There is an intriguing idea in international relations study called “a perceptual shock”. It denotes any single event that suddenly makes decision-makers aware of the cumulative effect of gradual long-term power trends, the proverbial alarm bell or wake-up call. The Soviets’ success with Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957, was such a shock for the United States. Suddenly, American technological supremacy no longer seemed assured.
Has there been such a similar shock for Americans that their political leaders have now embarked on an all-of-government response to contain China’s rise and roll back its global influence? I wonder if the Belt and Road Initiative qualifies.
The latest Group of Seven meeting was little more than a long “bash China” session, and the group’s single biggest initiative has been a US-led plan for the West to coordinate an alternative infrastructure plan to rival the belt and road strategy.
Certainly, it is not a one-off event, but a multi-year project that has upended long-standing Western assumptions about China’s global ambitions and capabilities. You can argue the “shock” has been more gradual, not a short sharp one. Still, for Westerners, though, especially American policymakers long accustomed to the thesis of “China’s imminent collapse, any time now”, the country’s rise to being the world’s second-largest economy has been a huge shock.
But then, there is the unmistakably perceptual part. You may remember a famous ambiguous drawing which looks like either a duck or a rabbit. What do geopolitical strategists and military experts in China and the US see when they look at a map of the belt and road?
The Chinese may well see the modern-day version of the ancient Silk Road for global trade. At least that has been how many officials in Beijing have advertised the massive infrastructure programme, which has so far contracted 140 countries with development projects on five continents.
Someone in Washington looks at the same map and may well see an attempt at world dominance. Duck or rabbit; world trade or global dominance?
This would be an old geopolitical idea, indeed, possibly the paradigmatic one of the world’s “heartland” theory first advanced by British geographer and strategist Halford J. Mackinder.
In his latest “Gloom Boom Doom Report”, Hong Kong’s very own “Dr Doom” Marc Faber himself raises this point in considering the balance of world powers today. According to Mackinder, he quotes, “The great wars of history – we have had a world war about every hundred years for the last four centuries – are the outcome, direct or indirect, of the unequal growth of nations, and that unequal growth is not wholly due to the greater genius and energy of some nations as compared with others; in large measure it is the result of the uneven distribution of fertility and strategical opportunity upon the face of our globe.”
Faber continues: “In 1904, Mackinder submitted an essay to the Royal Geographical Society in which he advanced his Heartland Theory. He identified the Heartland as the centre of the World-Island, which stretched from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic, and was at the time largely ruled by the Russian Empire (later the Soviet Union). Mackinder summarised his theory as follows: ‘Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island controls the world.’”
OK, the two maps of the belt and road strategy and Mackinder’s heartland don’t coincide, and friends in one of my discussion groups all thought Mackinder’s was a stupid and discredited idea.
But take out the northern Russian land mass and include what Mackinder calls “the inner crescent” – which is partly maritime and partly continental, and which extends along the Eurasian littoral, including most of continental Europe west of Russia, the Maghreb (roughly northern Africa), the Middle East, and continental South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia – this map pretty much coincides with the whole belt and road extending all the way to Europe. This “crescent” includes, so Mackinder observes, most of the world’s population and non-Western civilisations.
I asked my more learned friends: “Wasn’t Mackinder obviously wrong?”
In reply, our resident historian observed that bad ideas and theories rarely die a well-deserved death as people are constantly “shopping at the discount aisle of the supermarket of ideas” so they don’t have to think for themselves.
While I agree, I also think for opportunistic US politicians, it matters less whether an idea is good or bad, true or false, but whether it’s useful or not for their purposes or agendas, which are almost always hidden from the public. It’s even better if it confuses or misdirects people.
So, if I were an American policymaker looking at the belt and road map, it obviously poses vast geopolitical and strategic threats, in exactly the same terms as Mackinder had theorised more than a century ago.