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A Watery Rebirth for Heartland Theory?

August 22, 2012

James Holmes at the Naval Diplomat has yet another very interesting post on retired Admiral Patrick Walsh’s comparison of the South China Sea to a new, Mackinderite “heartland.” Given this blog’s demonstrated interest in dissecting Mackinder commentary and maritime issues both, there are a few interesting aspects of this discussion I’d like to highlight. First, in the Asahi Shimbun interview Holmes highlights, here are Walsh’s comments on what he means by the South China Sea being a new “heartland”:

What he meant was that if this pivot area was stable and secure, then it would have an effect and an impact that went far beyond the local area. For us today, it’s the South China Sea. And there are a number of factors that come into play.

It begins with trillions of dollars of economic activity that flows through a region that has historic disputes on where boundaries and lines of delimitation are formed. And now what you see is a real demand for resources in the South China Sea area, so that if there’s anything that disrupts the freedom of navigation, it has far greater impact that goes well beyond just the local area.


If you recognize that there is this critical node, this locus of activity, you can’t let one country just sort of dominate all of that economic activity and expect the world to continue to function as it is.

It’s interesting, of course, to see someone using the term “pivot” in a strategic and geopolitical context to refer to the Mackinder’s idea rather than Clinton’s. The pivot in the foreign policy rhetoric of the modern U.S. has always been somewhat misleading. It is a pivot to Asia, rather than a pivot in Asia or of Asian history, which is what Mackinder meant when he spoke, originally, of Central Asia as the “geographical pivot of world history.” So I’d be glad to enter a world of discourse where we put aside the “pivot to Asia,” which is not really a pivot (it is mostly a rebalancing or retrenchment) and not really “to Asia” (U.S. military activity is escalating in AFRICOM and previously fringe parts of CENTCOM). Or at least, we ought to enter that world if we are going to talk about the South China Sea as a pivot, or we’ll all be stuck talking about pivots within pivots, wheels within wheels.

Holmes summarizes Mackinder’s pivot/heartland concept here, arguing:

Eurasia was the World-Island in Mackinder’s lexicon, while the Heartland lay in Central Asia. It was the “geographic pivot of history,” to borrow the title of his famous 1904 essay. The great power that held sway over the region could exploit its “interior lines,” along with rapid advances in land transportation—mainly railroads—to move forces about more nimbly than navies could around the periphery. Their geographic positions situated Russia and Germany for struggle over the Heartland. Mackinder thus foreshadowed the bloodlettings of the world wars.

This is true, although there are additional aspects to explore. Mackinder originally defined the pivot area on the basis of river drainage, examining the large drainage basin that did not have an outlet to the sea, or flowed into the Arctic Sea, which was navally insignificant. Thus it is not simply interior lines, but a network of interior lines unassailable by peripheral sea power, that Mackinder saw as a threat to maritime supremacy. With a broad-based area of production that maritime-dependent powers could not effectively access, a pivot-controlling landpower could build the industrial strength to dominate the neighboring areas with sea access and then construct a navy, all with an autarkic source of resources and wealth immune to traditional sea power strategies.

This should inherently make us skeptical of applying such logic to the South China Sea or any other body of water. As Holmes notes, the South China Sea is circumventable. But even more important than that, it is not an unassailable power base. Controlling the South China Sea allows for disrupting and controlling the flow of trade, but, precisely the opposite of an autarkic space for building the military strength to overcome a maritime hegemon, its value is dependent on the trade from adjacent regions flowing through it.

It is also deeply vulnerable in a way the heartland was not. Although the heartland never became the seat of world-empire or reached the economic potential its great space suggested (Mackinder made similar errors in judgment, by the way, about the ability of Britain to develop Canada as a massive continental engine for a British Imperial Federation), it was at least useful as a highly defensible base of support in dire emergencies. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in World War II, the ability to retreat into the heartland and re-establish production centers there helped the USSR overcome severe military setbacks. It would have been similarly useful in a large conventional war against a maritime power, which would have even greater difficulty than Germany did in pushing deep into Eurasia. The South China Sea has no such useful defensive quality. There are few natural geographic advantages that make it useful as a pivot area. There are multiple maritime points of entry, and a multiplicity of Asian continental and island territories which can bring power to bear against it.

Has A2/AD changed this equation, though? It has somewhat. Certainly, A2/AD allows land powers to leverage their terrestrial military strength in maritime conflicts to a much greater degree than a pure reliance on naval assets would. But using A2/AD to deny sea communications to the enemy also likely reduces its utility as an engine of economic strength. Turning the South China Sea and its periphery into a combat zone means that the lucrative trade going through it evaporates. Meanwhile, sea powers operating outside that zone, such as the United States, can use the entire Pacific Ocean as an area of interior line communication, bringing to bear the rest of global trade. You can ask Imperial Japan how well the strategy of relying on a set of interior lines within littoral seas and island chains worked against a power with superior logistical capabilities and the willingness to contest territory actually worked.

In essence, control of the South China Sea is contestable with a variety of military means from a variety of actors, unlike the pivot area, which countries could only contest with land power operating from adjacent territories. It is open to both land-based denial and defense efforts as well as sea-based defense or seizure. Actually reaping its economic benefits, if we measure a pivot area’s value as Mackinder did – that is, as a potential base for autarkic production – would require not simply controlling the sea but controlling adjacent areas where the sea’s valuable trade originates and terminates in. This is clearly a much more daunting task.

