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Beijing's 'One Belt-One Road' Strategy: Why Geography Still Matters

A train engine pulls carriages that started their Journey in Yiwu in China into Barking rail freight terminal on January 18, 2017 in Barking, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A train engine pulls carriages that started their Journey in Yiwu in China into Barking rail freight terminal on January 18, 2017 in Barking, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

Geography matters. Geography has always mattered.

Technology can shape how military forces interact with geography to define the battlespace. Planes can fly over tall mountains, ships can cross great oceans, intercontinental missiles can do both.

But technology notwithstanding, the geographic reality remains the same. The mountains are still tall, the oceans still broad.

On Jan. 18, a train loaded with containers pulled into the Deutsche Bahn (DB) Cargo UK's London Eurohub terminal in Barking. It was one of dozens of freight trains that pulled into the Eurohub terminal that day. This particular train, however, had originated in Yiwu in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. The train, loaded with textiles and consumer goods, had traveled the 7,200-mile route in 18 days -- half the time it takes to ship containers by sea via the Suez Canal.

The train was operated by InterRail Group, a Switzerland-based, multinational transport operator, on behalf of China Railway. Along the way, various railroad companies handled the shipment. DB oversaw the shipment from its terminal at Duisburg to London via the channel tunnel. The containers had to be unloaded and reloaded multiple times on railcars due to the incompatibility of the railroad gauges along the route.

The shipment, the first to reach London, was the latest example of Beijing's "One Belt-One Road" initiative to develop multiple transport corridors from China's coastal cities to Western Europe.

To date, trains have been dispatched to Hamburg, Madrid, Kabul and Riga. Trains have also traveled from Hamburg to the Chinese province of Hefei.

It is dubbed a 21st-century "Silk Road" in reference to the complex trade routes that connected East Asia with the Middle East and Black Sea during antiquity and the Middle Age.

In 2016, about 40,000 containers were shipped by rail from China to Europe. That number is expected to increase to 100,000 by 2020. By comparison, in 2014, China shipped 5.75 million containers to Europe by sea.

The "One Belt-One Road" initiative is a trade, investment and policy framework proposed by Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping in September 2013. It is designed to create efficient transportation channels between China's coastal cities and the rest of Eurasia.

The program has two separate components: a broad, land-based transportation infrastructure program consisting of pipelines, roads and high speed rail links across Asia connecting the Pacific coast with Europe's already extensive transportation infrastructure. Dubbed the "Silk Road Economic Belt," it is paralleled by an equally extensive oceangoing "Maritime Silk Road," which is anchored by extensive new port development and expansion of existing ports throughout the Indian Ocean.

The "Silk Road Economic Belt" in turn would consist of three distinct prongs. A northern belt runs through Central Asia, Russia to Europe. The central belt runs across Central and West Asia to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. The southern belt runs through Southeast and South Asia to the Indian Ocean.

The region covered by the two initiatives ranges from East Africa to Central, South and East Asia, and encompasses the northern Indian Ocean basin. There are around 60 countries that would be involved in the "One Belt-One Road" program. Beijing has estimated that the initiative would require between $4 trillion and $8 trillion of investment to bring to fruition.

In the Indian Ocean and South Asia, Chinese investment is financing the development of high-speed rail links from China's coastal cities through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. In the meantime, Beijing is heavily involved in the development or expansion of port facilities throughout the region.

In Sri Lanka for example, China has supplied more than $5 billion in development aid and loans, and has pledged another $10 billion in investment over the next three years. China Merchants Port Holdings has acquired an 80 percent interest in Sri Lanka's port of Hambantota and leased for 99 years an additional 15,000 acres surrounding the port. China has also invested an additional $1.4 billion in developing infrastructure in Colombo's port -- Sri Lanka's capital city and main port facility.

Additional Chinese investment includes $45 billion in various investments in Pakistan, the lion's share of which is devoted to the development of a new Indian Ocean port at Gwadar. China has also leased a small island in the Maldives for 50 years in return for a $4 million payment. More important, Beijing is building its first overseas base in Djibouti, East Africa, at the juncture of the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean.

The initiative would integrate the Eurasian and Indian Ocean region into a cohesive economic zone by combining an extensive program of transportation infrastructure, resource development, cultural and political exchanges with expanded trade.

Many of the countries in Central and Southeast Asia are already investors in the Chinese organized Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The success of the Chinese initiative would pose far-ranging implications for the geopolitics of Eurasia and the Indian Ocean, and represent a significant shift in the economic balance of power in the world, with immediate consequences to the political and eventually military balance as well.

