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Three Geopolitical Theories and the “Belt and Road” Initiative By TengJianqun


Over the past hundred years, geo-politician have proposed three theories depicting how to control the world from geographical perspective: the "Sea Power" theory raised by Alfred Thayer Mahan from the U.S. believed those who controlled the sea would control the world; the "Heartland" theory raised by Halford John Mackinder from Britain believed those who controlled Eurasia would control the world; while the "Rim Land" theory raised by Nicholas John Spykmanfrom the U.S. believed those who controlled the rim land would control the world. Not long ago, the former White House strategic adviser Steve Bannon proposed that China's "Belt and Road" initiative embodied the three theories, intending to control the world by its promotion, and every country of the world should reject it and so forth. We must point out the tree geopolitical theories differ from the "Belt and Road" initiative fundamentally and cannot be mentioned in the same breath, as they are different in time and space.

I. The Three Theories Cannot be Compared with the "Belt and Road" Initiative

Outwardly, the "Belt and Road" initiative contains the three traditional geopolitical theories: the "Maritime Silk Road for the 21st Century" involves the long sea passages including those to Southeast Asia, while the "Silk Road Economic Belt" passes the Heartland depicted by Mackinder. If the "Belt and Road" initiative and the three geopolitical theories are observed from the historical and realistic perspectives, we will find out that the ratiocination made by the American elite conforms to neither historical track, nor realistic logic and future development trend. Now, let us discuss it from the perspectives of the times and technical development.

A. The geopolitical theories have a clear time-space imprint. The emergence and development of any theory as well as their impact on national decision and international relations are naturally concrete reflections of the time. Contentions for sea, land and rim land at different times and by different nations have attracted the attention of the geo- politicians. The end of the 15th century

witnessed the beginning of the age of great voyage, which extended the discussions of the geo-politicians to the seas. In the 17th century, theories relating to international trade, maritime navigation and freedom of the high seas emerged. At the end of the 19th century, the big powers would contend for geo-superiority with fire arms, or even waged wars. In the two world wars, geopolitical theories mushroomed, which related, to a large extent, with the scramble of spheres of influence by the belligerent states. Since the beginning of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union established their military alliances respectively, with their contest extending from the land and sea to the outer space, thus giving birth to the "High Frontier" theory.

The birth and expansion of geopolitical theories have all closely related to the time. Before the Industrial Revolution, national strength of any country mainly came from its vast territories and large population, with the growth of social wealth depending heavily on agriculture and animal husbandry. If a state wanted to be powerful, it should build a strong army to obtain strategic regions by capturing new territories and conquering more people. The "Land Power" theory has emerged against a strong background of Agricultural Revolution. There were several wars before the First World War sweeping across Europe, all of which were intended to contest for the dominance of the land.

After the Industrial Revolution, the demand of capital for markets and resources has far exceededthe boundaries of a state, with capital accumulation becoming the major source of social wealth growth. As capital accumulation featured strong expansion in nature, the political leaders and business giants of the state began to pin their eyes on the world. The development of seafaring and ocean-going trade has encouraged the big powers to contend for new spaces. Big powers conquered more colonies and obtained bigger markets and more resources by controlling the sea power. Against such backdrop, maintaining control of sea passages has become the focus of contention by big powers, through which to consolidate and expand their overseas colonies and keep other powers from obtaining more markets and resources.

The Second World War redefined the geopolitical boundaries. The anti-colonial movement ragedlike a storm in the post Second World War era, with colonies striving for national liberation and independence becoming the main content of geopolitical studies. The "Three World Theory" proposed by Comrade Mao Zedong was broadly identified with by the international community. Coupled with the introduction of nuclear arms and missiles, the decision-makers of big powers dared not resort to forces easily to resolve disputes. During this period, the three geopolitical theories withdrew from the center stage, with the Cold War becoming the core content of geopolitical theories.

Since the world entering the 21st century, the process of political multi-polarization, economic globalization, social informatization and cultural diversification has accelerated. The age has gone far beyond simply the "convergence of geography and political power", connecting all the countries of the world closely together for good or ill. A British scholar pointed out, "geopolitics has manifested a new ideology……The views of the old geopolitics used to emphasize part of the territory, while the state concentrated on pursuit of the best interests. Even though this might lead to confrontation or a war, the tendency would rather remain as it was, as the old geopolitics focused only on space and power as well as their relations." "The views of the new geopolitics are global, which emphasizes the world as a whole, and that no 'regional' issues can be solved independently without resolving other broader issues, thus providing an effective way to resolve many of the issues with global significance."

The defects of the traditional geopolitical theories lie in dwelling on certain spatial point, from the earlier sea and land to the rim land later, which were all obviously limited by time-space. When looking at the geopolitical theories of the 20th century, one may find the conclusions made by these geopolitical theorists often served as the theoretical basis for nations in pursuit of becoming an imperialist power, colonial plunder, expansion and aggression or even for waging wars. Contrast to these traditional geopolitical theories, the "Belt and Road" initiative proposed by China is more conforming to the time in feature: it does not pursue the control of certain regions as its starting point, but advocates "mutual consultation, joint construction and co-sharing", and intends to build a new type of international relations and forge a community with a shared future for humanity. From the perspective of national development strategy, China has neither intentions nor capabilities to control the sea, the land and the rim land of the world.

