Essays & Reviews

A Russian Academic’s Perspective on China and the Heartland Hypothesis

Artyom Lukin, associate professor at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia, picks up on the argument by Robert Kaplan and others that China may be following the geopolitical blueprint first laid out in 1904 by Sir Halford J. Mackinder.

Mackinder pronounced the end of “the Columbian epoch” – that of the dominance of the Western sea power – and the advent of the age of land power, in which the Heartland of Eurasia, or “the pivot area,” would hold the key to the world domination. In Mackinder’s formulation (which he adjusted over time), the pivot area largely corresponded to the territory of the then Russian Empire – occupying central and northern Eurasia. Lukin raises the question of whether China consciously or unconsciously seeks to assume Mackinder’s projected mantle of Eurasian hegemon by dominating what would become a new Heartland region.

Lukin notes that Beijing is seeking to (re)create the Silk Road that is envisioned as Eurasia’s superhighway – running through the Heartland and reliably linking China with other parts of the continent, such as Europe, the Middle East, Southeast and South Asia. In this respect, we may see if Mackinder is finally proven right in his argument that railways would be the decisive revolution in transportation that would overcome the advantages once held by seaborne means of transportation. China, Lukin observes, is rapidly expanding its own railway network and has become the world’s leader in building high-speed lines, while expanding standard rail lines (and pipelines and other associated infrastructure) into neighboring countries, especially in Central Asia. Another possible trunk of the twenty-first-century Silk Road will run from China further north. One section of it, a planned high-speed railway stretching some 7,000 kilometers, will connect Moscow and Beijing.

If successfully completed, this continental Eurasian network would largely be out of reach for the United States – or at least would be very difficult to contest from the sea, thus alleviating Beijing anxiety over a possible blockade of China’s trade, still predominantly seaborne.

Lukin (following Kaplan’s line of argument) observes that the China-centered transcontinental rail network will be supplemented by oceanic routes emanating from Chinese ports and hugging Eurasian shores. These include the Maritime Silk Road, traversing the seas of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean; the Kra Canal across an isthmus in southern Thailand, if completed with Chinese funding, would reduce the significance of Malacca Strait controlled by the U.S. Navy. There is also the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic.

My observation: It is an interesting question whether the latter developments are intended to reinforce a Mackinder-like approach to Eurasian continental domination, or whether it represents (as some argue) a Mahanian, sea-control geopolitical perspective. Whether the two geopolitical orientations can by synthesized within China’s means, without generating an overwhelming counter-coalition, is an interesting question. Or whether China will be forced to pursue one path or the other, assuming that the Chinese think explicitly in such Western geopolitical terms, which is a subject of debate among the experts. But even if Beijing does think in Western geopolitical categories, other nations – notably the United States, Japan, India, and Russia – may perceive its ambitions in these terms, and respond accordingly. (Of course, there are non-geopolitical explanations for Chinese behavior, some of which point in the same direction, others not.)

The key external factor the success of a Chinese Heartland strategy, according to Lukin, may well be Russia. “China will not be able to create its Eurasian fortress without collaboration, or at least acquiescence, from the other great Eurasian power – Russia. Although a far cry from the heydays of the Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union, Russia still controls much of the crucial Heartland areas – as its own territories in northern Eurasia and zones of political influence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.” There are arguments for a close relationship between Moscow and Beijing (one in which Russia would become like Canada is to the United States) but also for conflict, based on Russia’s own long-term ambitions, such as that of a Eurasian Union.

It is striking, Lukin observes, that back in 1904, Mackinder anticipated the possible incorporation of Russia into the Chinese domain and the danger that could pose to the West: “Were the Chinese, for instance, organized by the Japanese, to overthrow the Russian Empire and conquer its territory, they might constitute the yellow peril to the world’s freedom just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent…” He was only mistaken about the source of Chinese unification.

The second critical factor, according to Lukin, is domestic. Russia’s ability to control the Heartland in Mackinder’s time was disrupted by revolution (brought on, to be sure, in large part by world war). China is facing similar risks of internal and external disruption which may take precedence, at least for several decades, over the construction of a Heartland dominion.