Event ReportsPublished on Oct 16, 2019
China’s challenge to US primacy is Mackinder’s “worst nightmare”, says Ashley Tellis
“Nature favours the partnership,'' said Dr Ashley J. Tellis of the convergence between India and the US, in a talk on the geopolitical underpinnings of US-India relations at St Xavier’s College. The talk was organised on 9th October 2019 in Mumbai by ORF in collaboration with St Xavier’s college.  Dr Ashley J. Tellis, the TATA Chair for Strategic Affairs at Carnegie Endowment, employed classical international relations theory coupled with his insights from working in the George W Bush administration to unpack some unresolved questions plaguing the current state of US-India relations. Moreover, he gave an overarching perspective on how the US approaches foreign policy through the lens of Halford Mackinder’s geopolitical heartland theory. He also presented how Mackinder’s work still holds relevance in informing American foreign policy decision making vis-à-vis a rising China. Lamenting about the lack of nuance in news stories pertaining to US foreign policy, Dr Tellis emphasised the importance of an understanding of geopolitical theory and its impact on foreign policy decision-making. For the purposes of illustrating the geopolitical complexities in US-India relations, Dr Tellis chose to do away with the conventional Mercator map of the world that often distorts the actual balance of power between countries across the globe. Dr Tellis began by providing an overview of some key theories informing American foreign policy. He then went on with a description of Mackinder’s theory that understood the world as being comprised of two key landmasses, namely, the “world island” which broadly comprised the inter-linked continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, and the “outlying islands” that included continents of North America, South America and Australia. Mackinder posited that control over the world island would ensure primacy at the international level. In the context within which Mackinder wrote his essay in 1905, it is the “heartland” within the larger construct of the world island that would hold considerable power to threaten the outlying islands. This “heartland” would largely refer to the landmass comprising contemporary Russia and some Central Asian states. The importance being, the heartland would largely be landlocked, and thus an opposition could hardly be speared through sea routes. Thus, according to the Mackinder worldview, geopolitical leverage pertained to the inability of adversaries to access a country through the seas, Dr Tellis pointed out. Dr Tellis then went on to summarise the work of Nicholas Spykman, whose work dictated the shift of emphasis away from the heartland, to what he termed as the “rimlands”. Spykman believed that the heartland can be boxed-in, whereas the rimland evades such challenges to figure as the most important geopolitical entity to establish primacy. Thus, by citing the work of such influential theorists, Dr Tellis sought to provide a historical basis for why the US cannot afford to be indifferent to the politics of the Eurasian landmass. Moreover, it was the influential work of the aforementioned theorists that contributed to America's deviation from isolationism, to an activist global player in the post-Second World War world. Dr Tellis subsequently laid out a comprehensible portrait of the US grand strategy, based upon the geopolitical theories he summarised earlier in the lecture. He envisioned this strategy to be in three phases. The first phase included the two World Wars wherein the United States got involved as a means to contain the growing influence of a rimland power – Germany. In this case, the American strategy was to form alliances with other peripheral powers within Europe, so as to box-in Germany – in complete accordance with Spykman’s hypothesis. Phase two pertained to the Cold War, wherein the heartland (the Soviet Union) threatened to exert influence over the rimland powers of the Eurasian landmass. Even in this case, a commensurate American grand strategy sought to seek alliances with rimland powers like France and Great Britain to contain the Soviet influence. It is phase three of Dr Tellis’ conception of US Grand Strategy that still remains a mystery, and is riddled by the exponential rise of China – a rimland power capable of establishing its dominance over the Eurasian landmass – and by extension, pose a direct threat to the US. At this point in his talk, Dr Tellis positioned America’s perceived insecurity over the rise of China as playing a pivotal role in shaping the contemporary US-India dynamic. According to Dr Tellis, the case of China’s economic and military rise has the potential to threaten American primacy at the international level is unprecedented. Unlike Russia, China is already seventy percent of the US economy and has the potential of achieving economic parity very soon. Moreover, if the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is seen to its planned conclusion, China’s engagement and by extension, its geopolitical leverage over the United States would lead to a bipolar rivalry of proportions “never seen before”. Thus, Dr Tellis aptly captured the American sentiments associated with China’s rise by deeming it as “Mackinder’s worst nightmare”. In probing how China’s rise was enabled, Dr Tellis provided a few compelling reasons. For one, in alleviating insecurity from its Northern frontier, China has successfully forged harmonious relations with Russia. Additionally, Dr Tellis focused on America’s emphasis to further the liberal world order and how – in eyeing the potentialities of China’s large market – the US facilitated the inclusion of China into the WTO, paving way for it to eventually become the manufacturing powerhouse of the world. Moreover, unlike other benefactors of American liberalism such as Japan and Germany, China’s economic rise has also led to considerable security maximisation that poses a credible threat to the US-led liberal world order. After enumerating the nuances pertaining to the rise of China and its effects on American strategic interests, Dr Tellis went on to position India’s role as a “natural balancer” in the region. Thus, he considered India’s importance to the United States as being heightened due to the threat posed by China’s rise to the US and the US-led liberal world order. Invoking former Prime Minister Athal Bihari Vajpayee’s belief of the US and India being “natural allies”, Dr Tellis emphasised America’s interest in seeing India’s rise at the international level but with an objective to contain China. Nonetheless, Dr Tellis did account for points of friction in the US-India dynamic. He understood US-India relations as one that converged in political interest but diverged on issues of trade. Thus, frictions on the trade front must be ironed out to allow for the geopolitical convergences to bear fruit, he emphasised. The talk was followed by a stimulating Q and A session that touched upon the implications of the “Howdy Modi” event and the role of NRIs in helping the US-India dynamic. The Q and A session also sought Tellis’ view on the possibility of the US being confronted with a near future competitor, India – a case that might potentially become similar to America’s appraisal of China rise. To which, Tellis noted that American foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific is driven by the threats of today rather than potential threats of tomorrow.
This report has been compiled by Prithvi Iyer, research intern at ORF Mumbai.
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