B. Technical advance has given birth to different geopolitical theories. The advance of science and technology is the driver for social changes, which has given birth to various geopolitical theories from different angles. New science and technology have changed the mode of production, giving

rise to industrial revolution, international division of labor, capital transfer, and re-allocation of market and resources, which have boosted major changes in international politics, international relations, and international trade, providing new spaces of imagination and practice for geopolitical studies.

In late 19th century, the U.S. took the lead in initiating a science and technology revolution as represented in the fields of electricity, steel and transportation, which soon spread to Europe. This technological revolution on a global scale had greatly raised the social productivity, changed the relations of production, altered the pattern of wars, produced monopoly and financial oligarchs, and formed national interest groups, whose demand for overseas market controlled the operation of state apparatus. As a result, to ensure control of the sea was self-evidently placed before the decision-makers of the state. The IT revolution that began in the 1970s has made the international community closely inter-connected, unprecedentedly strengthened the intensity and frequency of interactions between nations, and greatly increased interdependency among nations, which have made the geopolitical theories that focused on controlling certain areas apparently inappropriate.

Technical innovation has not only expanded the space for human activities, but also added new meanings to the power in different spaces. The three geopolitical theories mentioned above have certain characters of technical progress. After the sailing ships, mankind entered the age of steam power, while Mahan's "Sea Power Theory" reflected the application of maritime transportation technology and the utilization of the sea by mankind for obtaining national power. In early 20th century, the development of railroad technology much weakened the superiority of sea power, and especially the introduction of diesel locomotives and the construction of modern highway networks made the sea give way to the mobility on land. Since then, the vast Eurasia has become the major competition arena of the world in geopolitics. Therefore, Mackinder believed technology that used to be in favor of sea power was turned in early 20th century to favor land power, thus raising his "Heartland Theory". Nevertheless, with the further development of technology, human activities on the sea and land as well as in space have tended to be integrated, while the wealth of prosperous nations is more often than not concentrated in the rim land, as depicted by Spykman in his "Rim Land Theory".

In the 1970s, driven by the tide of globalization, more interconnected and interdependent networks began to take shape. "In a broad sense, we have got into a system that connects people closely through a World-Wide Web out of a system that built walls to separate people from one another". Mankind is marching toward a new space ---- cyberspace, while geopolitics has tended to be globally networked: global internet, communication infrastructure, data base, and cabled television have made the dependence on and the engagement with market and resources enter a new space, which has completely breached the strict internal and external distinction or limit in traditional sense. Any country cannot work out its own domestic and foreign policies as well as safeguard its own national interest without considering the geopolitical space of other countries.

Therefore, an open cooperation model that highlights mutual interests should replace the old relationship among capital, market and resources, while nations are expected to organically combine their geopolitical demand with the geopolitical demand of other nations or even that of the world. Big powers should only obtain national interests recognized by other nations, and ensure the consolidation and development of these interests through relevant international mechanisms and arrangement. Geopolitics under globalization must acquire common recognized community with a shared future rather than one-dimensional domains like the sea, the land, and the rim land. The "Belt and Road" advocated by China is the result of scientific and technological advance made by mankind. The "Wutong" (policy, infrastructure, trade, financial, and people-to-people connectivity) championed by the "Belt and Road" initiative calls for the support of modern technology, and conversely the "Wutong" will boost the upgrading and progress of technology.

II. The "Belt and Road" Initiative will Guide the Development of the Times

In sum, the "Belt and Road" initiative is by no means the combination of the three traditional geopolitical theories, nor does it serve as the theoretical basis for China to seek hegemony. Moreover, it is not the practice of the Sea Power, Heartland and Rim Land theories in a simple sense.

A. It complies with the development trend of the times. Political multi-polarization has made it impossible for any country to exalt only its own self and fight singly as in the past cases. Economic globalization has made all the countries in the world interlinked and complementing each other on the world industrial chain, where they remain unprecedentedly dependent on each other in economic lives. Social informatization has sped up the evolution of resources, capital, talents, information, and market allocation, while closing door to the rest of the world would only make self isolation. And cultural diversification has added more color to our world, making self-thriving short-lived, as "no country can cope with various challenges facing mankind alone, nor is there any country that can retreat to self isolation".

B. It upholds the spirit of open regional cooperation, and strives to preserve the global free trade

system and an open world economy. The "Belt and Road" initiative is intended to boost the free flow of economic factors in an orderly way, efficient allocation of resources, and deep integration of markets; and promote the countries along the Belt and Road to coordinate their economic policies and engage in broader, higher level and deeper regional cooperation, so as to jointly forge a regional economic cooperation framework that highlights openness, inclusiveness, balance and universality.

C. It has offered a plan full of Chinese wisdom for global governance. "To jointly build the 'Belt and Road' conforms to the fundamental interests of the international community, manifests the common ideal and beautiful pursuit of mankind, and constitutes a positive exploration of a new model for international cooperation and global governance, which will add new positive energy to world peace and development". In an era characterized by great development, big changes and major adjustment, different countries have taken different coping posture. After taking office, Trump has withdrawn from quite some international treaties and mechanisms, showing a narrow unilateralist tendency and staging trade wars, which has chilled the international community. Against such background, the Chinese plan in the form of the "Belt and Road" appears more important and precious.

(The author is Senior Research Fellow and Director of Department for American Studies, CIIS. This article was received on 5 Aug. 2018.)

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