it.  This is what is worth fighting for.  The subordinate question would be how should we fight for it if it came to that.  See my article on command of the sea in the Autumn 2012 NWC Review at–An-Old-Concept-Surfaces-in-a-N . 

August 23, 2012 at 05:15

… and my son, dominus vobiscum

August 23, 2012 at 05:09

You better talk to the Asian Godfather to fix up your claim.  God bless.

August 23, 2012 at 05:02

Yes, the Strait of Malacca is the main route.  Indonesia pirates are active in this area.  It can be a choke point which the Chinese fear the US may apply.  Pakistan is crucial to China as a land passage to the oil from the Middle East.  In the heydays of British Empire, Singapore, which lies at a tip connecting the Malacca Straits to SCS, was a vital point for the British navy and trading firms.
The South China Sea is what the US is using to hype against China.  The US is using this area to antagonize China; it's power politics.  

August 23, 2012 at 03:32

So what's your take?

August 22, 2012 at 22:22

The red beard military teacher spoke again: 'The pundits are back with more warships by 2020'.

August 22, 2012 at 15:15

I'm not sure you really get what empiricism is here…

filipino defender
August 22, 2012 at 14:28

Ya your right we do look it deferently than the chinese who claims everything and why you people would not take it to the UN to be solve why should we believe you and your government?

August 22, 2012 at 12:39

 I empathise with some of your views. Would like to chat some time.

August 22, 2012 at 01:58

That passage between Australia and the Indonesian archipelago is the Torres Strait. It is 10.5 meters at its deepest, but most of it is much shallower than that. It is thick with islands and shallow reefs and a compliated tidal pattern. These days, pilotage is mandatory through the strait. For shipping between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it's not a good route.
This doesn't dent your main thesis any. "The power that commanded South China Sea waters and skies, and could exclude rivals…" would be quite a power. The South China Sea is big, I think bigger than most people seem to realize. It wouldn't be easy to blockade. I think to find the real bottleneck in the region, we need look no further than Indonesia. That country borders every useful waterway between the two oceans. Control the South China Seas and control the world? No. Control Indonesia and control the world? Yeah, maybe.

August 21, 2012 at 22:19

If that is the case, why do states develop nuclear weapons?  Technology changes, view changes.  Nothing is static.  One should not be held hostage by the past.

August 21, 2012 at 22:16

Simply renaming "South China Sea" to "West Philippine Sea" will do no help in pushing Philippines' claim.  You are only confusing people, as there is a "Philippine Sea" which is to the east of the Philippines.  Beijing simply states that it has core interests in the South China Sea; you can rate all you want. Philippine is an extremely small player in world trade.  Its main income is from its overseas workers remitting foreign exchange back to the Philippines.  Other countries do look at SCS differently.

August 21, 2012 at 15:57

The state with the strongest naval power will be the most powerful in the world. Mackinder's heartland geopolitics are rubbish, it's naval power that truly counts. This can be tested empirically. The state that controlled the eurasian heartland vs the state with the strongest navy. Who won? Who lost?

Leonard R.
August 21, 2012 at 13:42

The West Philippine Sea or East Sea (that area of water between Hainan, Malaysia, Manila and Danang), may be over-rated in importance by Beijing. PRC ship traffic could be severely restricted by its enemies, without even using that body of water. 
That area may be more strategic to the US than to the PRC. And FWIW, the apocryphal quote attributed to Mahan about the Indian Ocean seems prescient to me.  But the importance of the Indian Ocean could change if energy routes are altered by technological developments, like the fracking revolution in North America for example.

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