China has started to heavily invest in an icebreaking fleet; Chinese naval strategists have written that “whoever controls the Arctic Ocean will control the new corridor for the world economy.” The Eurasian “heartland” is no longer landlocked. The age of Eurasian sea powers has arrived.
National Defense University Professor Geoffrey Gresh in his new book To Rule the Waves analyzes the current maritime geoeconomic and geopolitical competition among Eurasia’s emerging great powers—China, Russia, and India. Each of these Eurasian powers, he writes, seeks to achieve “great power status and to expand beyond their regional seas.” This competition, Gresh notes, poses a direct challenge to the US-led world order. And such a challenge, as Arnold Toynbee explained, produces a response.
Gresh’s focus is on maritime power in its broadest sense: financial investments, shipping, merchant fleets, trade, logistics and supply chains, access to natural resources, control of ports, protecting sea lanes of communication, and possessing a strong navy. He equates “maritime geoeconomics” with what Alfred Thayer Mahan broadly defined as “sea power”. In fact, Gresh cites Mahan throughout the book, and notes that current Chinese, Indian, and Russian naval strategists are Mahanian in their outlook.
The most famous classical global geopolitical theorists—Mahan, Halford Mackinder, and Nicholas Spykman—are frequently mislabeled as proponents of sea power or land power, when in reality they used a holistic approach to geopolitical analysis. Mahan and Spykman, who are usually categorized as sea power enthusiasts, understood that great sea powers needed sufficient resources and population and continental allies to project power on land. Mackinder, who is considered by many a land power proponent, wrote that “[t]he unity of the ocean is the simple physical fact underlying the dominant value of sea-power in the modern globe-wide world.”
Mackinder in Democratic Ideals and Reality viewed Eurasia-Africa as the “World Island”, which potentially combined incomparable resources with strategic insularity. Gresh holds a similar worldview. He depicts Eurasia as geopolitically insular and focuses his analysis on the great power competition in its adjacent seas—the Baltic and Black Seas, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red and Arabian Seas, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, the Java Sea, the South and East China Seas, the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Arctic Ocean.
Russia is less of a competitor and more of a partner with China.
The competition Gresh writes about is mostly geoeconomic or what he calls “the economics of geopolitics”. This consists of “trade policy, investment policy, economic sanctions, the cybersphere, aid, monetary policy, and energy and commodity policies”. China, he believes, with its Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime Silk Road, is significantly ahead in this competition. It has used its economic power to invest in ports and shipping infrastructure from the Mediterranean Sea to East Asia. Russia, meanwhile, is less of a competitor and more of a partner with China, which presents the United States and its allies with an updated version of the old Sino-Soviet bloc of the 1950s and 1960s, minus the ideology. India’s belated recognition of the increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean has caused it to “embrace the sea” and grow closer to the United States and Japan.
Gresh identifies the key maritime geopolitical features surrounding Eurasia, including strategic “chokepoints” and important sea lanes of communication. He does a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the navies of the contending great powers. He quotes the political leaders and leading strategic analysts of the competing powers to show their commitment to achieving great power status via maritime geoeconomics and the growth of naval power. He identifies a melting Arctic Ocean as the next frontier in maritime geoeconomic competition—and here Russia, because of geography, has the edge.
Eurasia is a big space with room for more than one great power.
Gresh worries that the increased maritime competition around Eurasia could lead to inadvertent clashes at sea between China, India, the United States, Japan, and others. Geopolitically, he worries that current US policy leans toward “retrenchment”, and that Russia and China “hope to undermine and rewrite the US-led world order” and “are well positioned to unify and control the strategic sea lanes of communication that surround Eurasia”. He recommends that the US and its European allies “drive a wedge between Russia and China” reminiscent of the Nixon-Kissinger policy of the early 1970s, use their economic resources to counter China’s investments throughout Eurasia, send more diplomats and treasury officials to developing nations, provide greater support to Eurasian allies, especially Japan, India, and Australia, deploy more naval resources to the Asia-Pacific, and take a more proactive stance in the opening of the Arctic.
Gresh’s concerns are well-founded, but Eurasia (including its adjacent seas) is a big space with room for more than one great power. Russia and China are not eternal allies. The US remains qualitatively the world’s leading naval power. China’s ambitions have caused growing concern among the ASEAN countries, and have driven India, Japan, and Australia closer to each other and to the United States. And the US is not retrenching from the Indo-Pacific; if anything, the Trump administration has done more to effectuate the “pivot” to Asia than its predecessor. China’s geoeconomic/geopolitical challenge is producing the predictable “Toynbeean” response.
Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.