China's "One Belt-One Road" initiative shows intriguing similarities to a geopolitical strategy first articulated by the British geographer and politician Sir Halford John Mackinder in 1904. Called the "Geographical Pivot of History" or the "Heartland Theory," Mackinder argued that the world's geography could be divided into a "world island" that consisted of the interlinked continents of Europe, Asia and Africa;" the "offshore islands" of Great Britain and Japan; and the "outlying islands," comprised of the island continents of Australia, North America and South America.

The World-Island contained the bulk of the world's population and resources. It was the largest region and theoretically the richest. At the center of the World-Island was the Heartland, an area stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic Ocean. Per Mackinder, the development of railroads had made it possible, for the first time in history, for a single power to dominate the Heartland and, given the Heartland's resources and central position, dominate the World-Island. And by doing so, become the world's pre-eminent power.

Mackinder believed that Eastern Europe was the key to controlling the Heartland. He summed up his strategic vision thus:

"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;"

"Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;"

"Who rules the World-Island commands the world."

The Heartland was impervious to sea power. Arctic ice in the north, mountains and deserts in the south shielded it. Prior to the development of railroads, the vastness of the Heartland had made it impossible for a single land power to dominate it. Throughout history, great empires had tried, the Persians under Cyrus and his sons, Greeks under Alexander, Arabs under the Abbasids and later dynasties, and the Mongols. For much of the 19th century, the Russian and British Empires sparred for control of this region in what historians have called the Great Game.

Mackinder's geo-strategic theory was deeply rooted in the late 19th century's view of global politics. It was, in a sense, the "domino theory" of his time.

Control of the Heartland would in time pave the way for global domination. The rising power of the new world was not yet manifest and still counted for little in global affairs.

In Mackinder's view, Russia, or whomever controlled the Heartland, posed the greatest threat to the British Empire. Against such a formidable land power, British sea power would be insufficient to create a countervailing force. Continued Russian expansion across Asia would inevitably bring Russian control of the entire Eurasian continent. At the time, Mackinder saw three possible actors that could potentially dominate the Heartland. These were:

  1. Germany, by successfully first dominating Eastern Europe, the gateway to the Heartland, and by then conquering the Russian Empire.
  2. A German-Russian alliance. Historically this was not unprecedented. Catherine II (The Great) and Frederick of Prussia had, their personal animosities notwithstanding, forged an alliance and successfully dismembered the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom; in the process dividing between themselves most of Eastern Europe.
  3. A Sino-Japanese Empire that would expand westward, absorbing the Russian Empire in the process.

Mackinder's thesis was in one sense obsolete from the beginning. The year after he published his theory, Great Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Convention, putting aside their differences to form, with France, an anti-German alliance. Nonetheless, Mackinder's theories enjoyed wide acceptance and influence for the next half-century.

During the Second World War, Frank Capra's Oscar-winning documentary series "Why We Fight," which he produced for the U.S. government, drew heavily on Mackinder's theories to explain to U.S. GIs why the U.S. had entered the war against Germany, as well as why American aid to the Soviet Union was crucial to the war effort.

Capra, using the exact vocabulary that Mackinder had used, explained how Nazi control of the Heartland was a threat to the United States and would lead to Berlin's control of the World-Island, and eventually global hegemony.

Mackinder's theory, although it was never explicitly stated as such, was also part of the intellectual underpinnings of George Kennan's "Long Telegram," where he set out the strategy of "containment" of Soviet expansionism.

The parallels between Mackinder's theory and China's "One Belt-One Road" initiative can be overdrawn. It's not as if Beijing has suddenly drawn inspiration from a long dead British geopolitical strategist.

China's economic and diplomatic initiative is grounded in the need for Beijing to ensure its access to vital raw materials, as well as its access to foreign markets for its manufacturing output. The "Silk Road Economic Belt" and the "Maritime Silk Road" is a parallel, redundant strategy to ensure the success of that initiative.

No, China is not looking to control or even dominate the World-Island, but the economic success of the "One Belt-One Road" strategy will likely presuppose a degree of political and diplomatic influence that China has not had in this region since the heyday of the Mongol Empire.

It is a strategy that is incompatible with Russian interests and one that would pose, in time, a strategic threat to the U.S. as well. It also underscores the fact that, even now, a century later, notwithstanding successive technological revolutions and a complete reshuffling of the world's major powers -- geography still matters.

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