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Chinese rail as geopolitical instrument

April 3, 2011
Here in the United States, there is a tendency to view transportation infrastructure as a purely commercial and political topic. We compare our railroad system to those of other states to assess how “behind” we are in programs such as high-speed rail, and argue about whether or not more public transportation would be better for our economy and the environment, and so on. International comparisons with China, however, obscure a very important aspect of China’s intensive programs to develop its transportation infrastructure.

Geostrategic motives, rather than simple commercial interest, plays an important part in China’s railway development. As the United States and Europe basically seem to have forgotten since the Civil War and World Wars, railways are still extremely important methods of mobilizing large amounts of military power overland. Despite the advent of aircraft, roads and railways are still the best ways to get large amounts of men, machinery, and supplies long distances overland (one could also speak of canals, but this is not a geographically realistic option for the regions in question). American observers, particularly those who would like to goad their own countries into massive bouts of railway-building and infrastructure development, often miss this crucial fact. Similarly, much discussion of the Chinese military revolves around naval and aerial issues – which makes sense for American strategists and policymakers, but often overshadows China’s important continental considerations in the popular press.

One of the critical assumptions behind a lot of hyping of Chinese naval power is that China has no more serious land threats to consider, thanks to the resolution of its border disputes. This means China can now turn to its navy and invest in resources to seriously challenge the United States. However, China is not a purely maritime power. While it does have unprecedented opportunity to expand its domain in that realm, China remains a continental power with serious continental interests, thought the US may find these less immediately relevant. China must maintain control of its restive peripheries – Xinjiang and Tibet – and that is why the PLA’s logistical division is highly involved in its rail plans.

The use of railroads to mobilize large amounts of PLA troops during the recent uprisings in Tibet necessarily raises lots of questions for Chinese neighbors. Although the stabilization (for now) of the Russo-Chinese border might mean China faces less severe threats from great powers on land, strategists should not assume China’s intentions towards its continental neighbors are wholly benign. China’s smaller neighbors in Southeast and Central Asia, geographically speaking, enjoy relative security from favorable geography. The rugged terrain of China’s border with Southeast Asia, and the long distance from China’s coast to its interior abutting Central Asia, provided territories in these regions a degree of security. These states are probably less at threat from serious Chinese military intervention because maritime powers, such as the United States, can support Southeast Asian states, and every Chinese provocation in that region threatens the “ASEAN way,” and far more than being the exertion of a sphere of influence over a peripheral region, would represent a dagger in the heart of East Asia’s strongest and most dynamic institutional body.

Nevertheless, as the previously linked article demonstrates, there is significant fear from Chinese neighbors, and interest on the part of some Chinese officers and policymakers, in the military use of railroads. This has particularly important implications for Central Asia, which has been ever the under-exploited “heartland” of geopolitical theories from Mackinder to today. Although a superficial glance at the map would seem to indicate a natural Chinese preponderance in Central Asia, the legacy of Soviet control and Soviet infrastructure means that the majority of Central Asia’s exported wealth goes to or through Russia. Building railways, starting with one to Kazakhstan, has opened up Chinese access to the region’s economy.

It would be a mistake to assume that this entails some new “great game” over Central Asia. That is foolish (I probably should have included this earlier to placate the Central Asia specialists), as the original great game involved British attempts to defend against the fever dream of Russia invading or cutting off Britain from India. The great game, heavily simplified, was primarily about acquiring buffer territories to consolidate previous imperial conquests. Great power activity in Central Asia today is much more a geopolitical story of regional penetration, integration, and a lot of unplanned, non-strategic blunders with escalating commitments.

That said, to go to the other extreme and assume that economic coöperation, rather than geopolitical competition, is or should guide neighboring power strategies in Central Asia is also ludicrous. Talk about new silk roads and the symbolism of new railroads being built ushers in political assumptions about what technology means for international politics. Railroads can move soldiers and civilians, minerals and munitions, with equal facility. For all the hyping of Mackinder, both the geopolitical hawks parading the importance of the heartland and his liberal internationalist critics seem to forget that his vision of railroads recognized their facility for trade.

China’s railroad-building plans do represent the possibility of a continental sphere of Eurasian economic activity to contest the maritime activity of the coats. This is a sensible objective for the Chinese, who would rather not be susceptible to naval strangulation, and in any case, new trade and influence is new trade and influence. This is one of the many reasons, along with the regions’ importance to Russia, Iran, India, its role in international terror, the drug trade, and so on, that Central Asia is not just some random backwater the US should never care about.

All that said, I’ll conclude this post with an important caveat. When Mackinder talked about the expansion of continental economic activity into Central Asia, he did not imply that the logical response was to dive into some “new Great Game” to control Central Asia’s wealth. Mackinder, a geographer, recognized this would be a foolish goal for maritime powers. Despite the idea that he who controls the heartland rules the world, the best strategy was not for a bunch of seagoing powers such as Britain and the United States to try to control Central Asia. The idea was to uphold an equilibrium suited to geopolitical pluralism and the balancing of continental powers who might seek control of the heartland. This means understanding Central Asian states as more than pawns or business opportunities. Globalization did not fundamentally alter the dual potential of interdependence and transportation, and geopoliticians should not seek to usher into this century a framework of great power analysis outdated in its own time.

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