In 2008, I visited the National Development and Reform Commission, the nerve centre of China’s economic policy. I was Belgian, academic, and harmless. Chinese officials, at that time, also felt more relaxed about foreigners. The commission wanted to talk about connecting Asia to Europe. This happened five years before the new Silk Road was officially revealed. Stacks of binders and iron cabinets lined the narrow corridors. Ash trays, fans, and cups filled with soaked tea leaves were everywhere. Nothing made this appear the place were economic strategy was made, except one large map. It had coloured lines reaching out from the country like spider legs: into the Indian Ocean, Central Asia, and Russia, as far as Europe even. This was a vision of empire in the making. Today, this vision is being put into practice as the Belt and Road Initiative.
I never sensed, however, that most Chinese officials see this as a project of empire. To them, the roads, railways, pipelines, cables, and maritime corridors mean growth: export opportunities for glutted steel factories, business for construction companies, pay checks for contract workers, and a boost for landlocked provinces. The intent of China’s economic vision for Eurasia has not much to do with intentional imperialism. It wants to be rich, respected, and sovereign, like any other country. The long-term consequence of China positioning itself at the heart of this vast Eurasian market, though, is an imperial order of a scale not seen before. Especially because other parts of this landmass remain fragile. India fails to keep pace. Southeast Asia struggles to compete. Russia is an oil state with nuclear missiles; Europe a crumbling internal market with limited external influence. Modern China is not an empire by intent, but by consequence.
The United States mismanages this Eurasian power shift. Attempts to empower other Eurasian protagonists failed. The weakening of, Europe and Japan, creates a strategic void that is often filled by China – and Russia. Collective efforts to respond to China’s growing economic influence by means of advanced trade agreements, like TPP and TTIP, collapsed. Unilateral answers to China’s growing influence throughout Eurasia are constrained by the threat of overreach. Fixation with Chinese military advances in the Pacific Ocean might make it even easier for Beijing to exploit the weakness elsewhere, to create circumstances that are relatively conducive to its growth, and, hence, to challenge American Pacific primacy in the long run. America will never check China in the Indo-Pacific, if it is allowed to become dominant on the Eurasian landmass.
The Pacific is but a theatre where China displays the power that it gathers elsewhere. What American sailors and grunts, face up to in the Pacific is to a large extent a reflection of China’s growing Eurasian influence. Many of its advanced destroyers, for example, run on diesel motors from Germany, are fitted with missiles built with Russian technology, rely on Israeli or French satellite knowhow, on Dutch computer chip engineering, and might run on fuel from some country in the Middle East. Eurasia remains a critical source of growth for China. It absorbs seventy percent of China’s exports, represents around eighty percent of all foreign investment in China, provides in half of China’s energy import, and, in light of American restrictions, is an indispensable source of technology. Eurasia is China’s economic backyard, supply lines stretching from Shanghai to Rotterdam.
Eurasia represents sixty percent of the world economy and seventy percent of its population. Whoever dominates Eurasia has the way open to domineer the rest of the world. What sets China apart from Eurasian pretenders in the past, is of course its size. Whereas one considers Napoleonic France and imperial Germany versus Britain, or Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union versus the United States; China’s economic and demographic potential are far larger. For all the speculation about slowdown or relocation of economic activity to India, China keeps powering ahead. It already represents a quarter of Eurasia’s official military spending and thirty percent of its manufacturing. The Chinese economy slows down, but so do others’. In the last two years, India, for example, grew slower and still attracted much less foreign investment. The power shift thus continues.
And so far, there has been little resistance. Realist international relations theory holds that states balance against a rising power, certainly when it is nearby and has a history of dominance. But consider Japan. In spite of talks to reduce dependence on China, Japanese investors still find it irresistible. Many Southeast Asian countries accept Chinese dominance as a given. India has turned to China as an investor and despite the current tensions might continue to do so. Europe talks tougher on China, but its consumers and companies too continue to fall for China’s lure. Russia continues to open its economy to Chinese influence. China’s Eurasian neighbourhood does not challenge its rise; it expedites China’s rise. These countries allow China to run an annual surplus of US$ 470 billion in the trade of industrial goods, which it China uses to buy access to their oil fields, farmland, ports, and technology. Eurasia, so far, is an amplifier of Chinese influence.
