Andy Yee: China rising ... what would Mackinder do?

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[Andy Yee is a writer, blogger and translator, who is based in Hong Kong. He blogs at Global Voices Online and China Geeks.]

In a lecture in 1904, British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder predicted how the Russo-Japanese War would have its effects fed back to Europe. With its ambitions in the Far East thwarted, Russia renewed its interests in the Turkish straits and the Balkans, putting it into a collision course with the Austro-Hungarian empire and Germany. This further heightened the strategic tensions already building up in Europe, which would finally explode into the Great War of 1914. To understand the current rising maritime tensions in East Asia, current geo-strategists would do well to re-read Mackinder.

At the Asean Regional Forum on 23 July US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the US had a ‘national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.’ This is the first time the US openly supported a multilateral approach to the South China Sea dispute, representing a major diplomatic challenge to China, which has long adopted a ‘divide and conquer’ approach of dealing with rivalling Asean claimant states on a bilateral basis. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reportedly responded to the US provocation with a strong and emotional statement.

Nor is the situation in the Yellow and East China Seas any better. At the end of July, the US and South Korea began a major military exercise in the Sea of Japan, including the 97,000-ton George Washington aircraft carrier. Less high-profile but nevertheless significant, Japan unilaterally extended the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a little island in the East China Sea named Yonaguni on 26 June without consulting the Taiwanese authority. This would facilitate Japan’s deployment of significant fire power on Yonaguni, and monitoring of the disputed Diaoyu Islands and even the Chinese oilfields in the Xihu depression.

The US is a predominately maritime power. Isolated and protected by two oceans, the strategic threat of the US comes from the emergence of a land hegemon dominating the Eurasian landmass. During the Second World War, that threat came from Germany and Japan, which controlled either end of Eurasia. In the Cold War, that threat was the Soviet Union. The defeats of these powers crucially depended on America’s forward deployment and support to friendly regimes.

Today, China is perceived as the rising challenger...
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