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U.S. Geopolitics: Afghanistan and the Containment of China
Joseph E. Fallon
U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is an example of a great power fighting a guerrilla war in pursuit of geopolitical objectives greater than simply the defeat of a local insurgency. It is the return of “The Great Game”, where the U.S. and its rivals, Russia and China, seek influence in Afghanistan as a means of securing the resources of Central Asia in particular, petroleum and pipelines. If the U.S. wins, Russia and China remain lesser powers. If Russia or China wins, the U.S. confronts a formidable rival with potential to disrupt the projection of American power. This article will focus on one rival, China. First, it will discuss the U.S. conception of geopolitics emphasizing the importance of the work of Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski [i]. Second, it will examine key U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. Third, it will analyze the principle instruments pursued by the U.S. to contain China. Fourth, it will assess China’s counter moves. Fifth, it will conclude with an evaluation of U.S. policy in both the short-term and the long-term.
U.S. Foreign Policy and Geopolitics
Geopolitics has been defined as: “The study of geographic influences on power relationships in international politics.” [ii] Its maxim is the words of Sir Halford John Mackinder, founding father of geopolitics and geostrategy:
"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island controls the world." [iii]
The “Heartland” is Eurasia; the “World-Island” consists of Eurasia and Africa. If a country can control Eurasia its political and military position is essentially unassailable because geography precludes rivals.
With the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. adopted as its foreign policy the containment of the USSR as advocated by George F. Kennan, chief of the U.S. mission in Moscow. Geopolitics was a foundation for this policy, but with a twist on Mackinder. The Soviets already ruled East Europe and had command of the Heartland. The goal was to contain Moscow to the Heartland in order to defeat it by economic attrition.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resulting instability and vulnerability of former Soviet republics in Transcaucasus and Central Asia, the impact of geopolitics on U.S. foreign policy became stronger. There was a return to Mackinder’s emphasis on the control of Eurasia.
In 1992, the Pentagon stated clearly and concisely what the new U.S. foreign policy goal in Eurasia would be. “Our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a rival that poses a threat on the territory of the former Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration…and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power…Our strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor.” [iv]
This neo-Mackinder strategy was more fully developed by Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski in The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. "FOR AMERICA, THE CHIEF geopolitical prize is Eurasia…how America 'manages' Eurasia is critical. A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world's three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa's subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world's central continent. About 75 per cent of the world's people live in Eurasia, and most of the world's physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about three-fourths of the world's known energy resources…[v] It follows that America's primary interest is to help ensure that no single power comes to control this geopolitical space and that the global community has unhindered financial and economic access to it…[vi] The most immediate task is to make certain that no state or combination of states gains the capacity to expel the United States from Eurasia or even to diminish significantly its decisive arbitrating role.” [vii]
On 7 October 2001, the U.S. launched Operation Enduring Freedom and invaded Afghanistan, with coalition partners, to topple the Taliban regime and prevent the country from serving as a sanctuary for al-Qaeda. The occupation of Afghanistan placed Washington in a position to pursue Dr. Brzezinski’s geostrategic imperative of “managing” Eurasia. But with a difference. Instead of a “cooperative relationship” with China, the emphasis is on containment of China.
U.S. Objectives in Afghanistan
Removing the Taliban from power and expelling al-Qaeda from the country was the immediate goal in the campaign to defeat terrorism. Part of that campaign has been suppression of opium production. Afghanistan produces over 90% of the world’s non-pharmaceutical-grade opium. [viii] It is also the world's largest producer of hashish. [ix] Profits from the selling of these drugs was and remains an important source of funding for terrorists.
The Geopolitical objectives enunciated by the Pentagon and Dr. Brzezinski center on control of the natural resources of Afghanistan and Central Asia to prevent the rise of regional hegemons like Russia or China.
The natural resources of Afghanistan include oil, gas, copper, cobalt, gold, lithium, and other untapped mineral deposits that have an estimated combine worth in excess of a trillion dollars. [x] Among the most strategic of these minerals are Rare Earth Metals, which are indispensable to modern technology. They are needed in manufacturing cell phones, laptops, compact disks, flat screen display monitors, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converter, hybrid cars, and solar panels, to name a few items. [xi]
The principle resources of Central Asia are oil, gas, and pipelines.
U.S. Instruments to Contain China
To prevent the rise of China as a regional hegemon, the U.S. has pursued three courses of action involving Rare Earth Metals, pipelines, and alliances.
- China has the world’s largest reserve of Rare Earth Metals and controls 97 percent of the world’s supply. If preliminary estimates are correct, Afghanistan has the world’s sixth largest reserve of these metals. [xii] By Washington effectively controlling this alternative source, the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world would be less dependent on China. It would strengthen the geopolitical position of Washington while simultaneously weakening that of Beijing.
- China’s growing economy needs access to the oil and gas reserves of Central Asia, which requires unfettered use of the oil and gas pipelines. Dr. Brzezinski advocated the US geopolitical objective in Central Asia be the control of those pipelines. “Thus, at stake in this conundrum are geopolitical power, [and] access to potentially great wealth…Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, access to the region was monopolized by Moscow. All rail transport, gas and oil pipelines, and even air travel were channeled through the center. Russian geopoliticians would prefer it to remain so, since they know that whoever either controls or dominates access to the region is the one most likely to win the geopolitical and economic prize.” [xiii] The prize is Eurasia. As Dr. Brzezinski noted “The momentum of Asia's economic development is already generating massive pressures for the exploration and exploitation of new sources of energy and the Central Asian region and the Caspian Sea basin are known to contain reserves of natural gas and oil that dwarf those of Kuwait, the Gulf of Mexico, or the North Sea." [xiv] Limit China’s access to those reserves and pipelines and China’s economic growth is restricted. If China’s economic growth is restricted, Beijing lacks the financing to modernize and expand her military capabilities. Without increased economic and military power, China lacks the ability to project political influence. It is, thereby, prevented from emerging as a regional hegemon.
