Source: Francis P. Sempa

Ever since China launched its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), some Western analysts have portrayed it as a geopolitical offensive designed to increase China’s influence in, and ultimately control of, Eurasia. These analysts often base their portrayal on the classic geopolitical writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder, and Nicholas Spykman, all of whom envisioned global politics as a clash between great Eurasian land powers and insular and peninsular sea powers. Over a decade ago, Naval War College scholars Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes wrote a book titled Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The Turn to Mahan in which they cite Chinese sources to support their claim that the PLA Navy looks to Mahan for geopolitical inspiration. Robert D. Kaplan, in a paper originally prepared for the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (“The Return of Marco Polo’s World”), argued that the BRI was part of China’s strategy to dominate Mackinder’s “World Island.” Claudia Astarita, a lecturer at Sciences Po Lyon and an associate fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, has described the BRI as China’s attempt to extend its influence across Spykman’s Eurasian Rimland (Western Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia). Perhaps the best proof that China indeed views the world this way is their repeated denials that the BRI has anything to do with geopolitics and China’s quest for hegemony. Here is a case in point.

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Teng Jianqun is a retired People’s Liberation Army (PLA) colonel who is the Director of the Department for American Studies and Center for Arms Control and International Security at China’s Institute of International Studies. He served in the PLA for 25 years, edited China’s Academy of Military Science’s journal World Military Review for a dozen years, and is widely published and frequently quoted in official Chinese publications. In other words, his writings and opinions carry the imprimatur of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In November 2018, Teng Jianqun wrote an article for the China Association for International Friendly Contact titled “Three Geopolitical Theories and the ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative.” In that article, he reviews what he calls the “Sea Power” theory of Mahan, the “Heartland” theory of Mackinder, and the “Rimland” theory of Spykman, as concepts for control of the world from a “geographical perspective.” Teng asserts that the “three geopolitical theories differ from the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative fundamentally and cannot be mentioned in the same breath…” The thrust of Teng’s article is that these three geopolitical theories are outdated, belonging to previous century’s international relations.

Teng describes the Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman theories of geopolitics as theoretical bases for “nations in pursuit of becoming an imperialist power, colonial plunder, expansion and aggression or even for waging wars.” In contrast, he writes, China’s BRI “does not pursue control of certain regions… but advocates ‘mutual consultation, joint construction and co-sharing,’ and intends to build a new type of international relations and forge a community with a shared future for humanity.” “China,” he writes, “has neither intentions nor capabilities to control the sea, the land and the rim land of the world.” the BRI, he claims, does not serve “as the theoretical basis for China to seek hegemony.” Instead, Teng characterizes the BRI as “geopolitics under globalization” that features a “shared future” for humanity with “the countries in the world interlinked and complementing each other on the world industrial chain.” The BRI, he writes, “upholds the spirit of open regional cooperation, and strives to preserve the global free trade.”

Teng concludes this article by claiming that the BRI offers “a plan full of Chinese wisdom for global governance,” seeks to promote “the fundamental interests of the international community,” and “manifests the common ideal and beautiful pursuit of mankind.” And, of course, he criticizes then-president Trump for “showing a unilateralist tendency and staging trade wars, which [have] chilled the international community.”

Interestingly, Teng in December 2020 wrote an article envisioning the “transition to President Joe Biden” as having “positive implications for Asia-Pacific security.” He predicted that Biden’s coming to power would result in “the tension between China and the United States in various areas [being] eased,” opined that the “Biden administration will relax the policy of extreme pressure that President Trump sustained for four years,” and predicted further that Biden “will address cooperation rather than confrontation, including the restoration of the Sino-US strategic and economic dialogue.” In other words, Teng saw the Trump administration as acting on the belief that the BRI was indeed a geopolitical offensive, while the Biden administration would view it as less threatening. Teng has since criticized the Biden administration for not distancing itself enough from Trump’s policies.

The CCP wants us to believe that it has no hegemonic ambitions; that its BRI is just another multilateral advance for mankind; that those Western observers who see China as following a geopolitical master plan to dominate Eurasia and the world are wrong; that we should stop reading Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman (even though Chinese strategists still do). We follow Teng Jianqun’s advice at our peril.