If we approach China’s rise through the concept of a Thucydides Trap, as a showdown, in this case, between the leading maritime power and a rising land power, the Pacific seems to be the foremost battle ground, the stage for a new epic power struggle. But the Pacific is thus part of a larger Eurasian playground. This proposition is not new. Alfred Tayer Mahan kept a cautious eye on challengers in both the western and eastern part of Eurasia. He highlighted the importance of dominance in the oceans around Asia. Halford John Mackinder developed his famous thesis that railways and telegraph lines would allow land powers consolidate their might in the heart of Eurasia and, consequently, challenge the maritime powers. Nicholas Spykman put the emphasis on the rimland, the maritime fringes of Eurasia, as the main location of competition. All three understood the importance of Eurasia, yet came to different priorities.
Modern technology has made that prioritization obsolete. When the previous Eurasian pretenders arrived, at the time of Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman, Eurasia was fragmented by mountains, seas, and endless uninhabited plains into sub-regions: Europe, Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and so forth. Technology erases these barriers. The most recent border skirmishes between China and India revealed how the Tibetan plateau has been turned into a stronghold, thanks to new all-weather roads, railways, airports, electricity lines, and high-altitude warfighting capabilities. Each day, over thirty trains ply between China and Europe. Shipping around the maritime margins of Eurasia, both via the Indian Ocean and the Arctic, has expanded spectacularly. The Belt and Road Initiative, also comes with the ambition to weave Eurasia into a web of Chinese fibre-optic cables, energy grids, and airports. China is not just a land power; it is an omnipresent power.
Any effective response to China’s rise must go beyond a narrow Pacific approach, and even beyond an Indo-Pacific approach. It must be Eurasian in its scope, understand the importance of the heartland of Mackinder, the Rimland of Spykman, and the blue waters of Mahan. It is the Eurasian heartland, the continental centre, that still provides in important natural resources, strategic depth, as well as a corridor for land and air transportation. It is the Eurasian Rimland where the main consumer markets are located, where industrial centres compete, where most of the seaborne trade navigates through vulnerable choke points, and where the power shift becomes most manifest. It is in the adjacent oceans, that a Eurasian maritime ring road is in the making, with renewed interest in its relevance for deep sea mining, second-strike nuclear patrols, and keeping the United States at a distance. The twenty-first century no longer allows the luxury of choice: the three layers will have to be considered at the same time.
The nature of change
A first requirement is thus to get the geopolitics of the Eurasian playground right, which is maritime, littoral, and continental at the same time. A second requirement is to grasp the nature of power politics. We increasingly tend to see two alpha lions readying for a dramatic fight somewhere on a hilltop, anticipate a showdown in the Pacific. Consequently, efforts are concentrated on countering Chinese missiles and warships in this theatre. Take mosaic warfare, meant to fight China through dispersed long-range strikes, or the vision of the Marine Corps to strangulate China inside the first island chain that stretches from Japan to the Philippines. But all China needs, is in fact a fixation with its missiles and warships, so that it can go on altering the balance of power by other means.
If this is a new Sparta and Athens, a new Thucydides Trap, it is worth trying to understand how Athens grew so powerful in the first place. Before it was capable of building its might fleet of triremes, there was first the cunning statecraft of the lawmaker-poet Solon. His industrial policy lured pottery makers away from rivalling city states and put Athens at the centre of the Mediterranean economic order. Each piece of black-figure pottery, each amphora of olive oil contributed to Athene’s riches, like each container load and each parcel shipped through Aliexpress contribute to China’s power today. It was sophisticated mercantilism that allowed Athens to impel the neighbouring city states of Attica slowly into a sphere of influence, and so is it the case with China. Discipline and sacrifice were the morals characterizing Athens. About a century after Solon, Themistocles persuaded his compatriots to sacrifice a new silver mine to grow the Athenian fleet, instead of spending it on consumption. This investment thrift is also the essence of Chinese state capitalism.
