China is both a land and sea power, which makes containing it harder than it was to contain the largely landlocked Soviet Union. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) stretches across the Eurasian landmass into Central Asia and Europe, while its sea power component extends from the East and South China seas, through the Strait of Malacca, into the Indian Ocean across to the coast of Africa.
There is a reason that China’s leaders have devoted so many resources to the PLA Navy. They understand that Sir Halford Mackinder was right when he described Eurasia–Africa as the “World-Island” that combined incomparable human and natural resources with geopolitical insularity. To contain China is to confront it both on land and at sea. On land, the United States requires continental allies such as India and Vietnam, Central Asian states, and optimally Russia to serve as continental distractions. At sea, America needs to envision the series of island arcs stretching from the Arctic to what was once known as the South Sea as geographical barriers to China’s naval power. The most important island groups there are Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, while Australia can serve as a vast geopolitical anchor.
India’s navy can help the United States maintain supremacy in the Indian Ocean, which Robert Kaplan in his important book Monsoon called the new geopolitical pivot of global politics. Kaplan explained that the growing importance of the Indian Ocean was due to geopolitics and geo-economics — much of the world’s trade traverses the ocean on its way to and from China, Japan, and other countries in the East Asian-Pacific region. The Indian Ocean links the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Middle East, and Africa to the Far East — which is the southern maritime highway of the World-Island.
Along that strategic and commercial highway sit important maritime chokepoints, such as Aden, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Strait of Malacca. And around the inner crescent of the Indian Ocean are important ports that strategists call the “String of Pearls” situated near Singapore, Myanmar (Kyaukpyu port), the Coco Islands, Bangladesh (Chittagong), Sri Lanka, Pakistan (Gwadar), and Port Sudan, forming a maritime encirclement of India.
In 2018, China issued a paper entitled “Arctic Policy,” which described the melting Arctic above the north-Russian coastline as a new “Polar Silk Road,” which it is jointly developing and exploiting with Russia. Sino-Russian control of the new Arctic passageways combined with Chinese control of the Indian Ocean maritime route would make Eurasia–Africa truly insular, and if combined with a Sino-Russian bloc on Eurasia’s landmass could result in a hostile great power alliance in command of the World-Island. Mackinder’s geopolitical nightmare would become reality and, as he wrote, “the empire of the world would then be in sight.” (READ MORE: The Threat of a China-Centric New World Order)
It appears that the United States is once again locked in a “long twilight struggle” with a great Eurasian-based power that is challenging the U.S.-shaped world order. The stakes are great. The challenge is multifaceted. The current administration does not inspire confidence that it is up to the challenge, or that it even understands the geopolitical dilemma of the emerging Sino-Russian strategic relationship. Instead, it is pursuing a foreign policy that has helped push China and Russia closer together, and if the current crises over Ukraine and Taiwan get out of hand, it may have us at war with both powers. That would be a strategic failure of inestimable proportions.