In Sept 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech in Astana (Capital of Kazakhstan now renamed as Nur-Sultan) calling for the building of a Modern “Silk Road Economic Belt”.
However, the speech offered scant details about its intent, purpose and implementation imperatives. This is not unusual as the Chinese Communist Party is good at organising thoughts through discourses, information engineering and grandiose slogans.
Without official clarity from the Chinese Government, the world’s media started to echo each other, resulting in One Belt One Road (OBOR) being everything to everyone; some even making the OBOR up as China’s Marshall Plan.
As the Chinese were behind the curve in providing clarity to the OBOR vision, it resulted in the growth of multiple narratives, many of which were suspicious of China’s intent.
Since 2016, OBOR has been referred to as the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) although OBOR is still used by Chinese language media. BRI project comprised of two components: the Maritime Silk Road Initiative & the Silk Road Economic Belt.
Six years had passed since President Xi’s Astana speech. A bigger picture is emerging. Many projects, usually the larger ones, attracted international media spotlight; albeit not always the positive kind.
Many more projects remained under-reported. Unfortunately deliberately all-encompassing nature of BRI meant that any and everything can indeed be classified as (or claims itself to be) a BRI Project.
In a sense, the BRI is like a painting in progress. It is a promising masterpiece on a blank canvas. Many painters are keen and they do not always agree on the final picture nor do they know what the others have in mind.
The Chinese Government calls the initiative “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future”. The purpose is “to construct a unified large market and make full use of both international and domestic markets, through cultural exchange and integration, to enhance mutual understanding and trust of member nations, ending up in an innovative pattern with capital inflows, talent pool and technology database”.
The initiative has a targeted completion date of 2049 which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The aim of this article is to present a historical geopolitical framework on BRI in an attempt to peek through the veneer of slogans for possible strategic intent.
Geopolitical Framework: Heartland Theory & Influence of Sea Power Theory
Sir Halford Mackinder explained the Heartland Theory in ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’ in 1904. The theory posited that whichever nation controlled Eastern Europe would control the Heartland (the core of Eurasia); subsequently this nation would then control the World Island (all of Europe and Asia); and finally, would dominate the world.
Alfred Thayer Mahan’s view on sea power was focused upon the oceans. Simply, whoever conquered the seas would control the world.
Both theories have proven true throughout history, but not at the same time with the same nation. The partnership of Mackinder’s and Mahan’s theories are found within the China’s BRI project.
Halford John MacKinder presented his Heartland Theory to the Royal Geographical Society entitled ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’ in 1904. It was later expanded and explained in more detail in his book, ‘Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction’ published in 1919.
Mackinder argued on the importance of the Eurasian landmass that largely consisted of Russia, the Himalayan region and parts of China. According to MacKinder, the Heartland stretched from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Artic.
Mackinder saw the importance of the land routes being revived by the building of railway lines and the interconnections it entailed. He opined that the land with its vast resources combined with a network of modern railway lines will be strategically important.
Mackinder stated his famous maxim: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” The World-Island comprised Afro-Eurasia i.e. the inter-linked continents of Europe, Asia and Africa.
It controlled well over 50% of the world’s resources largest, the most populous and richest of all possible land combinations. In sum, Mackinder saw that the main pivot in global power and influence will come from the Heartland and warned on the dangers of Russia (at that point in time) reemerging as a great power after its setback in the Russo-Japanese war or an European or Asian power taking hold of Russia’s vast land space.
China’s BRI will create a new Heartland that will consist of the large landmass of China and Central Asia with parts of Eastern and Western Europe, a geographical location similar with Mackinder’s original landmass but without Russia. If successful, BRI will create a new fulcrum of power that will have strong influence over a large Eurasian continental area and will provide China with immense economic benefits and security of strategic interests.
Alfred Thayer Mahan
Alfred Thayer Mahan, a prominent theorist on sea-power encapsulated his ideas in his classic book, ‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783’ published in 1890. Mahan’s thoughts were written in a period in which he believed that the United States should build a formidable navy and expand its maritime capabilities to be a major sea-power that could mirror Great Britain’s power and possessions in the world, which Mahan thought was gained through its dominant maritime power.
Mahan also suggested that in order to support a naval and merchant fleet, an aspiring sea-power should gain land possessions to support its maritime fleet’s logistical needs for example coaling stations and harbour facilities to resupply and repair its maritime fleet. These land possessions will also serve as forward strategic bases.
Mahan’s core tenets were that since seas act as a highway and are a common resource for all states, there is great importance in controlling them especially the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) which encompass supply lines.
Control of the seas will allow a state to grow and extend both its power and wealth, by exploiting commerce and subsequent trade routes during peace times on one hand; and by exploiting the seas for military purposes during times of war on the other hand.
Mahan’s maritime and geopolitical ideas are not original though as it had been well practised by some of the more successful ancient civilisations and empires except he was the first to codify and write it down in a book.
China has vast areas with ocean frontage. Some of its most developed cities are located in the eastern areas of China that are serviced with a network of ports. China’s trade today relies significantly on sea-lanes and maritime logistics.
China’s obsession with the South China Sea and the claiming of islands as well as building of a series of ‘permanent aircraft carriers’ in the South China Sea (artificial islands) points to a strong Mahanian influence.
The maritime component of BRI which includes the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean Sea is quite similar to the large oceanic areas that were visited by China’s Admiral Zheng He’s treasure fleets (except the Mediterranean Sea) in a series of seven expeditions during the early 15th century. China then had the world’s largest naval fleet and had used it to expand its influence and trade via the Asian maritime lanes of communication.
The BRI sea-route will also involve large co-development of ports and maritime support centres in Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Djibouti, Greece and Italy.
This vast network of ports will support China’s future growth as a maritime power, first to support its merchant fleet and then later its blue water navy.
China’s investment in the BRI’s maritime sphere will prepare the necessary logistical support bases to sustain its future naval strategy and strategic interests which Mahan had pointed out as one of the key variables in ensuring the capability to project and sustaining a nation’s maritime power and extending its geopolitical presence in the world.
The combination of Mackinder and Mahan geopolitical and strategic thoughts provide a plausible interpretation regarding China’s BRI strategic intent. If successful, China will ‘rule the Heartland’ together with the ‘command of the seas’, both vital to its strategic and geographical contexts.
The implications of BRI for Sri Lanka will be presented in another instalment as we study the ‘Two-Ocean’ Strategy. The Two-Ocean Strategy began to appear in the literature around 2005 as a pre-conceptualised project set by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and representing a strategic objective to achieve.
The narrative behind this is that China ought to gain back control of the waters surrounding it as a symbolic end to its “Century of Humiliation” as well as to modernise its own navy since the country’s economic ascension.
The implementation of BRI will provide the Two-Ocean Strategy with renewed relevance and momentum. As Sri Lanka is a key player in the maritime component of BRI, it is imperative to seek a way to harness its geopolitical importance to bring about growth and prosperity to the land and its people.