A more useful metaphor than a new alpha male crawling upon the hill, is an empire of killer ants that stealthily and steadily changes the environment. We all see the nest grow, but the change mostly happens quietly. Each bridge or dam that is complete, each investment zone that is opened abroad, each container ship that sails into the port, each piece of foreign property that is bought adds to China’s power and reduces the freedom of action of other countries. Like the with the empire of ants, discipline and sacrifice among the millions of workers is vital. Like with the empire of ants, everything is hybrid: the industrious columns that bring on the resources, can morph into fighting power the other day. And like with the ant empire finally, everything is diffuse. There is not just one Silk Road that allows China to grow its influence throughout Eurasia; there are dozens. That makes it so resilient.
Instead of just asking whether China and the United States are bound for war, we must grasp why China remains successful. All China needs is an adversary obsessed with its new aircraft carriers and hypersonic missiles to be capable to continue altering the balance of power, perhaps to the point, one day, that the incumbent power is just no match anymore. So, it is important to broaden attention from the Pacific to Eurasia, and to from military power plays to the diffuse and offensive mercantilism with which China changes Eurasia. There is a third factor that needs to be considered: the behaviour of regional and lesser powers. The United States often prides itself that it has more allies. Yet, what China needs at this moment, is not yet allies, but countries that keep hedging their bets opportunistically, countries that neither join China nor resist it.
America’s allies might one day become important when it comes to war. But short of war, many of these allies have proved pretty useless in trying to check China’s rise. Consider Japan. Japanese investors remain among the biggest contributors to China’s industrialization. Consider Europe. NATO is supposed to defend the Euro-Atlantic values and way of life, but even today, many European NATO countries refuse to consider to see China as a long-term security threat and are underwhelmed by Washington’s demands to be more cautious in sharing technology. In the United States, security interests have come to trump commercial interests; in most places in Eurasia, this is still the other way around. Inside the business communities, from Hamburg to Singapore, and despite the crackdown in Hong Kong, the situation in Xinjiang, and the corona pandemic, one keeps hearing that business with China is indispensable. It makes one think of the way the Gokturks described the Tang Emperors: “Ensnaring them with their ingratiating talk and enervating riches, they have drawn the far-dwelling peoples nearer to themselves.”
The lure of China is only one explanation of Eurasia’s opportunistic hedging. Absent a clear-eyed geo-economic vision for Eurasia, America itself failed to influence other countries. Two important multilateral trade agreements were destroyed by the current administration. President Donald Trump’s protectionist tone has driven key economies, like Germany and India, closer to China. But even before Trump, administrations failed to empower alternative centres of power and to rebalance the Eurasian playground. Between 2012, when the Obama administration announced its desire to diversify its Asian partnerships more, and 2018, China has attracted close to US$ 90 billion of American foreign direct investment. India, by comparison, only received US$ 20 billion, the Philippines US$ 4 billion Indonesia, Vietnam US$ 1 billion, and Indonesia even less. Since the so-called rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, also, China’s share in the United States’ total imports from Asia continued to climb: from 44 to 48 percent.
Eurasian countries tend to hedge instead of resisting China. American policy has not done much to offer an alternative to China’s economic attraction. Its own trade and investment keeps making China a more formidable economic competitor, geopolitical adversary, and authoritarian powerhouse. During the last four years of the Trump administration, the United States has slid into a vicious cycle. China is frightening enough to make Washington concentrate more of its efforts on the Pacific, while at the same time a combination of unilateralism and retreat leaves China enough space to expand its influence throughout Eurasia. As Washington gets more seriously about the contest in the Pacific, it keeps losing ground elsewhere.
