Is China Bidding for the Heartland?

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Is China Bidding for the Heartland?

Beijing doesn’t have to choose between land and sea predominance. It could have both.

Is China Bidding for the Heartland?
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

In his 1919 masterpiece, Democratic Ideals and Reality, the great British geographer Halford Mackinder identified the northern-central core of the Eurasian landmass as the “Heartland” – a geopolitical region from which a sufficiently populated, armed and organized great power could bid for a world empire. Mackinder’s Heartland stretched from central Europe east of the Black and Baltic Seas to eastern Siberia, Mongolia, a small part of northeastern China, and included all of Central Asia. A Heartland-based power could expand in all directions and was inaccessible to sea power. Mackinder warned that a land empire that controlled the Heartland could use its vast natural resources and central geographical position to dominate Eurasia and build a powerful navy to threaten the insular powers of England, Japan, and the United States.

Most of China occupied a portion of what Mackinder called the “inner crescent,” a semicircular territory bordering the Heartland, but which had access to the sea. Mackinder advised the strategists of his day to “no longer think of Europe apart from Asia and Africa.” “The Old World,” he wrote, “has become insular, or in other words a unit, incomparably the largest geographical unit on our globe.” He called that geographical unit the “World-Island” and “Great Continent,” and warned the insular powers that they must “reckon with the possibility that a large part of the Great Continent might some day be united under a single sway, and that an invincible sea-power might be based upon it.” When 31 years later the Soviet Union in control of Eastern Europe allied itself to China (the Sino-Soviet bloc), it was no wonder that the great French writer Raymond Aron in The Century of Total War worried that “Russia has in fact nearly achieved the ‘world island’ which Mackinder considered the necessary and almost sufficient condition for universal empire.”

Consciously or not, China today has embarked on policies that raise the specter of a Eurasian-based great power striving for predominance both on land and at sea. Landward, China is using financial and transportation resources to penetrate the resource-rich lands of southeastern Russia and Central Asia, effectively constructing a modern day Silk Road to extend its reach into Central Asia and beyond. Seaward, China is combining naval power with aggressive diplomacy in an effort to dominate the marginal seas along its lengthy eastern coast and become the predominant power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes have noted that while Chinese strategists who look toward its interests in the Pacific and Indian Oceans have turned to Alfred Thayer Mahan for inspiration, their colleagues who look toward Central Asia invoke Mackinder and his geopolitical concepts. Writing in Survival, Lanxin Xiang argued for a shift in China’s strategic focus from the Pacific to Central Asia. “China,” he wrote, “needs Mackinder’s ‘heartland’” to achieve its strategic goals on the Eurasian continent. Similarly, Liu Haiying called upon Chinese leaders to increase China’s “land power in the global geopolitical power structure” by controlling the eastern portion of the Eurasian continent. Two other Chinese analysts, Hou Songling and Chi Diantang, wrote that Central Asia was the “joint and strategic convergence of the Eurasian continent,” serving as a strategic passageway linking the Far East to Europe.

China, however, does not necessarily have to choose between a maritime and continental strategy. Indeed, all signs point to China pursuing a foreign policy that looks to achieve both maritime and continental interests. China, in the words of two of its strategists, is both a “continental and oceanic country.” China must not only seek to protect its maritime interests, they explained, it must also safeguard its interests in Central Asia, “the Eurasian continent’s thoroughfare.”

The Mahan-Mackinder strategic dichotomy has always been overdrawn. As early as 1902, in Britain and the British Seas, Mackinder wrote that “[t]he unity of the ocean is the simple physical fact underlying the dominant value of sea-power in the modern globe-wide world.”  In his subsequent writings, he never viewed international rivalries in strictly land power vs. sea power terms. Instead, he warned about the possibility of a dominant land power also becoming a dominant sea power. Mackinder’s Heartland was a strategic base of manpower and resources that could be used to acquire dominant sea power and thereby threaten the global balance of power.

To be sure, China’s aggressive moves in the marginal seas to her east have produced opposition from the United States, Japan and lesser regional powers. Likewise, in Central Asia, China has powerful strategic competitors, including Russia and India. China, in other words, is not now and may never be in a position to control the Heartland or dominate Eurasia.

Nevertheless, China today sits at the gates of the Heartland and has access to the sea. Its foreign policy has both maritime and continental components and it is projecting power and influence at sea and on land. It would be wise, therefore, for the world’s statesmen to reflect upon Mackinder’s warning in 1919: “What if the Great Continent, the whole World Island or a large part of it, were at some future time to become a single and united base of sea power? Would not the other insular bases be out built as regards ships and out manned as regards seamen? Their fleets would no doubt fight with all the heroism begotten of their histories, but the end would be fated.”

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books) and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics, and War (University Press of America). He has written articles and reviews on historical and foreign policy topics for Strategic Review,American DiplomacyJoint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman, the Washington Times, the Claremont Review of Books, and other publications. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.