Neo-classical geopolitics in practiceAugust 7, 2013
When Halford Mackinder developed the classic Heartland theory of geopolitics, he was concerned that some power would be able to unite the interior of the Eurasian continent with a network of railroads, then a fairly new technological development. If the Heartland was thus internally connected, it would be largely impervious to British seapower and could challenge and ultimately surpass British hegemony. In the event, we have found that railroads cannot compete with maritime traffic for the mass shipment of goods and personnel (although the Russians demonstrated its potential in the pre-WWII battle of Nomonhan and then again in 1941 when they shifted a million men with over 1000 aircraft and 1000 tanks from the Far East to the West to defeat the Nazi invasion).
A century later, we are seeing a re-play of Mackindrian geopolitics. In this case, however, it is pipelines, not railways, that could change the geopolitical calculus. Yesterday, I posted about the Chinese naval buildup and pointed out that they would still be unable to defend against a closure of the Strait of Malacca, through which as much as 80% of China’s energy supply passes. China is well aware of its vulnerability at that chokepoint – its smaller neighbors of Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines alone could effectively close the Strait without the aid of the United States Navy. So, while China is indeed building up its military ability to force the strait if necessary, it is also busily building alternatives to it. Earlier this year, China opened the world’s longest gas pipeline, from the natural gas fields of Central Asia to its own industrial heartland. Now, they have opened a pipeline from the western coast of Myanmar on the Bay of Bengal through Kunming to Guigang. The pipeline as currently constructed is intended to ship gas from Myanmar’s offshore fields, but could eventually expanded to handle oil shipments from the Persian Gulf. This is a clear geopolitical strategy intended to lessen the threat to Malacca, but of course it also increases the distance to which the PLAN must project power in order to protect the pipeline – while the smaller powers mentioned above could not threaten the pipeline, the navies of either the US or India could shut it down. Chinese strategics clearly understand Mackinder and the neo-classical geopolitics of pipelines.