Between the nineties and the turn of the century, China fortified its position on the continent, its sovereignty, and its industrial might. This was the age of Deng Xiaoping’s self-restraint, a time during which American armed forces could afford to operate right up to China’s doorstep. China expressed its interest in Taiwan, the South China Sea, and so forth, but prioritized security in the realm of Mackinder: the restless minority areas of Xinjiang and Tibet. In the subsequent two decades, China combined this continental ambition with the start of a rimland and inner sea pushback, in the realm of Spykman. This era was heralded by the EP-3 incident in 2001, saw the rolling out of massive anti-access and area denial capabilities, the start of the Belt and Road Initiative, China transforming islets into naval fortresses, and grow its presence all along the Eurasian maritime ring road. Russia is somewhat on the same trajectory, but that is another discussion.
In the next decades, horizon 2040, we might see China consolidate these first two stages and forge deeper into the realm of Mahan, emerge as the leading ocean going power, boasting a vast merchant fleet, the capacity to mine the ocean floor, the world’s largest navy, multiple forward bases, and a large fleet of nuclear missile submarines. In the very long run, an unchecked China will be capable of insulating Eurasia from its main maritime adversary. If this trend continues, China’s Eurasian power grab might become Napoleon’s continental system, Germany’s “place under the sun”, Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere, and Comecon all at the same time, perhaps subtler, bigger, and more efficient. This transformation is about the next century, not just the next decade. Considering the Indo-Pacific as a moat, allows China to turn Eurasia into a fortress.
The advantage of this situation, however, is that the transformation of Asia is a slow process. China is not yet an empire and still not dominates Eurasia. There remains scope for Eurasian engagement, which is a far more durable policy than Indo-Pacific containment. We can allow China to grow, to pursue its legitimate goal of getting prosperous, and even steer clear of a Thucydides Trap, if other Eurasian actors are empowered. In the realm of Mahan, the United States should continue to aspire military advantage, undo China’s growing advance in hypersonic missiles, fait-accompli invasion, and electronic warfare.
In the realm of Spykman, the United States could proactively reorient trade and investment to Southeast Asia and India. It cannot accept the argument that the market should leave companies to decide where they set up shop, as long as Chinese state capitalism distorts the market. With a combination of empathy and flexibility, it needs to weave a web of trade agreements throughout the rimland, find ways for trade and investment to prop up frail democracies. This has to happen fast. It can do so much easier when it finds a clear understanding with Europe about China. European hesitance is a dreamed opportunity for China to keep access to a vast market and precious technology, and to keep the United States overburdened. The most urgent need is not for allies, but for key countries to have an alternative for opportunistic hedging. The United States also needs to preserve its advantageous military position along littoral choke points: Malacca, Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb, and so forth.
In the domain of Mackinder, finally, the heart of Eurasia, the United States also needs to work with Europe to make sure that the Western end of the new silk road remains beyond the control of China, as it was the case in the last two thousand years. It means primarily to prevent that countries like Iran and Russia be absorbed into China’s orbit. This is a balancing exercise. On the one hand, the United States and these regional powers are at loggerheads in terms of certain geopolitical interests and values. On the other hand, they have a shared interest in avoiding the rise of a Eurasian leviathan. The main effort, hence, should not be to consider these countries as close partners. If the effort is to coax the rimland from hedging behaviour to forming closer partnerships with the West, the aim with regard to the heartland is to change the tendency towards close partnerships with China towards hedging, with perhaps a long-term expectation for reform and opening-up.
Four important corrections are to be made. First, the United States must balance China not just as a (Indo-) Pacific adversary, but as a potential Eurasian empire. A geopolitical and geoeconomic vision for the whole Eurasian landmass is key. Second, it must shift from balancing alone to balancing together. The United States need to regain its reliability as a partner. Third, such external balancing should not be about derailing China’s rise, but empowering other countries, to make sure that there are more Spartas and Athens, to dilute Chinese influence. Fourth, balancing in the military domain must be complemented with balancing in the economic domain, include sophisticated policies to deal with China’s sophisticated offensive mercantilism, and put forward fine-grained instruments to address the diffuse nature of China’s growing influence throughout Eurasia.
© Jonathan Holslag