The English geographer Sir Halford Mackinder ended his famous 1904 article, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” with a disturbing reference to China. After explaining why Eurasia was the geostrategic fulcrum of world power, he posited that the Chinese, should they expand their power well beyond their borders, “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, an advantage as yet denied to the Russian tenant of the pivot region.”
Leaving aside the sentiment’s racism, which was common for the era, as well as the hysterics sparked by the rise of a non-Western power at any time, Mackinder had a point: whereas Russia, that other Eurasian giant, basically was, and is still, a land power with an oceanic front blocked by ice, China, owing to a 9,000-mile temperate coastline with many good natural harbors, is both a land power and a sea power. (Mackinder actually feared that China might one day conquer Russia.)
On the other hand, is the humbling realization that presently, despite its double digit growth and growing influence, China is not in a position to viably compete with these states in all spheres.
China’s virtual reach extends from Central Asia, with all its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, to the main shipping lanes of the Pacific Ocean. Later, in Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder predicted that along with the United States, China would eventually guide the world by “building for a quarter of humanity a new civilization, neither quite Eastern nor quite Western.”
The continued growth of China’s comprehensive national power, including its military capabilities, and the manner in which a strong resurgent China will employ this power will have far-reaching consequences both for Asia and the world. The Chinese leadership’s commitment to build Comprehensive National Power (CNP) and leveraging its Strategic Configuration of Power (SCP) to achieve its strategic interests remain a major factor in shaping the future stability and security of Asia. China, as it consolidates its power over the next couple of decades is likely to have a multi-dimensional impact upon other states of the Asia-Pacific region, an assessment broadly accepted by the strategic community the world over.
Most of these countries are likely to be affected by Beijing’s changing economic and military capabilities, its trade and defence policies, its approach towards resolution of bilateral disputes, and the manner in which it will leverage this power. India, which too is rapidly developing as a strong economic and military power, will be greatly impacted by these developments particularly as both countries share common strategic space in Asia.
China with an innate desire to enhance its CNP, seems to be able to match sets growing military power with its economic strategy and successfully link it to the direction of its foreign policy. A unique feature has been the contradictory manner in which the Chinese political elite perceive the world.
China seeks to lead a “unipolar Asia” and is using the concept of “multipolarity” as a smokescreen to facilitate its dominance in Asia.
On the one hand, within the concept of a unipolar world, which is viewed through the prism of a perpetual struggle against the hegemonistic forces of a super power (which would mean US in common parlance) as well as the aspiration for regional leadership in a region dominated by major emerging powers like India, Japan, and Russia (despite the relationship of strategic partnership with the latter). On the other hand, is the humbling realization that presently, despite its double digit growth and growing influence, China is not in a position to viably compete with these states in all spheres.
This undoubtedly imposes certain constraints on its foreign policy necessitating certain rearrangement in its foreign policy objectives/priorities.
Even in the United States there is a growing recognition that following Soviet disintegration, and Japanese power contained within the US–Japan alliance, China will be the leading challenger to its future geopolitical aspirations in Asia-Pacific. China is emerging as a ‘peer’ competitor and an alternative center of power and influence in the region.
Analysts are of the view that United States determination to preserve its status of global pre eminence and China’s determination to reassert its historical and traditional dominant position in Asia is likely to lead to unavoidable and inevitable Sino-US rivalry. This will impact on virtually every international issue and in all parts of the world, with Asia bearing the brunt. The dimension and manner in which competition unfolds will to a degree determine the course of future security situation in Asia-Pacific.
China’s Role in Asia
It needs to be acknowledged that China’s growing power and expanding role in Asia is not only likely to continue but the trend could get accelerated over the next two decades, barring an unforeseen internal crisis in China. In geostrategic terms states across Asia are likely to be “sucked” into the Chinese economic vortex through increasing economic ties, resources relationships, and investments in infrastructure. As one analyst recently observed that China’s Asian strategy is linked directly to its multinational strategy – using multilateral and regional organizations to bolster its economic and political ties across Asia – which supports its modernization strategy.
It is important for India to maximize the “arc of advantage” by strengthening relationships with key countries in Asia — Japan, Israel, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Iran — as well as Australia.
As a result, Asian economies are getting increasingly intertwined with China, which, is beginning to have geopolitical implications for Asia in general and India in particular. An interesting aspect that emerged during a recent international Scenario Building Seminar in Canberra, Australia was the likely problem faced by the US in managing existing alliances in Asia in the backdrop of growing economic integration of Asian economies with China.
There should be no doubt that the underlying aim of the current Chinese leadership is to make China a great power – “world class, second to none” – and that to achieve this goal, the Chinese are consciously and unwaveringly erecting the building blocks of comprehensive national power. Chinese leaders understand that the hard power (e.g., military and economic power) the country has been accumulating over the past 15 years can easily be translated into soft power that enables it to dissuade and deter other states’ behavior.
China’s growth and activities in Asia underscore the importance and urgency for India’s economic success and emergence as a major regional player. Underlying is the central importance of successful economic reforms and growth, particularly if India seeks to play a balancing role in Asia, and wants to be accepted as the preferable strategic partner, and above all taken seriously. In fact policy makers/academics from Asian states, particularly from Southeast Asia, and to a degree Japan and Taiwan would like to see India accelerating economic reforms and improve economic infrastructure in order to provide alternative choices.
It is important for India to maximize the “arc of advantage” by strengthening relationships with key countries in Asia – Japan, Israel, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Iran – as well as Australia. The underlying theme of Indian Prime Minister’s initiative for strategic understanding with the US despite major criticism is underscored by above realization.
Chinese Balance of Power Strategy in Asia
This is predicated on the fact that China seeks to lead a “unipolar Asia” and is using the concept of “multipolarity” as a smokescreen to facilitate its dominance in Asia. To achieve this broad geostrategic objective that is in tune with the propensities of Middle Kingdom, it is attempting a twin track strategy. One, it is incrementally maximizing the power gap between strong Asian neighbours – Japan, India, and Russia.
The US wants a unipolar world and a multipolar Asia, China wants a unipolar Asia and a multipolar world.
As also by pitting Pakistan against India, North Korea against Japan and South vs North Korea it is attempting to keep its potential Asian rivals preoccupied. In addition, China is using states such as Iran, Myanmar, and Bangladesh etc. as pawns in its balance of power strategy. Secondly, it is using soft power in terms of political and economic engagement to incrementally enhance its strategic space in Asia.
Its eventual aim is to contain the influence of beleaguered United States to become a pre-eminent power in Asia particularly in terms of economic and strategic dominance. This scenario however is predicated on Chinese perspective on the medium and long term implications of ‘India’s rise’ and the manner in which resurgent India will attempt to shape its strategic space.
That this scenario is worrisome to the Chinese is indicated by frequent assertion by Chinese scholars that whereas China and India could coexist in Asia, their being partners was implausible. Fundamentally Chinese believe that as both countries rise simultaneously competition between the two is inherent. It is the nature of competition that is often left undefined.