Has America Lost Eurasia To China? | Opinion

Joe Biden received a cool reception from Europe this month at both the Group of 7 meeting and the Munich Security Conference. "America is back," the new president declared, but no one on the Continent seemed to particularly care.

Biden's efforts to reinvigorate the transatlantic alliance fell flat, especially when he talked about containing militant China. China may be a neo-totalitarian state committing genocide and other crimes against humanity while invading its neighbors with impunity, but in some quarters that does not seem to matter. What matters is that last year, China surpassed the U.S. to become the European Union's largest merchandise trading partner.

So in large part due to economic factors, the Western alliance is fracturing. Beijing is finding it easier to court Europe.

At the present time, China is wooing Russia. As Vladimir Putin suggested in late October, ties between the two capitals are now extremely close. "We don't need it, but, theoretically, it's quite possible to imagine it," he told foreign policy experts when asked whether a formal Russia-China military alliance was possible.

China and Russia already have a "strategic partnership" and are bound by both a sense of commonality of interests and a common loathing of the United States.

Although a China-Russia partnership would still not be as strong as the United States, the pair are beginning to dominate territory that geopolitical thinkers believe is critical.

"Halford John Mackinder, arguably the founder of the modern school of geopolitics, believed that the rise of a unified Eurasian 'heartland' would eventually threaten the dominance of the Western maritime powers," Leonard Hochberg, coordinator of the Mackinder Forum-U.S., told Newsweek. "We see his prediction coming true today."

In the first decade of the 20th century, Mackinder proposed his Heartland theory. The Heartland—a portion of Eastern Europe and the interior of Asia, not including what was then China—was the center of the world.

His theory is simple, as he summarized it 102 years ago. Mackinder thought that whoever commanded Eastern Europe commanded the Heartland; whoever commanded the Heartland, in turn, commanded the "World Island"—in other words, Asia, Europe and Africa; and whoever commanded the World Island commanded the world.

Beijing is absolutely determined to control the Heartland, and Chinese leaders are devoted Mackinderites.

At the same time, they are also adherents of the Rimland Theory of Nicholas John Spykman. Spykman, who followed Mackinder, believed that the control of the societies bordering Russia—the Rimland—confers control of Eurasia, and the control of Eurasia confers control over "the destinies of the world."

China and Russia together dominate the Rimland, and they look to be the predominant power in the Heartland, as well. Even if one is not a devoted follower of the theories of Mackinder or Spykman, Chinese and Russian activities cause alarm.

Beijing, gaining ground in both Europe and Asia, has a good thing going as it seeks to challenge America. So how could it flop?

First, China could end up alienating Russia. Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 announced the Silk Road Economic Belt, a series of railroads and highways through Central Asia—the Rimland—connecting China to Europe, the Heartland.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Tiananmen Square, Beijing NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Beijing has been busy replacing Moscow as the dominant trading power, investor and creditor in the Rimland. It is reworking transportation routes in Central Asia, building out east-west links that increase Chinese influence and decrease Russia's, which depends on north-south traffic.

Second, Beijing has just made an important foe, one with great influence in the Rimland. After the Galwan Valley clash that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers last June 15, New Delhi quickly reoriented its foreign policy to oppose China across the board. "We may look back at that incident as a moment that shifted the world," Cleo Paskal of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies told Newsweek.

As Paskal, also of Chatham House, has noted, Beijing has since Galwan deliberately taken steps to anger India. The Chinese look determined to create a large adversary for themselves.

Third, Beijing could lose its focus of dominating the Heartland and Rimland. The People's Republic of China is also populated by adherents of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who thought those who controlled the seas could control the world. Xi in 2013 also announced another grand project, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road—sea routes between China and the rest of the world.

Xi is also busy trying to extend power eastward across his peripheral waters—the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea—toward the Pacific and, ultimately, the Americas.

China's grand ambition is to control everything—Mackinder's Heartland, Spykman's Rimland and Mahan's sea lanes.

That looks like a nasty case of what Yale's Paul Kennedy once termed "imperial overstretch."

Biden can stymie China's extraordinarily ambitious efforts, but it will take more than what he has done so far.

Washington will have to work hard. It is not enough to make pronouncements, which is what Biden did in his G7 and Munich speeches. He will have to cement America's relationship with India, going beyond military pacts like the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement inked last October. Biden will have to develop stronger trade and investment ties, as well. And he will have to woo Russia away from China, thereby splitting apart the partnership that now dominates the Heartland and Rimland.

There is no time for America to waste. At the moment, China is putting everything in play, even the century-old transatlantic alliance.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.