- To limit China’s growing political influence and economic power in the region, the U.S. promotes alliances having the dual purpose of containment and balance of power. The containment strategy as the first map shows [xv] consists of a series of “alliances” between the U.S. and countries bordering China stretching in a southern arc from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia to South Asia to Central Asia. Building on existing Cold War treaties between the U.S. and its traditional allies, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, Washington has expanded this “alliance” to include Afghanistan and former adversary, Vietnam. Based on shared concerns over Chinese power and intentions, the U.S. seeks to include in this “coalition” Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The balance of power strategy rests on supporting India, a multi-party democracy pursuing free market economics, as the alternative model to China for Asia’s economic development. Only India has the territorial and population size and economic potential to be China’s rival. It is assumed there will be a natural evolution in Indian foreign policy as the country’s economy grows so will its political aspirations. Fueled by ongoing friction in Indian-Chinese relations over border disputes, China’s support of Pakistan, and India’s “support” of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.
China’s Counter Moves
- Until the Rare Earth Metals in Afghanistan can be commercially extracted, China retains a monopoly of this strategic resource.
- Through existing and proposed extensions of Kazakh and Russian pipelines, which are outside of the control of the U.S., China’s energy needs continue to be met - for now.
- China’s oil imports come by sea as well as by land. To protect these shipping lanes, China has established bases in the Indian Ocean referred to as the “String of Pearls”. As the second map shows [xvi] these naval facilities stretching from Pakistan to Maldives to Sri Lanka to Bangladesh to Burma to Thailand and the roads built or being built to connect China to Pakistan, Burma, and Bangladesh completely encircle India. Together, they constitute China’s containment policy of India. In a game of chess, India has been checkmated. The Chinese followed the advice of their famous military strategist and tactician, Sun Tzu, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
An Evaluation of U.S. Policy in Both the Short-term and the Long-term
In the short term, U.S. policy seeking to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon has not been successful. China is not yet a hegemon, but its economic power and influence continues to grow and the potential for China emerging as one still exists.
In the long term, however, this U.S. objective may be realized, not by the success of current policy, but from the unintended consequences of China’s new economy. China’s economic strength is impressive. It has emerged as the world’s second largest economy after the U.S. One of the fastest growing economies, over the last three decades China averaged an annual growth rate of 10 percent. It is now the world’s largest exporter and the world’s second largest importer. The engine driving this economic growth, however, has largely been just one region, China’s southern coast. The consequences of this pose a danger not just to China’s future economic stability, but to its continued territorial integrity. Growing economic disparity between coast and interior can ignite social unrest. An estimated 250 million migrant workers and their dependents from the interior have flooded the rich, coastal cities.[xvii] Of a labor force estimated at 800 million roughly half are employed in state owned enterprises. [xviii] Many of these state owned enterprises are non-productive. If Beijing does not phase out government subsidies to such industries, there will be an economic crisis. If Beijing does phase out subsidies, allowing many to fail, and even a fraction of those 300-400 million workers become unemployed, China may erupt in a social revolution.
The objective for Beijing is to prevent such social and economic problems from aggravating the ethnic minorities’ issue. Officially, there are 55 ethnic minorities in China, including Hui, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Zhuangs. They constitute 8 percent of the total population, but occupy 60 percent of the territory. [xix] The existential threat to the Chinese state posed by the ethnic minorities’ issue, however, resides within the ethnic “Chinese” majority.
China’s fear is replicating the fall of the Soviet Union. When its borderlands, Central Asia and Transcaucasus, were lost, the Russian core shattered into three states: Byelorussia, Ukraine, and Russia. Should China loses its borderlands, Tibet and Xinjiang, the Chinese core may similarly shatter.
The Chinese core consists of Han or ethnic Chinese. It constitutes approximately 92 percent of the country’s population and numbers 1.2 billion. But the term is an artificial concept since it incorporates two distinct geographic, historic, and ethno-linguistic communities, North and South “Chinese”. Of the 1.2 billion Han, over 300 million, nearly a third of the total, are South “Chinese”, as shown in the third map.[xx] While their region drives China’s economy, they speak eight languages, mutually unintelligible to the Mandarin language spoken by the North.
In the past, these ethno-linguistic differences, which are reinforced by geographic boundaries, have led to the emergence of separate northern and southern states. This occurred in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th, and 12th centuries. Because it has not re-occurred in eight centuries, does not preclude the possibility of it re-occurring in the future as the fate of Russia with the fall of the Soviet Union demonstrated. Should economic downturn and social unrest weaken the grip of China’s Communist Party and the state fragments, South China has the necessary economic, physical, and demographic resources to be a viable independent country, like Ukraine. Neither South China, nor North China would possess the ability to become a regional hegemon. And the U.S. geopolitical objective of preventing China from being able to dominate Eurasia would be accomplished.
[i] Dr. Brzezinski was United States National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter and currently is the Robert E. Osgood Professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
[iii] Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (1919) by Halford John Mackinder, p. 194 http://archive.org/stream/democraticideals00mackiala#page/194/mode/2up
[iv] Revisiting the Pivot: The Influence of Heartland Theory in Great Power Politics
[v] The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. p. 17
[vi] Ibid. p. 76
[vii] Ibid. p. 101
[xiii] The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. p. 71
[xiv] The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Basic Books,1998, p.125