Yet it also reveals some of the fallacies behind why the pivot area itself never effectively developed. Partially, it is because the remedies Mackinder and other geopoliticians sought worked more effectively than they thought. Despite Soviet dominance of the heartland, the balancing of “rimland” areas of the Eurasian coast against it required a significant and multi-front Soviet defense expenditure. The incorporation of these areas into a hostile balancing coalition gave the Soviet Union’s rivals potential inroads into the heartland. Though Iran and Pakistan were never particular threats to the Soviet Union, even in their status as U.S. allies or partners, the real issue was an uncooperative China, which forced the Soviet Union to massively militarize its land borders and provided a further distraction. Another issue, though, was that, like the South China Sea, much of the potential economic value comes from trade with adjacent regions rather than the region itself. But unifying Central Asia under Soviet control generated fear and enmity with the adjacent rimland powers whose demographic and economic blessings would have given Central Asian trade value. As later commentators such as Nicholas Spykman suggested, leveraging the rimland against the heartland could provide a severe encumbrance to the rise of a heartland power. Central Asia became a set of interior lines to nowhere, and the enormous political and logistical complications of creating infrastructure to compete with maritime lines of communication circumventing Central Asia rendered those interior lines rather paltry when compared with their maritime equivalents.

Though the South China Sea would not need to be industrialized or covered with new infrastructure, it also, again, faces constrained autarkic potential as a consequence. Moreover, were China to try and establish control over the South China Sea, returns would be incredibly limited. Without subjugating the Southeast Asian nations, too, its interior lines would not connect China to useful concentrations of resources or wealth. Undertaking such a rash action would also likely embitter powers adjacent to the South China Sea, which would provide support to a coalition attempting to reopen it from Chinese control. The resources of the South China Sea itself are paltry to those of the regions it links, and controlling the central pivot makes those regions more difficult to trade with, and thus the pivot less valuable. This is why some, such as T.X. Hammes, have suggested that “offshore control” strategies would be far more useful to a U.S. effort to counteract Chinese aggression than an attempt at such a strategy would be to China.

Holmes worries that there is a lack of potential counterbalancing power in the South China Sea. This is true, but first, the above arguments should mitigate our fears of a China-dominated South Chian Sea. Such a result would almost certainly prompt the invitation of the U.S. into neighboring countries, and it would also not be of much value ultimately to the Chinese as a base of autarkic resistance. Additionally, unlike Central Asia, where Britsh power projection faced severe resistance even from local actors, it is relatively easy for the U.S. to project power into the South China Sea, and at some point other naval powers may develop the ability to do the same. Proximity matters, but given the likelihood that neighboring countries would side with a faraway power seeking to assert itself against a local hegemonic aspirant, it should not be particularly troubling in this case.

Dredging up such rhetoric, as Holmes notes, can have deleterious effects on sound policymaking. Geographic relationships are obviously important to foreign policy and strategy, but it is vital to interpret them as dynamic and probalistic rather than fixed and deterministic. Mackinder did, after all, understand that the heartland was important just not in and of itself, but as a means of mustering the strength to control the rimland, and leveraging that combined strength against maritime powers. Yet the theory gained popularity and longevity through ascribing value to the heartland as a sort of commanding heights. Spykman, in his own writings, rightly recognized that while control of the heartland was a potential means to overthrowing adjacent rimland territory, the rimland territory itself gave the heartland its value in global geopolitical terms. While geography certainly imposes brute facts that constrain and incentivize certain kinds of human action, agency resides with human beings, and in the case of geopolitics, their political communities.

The South China Sea is not a pivot around which Asian history moves but a space elevated in value by the combined choices of the polities on its shores and transiting through it. The allure of geopolitical schema is that they provide a way to prioritize policy and strategy at a global scale – something which made them vital in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century when the world had entered a “closed” and global great power system. But that prioritization, when it gives way to simplification, can provide profoundly misleading expectations, as was the case when the heartland concept was divorced from the broader geopolitical system and turned into a fixed goal. The South China Sea, like the heartland, can play an extremely important role in world politics when a confluence of material factors and human choices gives it geopolitical value, and certain geographic conditions will shape activity in and engagement with that region. But by heartland theory’s own standards and by an examination of the theory’s relationship with geopolitical practice, we ought not make the South China Sea a pivot within a pivot.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 14, 2012 2:38 pm

    I am surprised you have not mentioned what I see as the main geographical weakness of the the heartland theory. If one examines Mackinder’s heartland one will find it is mostly sparsely populated and underdeveloped. This is due to great degree to its unforgiving geography which limits agriculture in particular. To the south the heartland of Eurasia agriculture is limited by aridity while to the north the growing season is too short. As one travels east the climate becomes more and more severe to the point where there is scarcely any land that is not to dry or too cold for crops. Only in the West, which by no coincidence is the historic heartland of Russia, the Soviet Union and Russian Empire is there rich agricultural land.

    Without abundant agriculture large populations do not usually arise, and without them a large industrial power is not possible.

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