Is it time to revive the ‘Pivot of History’?
THE FUTURIAN #5
One of the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that Russia has become far more reliant upon the support of China. Russia has been asking for military support, financial support, and diplomatic support. Within limits, the Chinese government has been amenable to provide these. This Chinese support has been provided in order to further Chinese national objectives. What might they be? How do they fit together into a wider scheme of things? And what needs to happen to achieve those objectives?
We need to stand back to examine the broader framework of Chinese policy. There are three key elements that we ought to draw upon. First, there is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This charts an ambition to dominate the Eurasian landmass by the middle of this century. Second, there is the ‘Made In China’ policy. This aims to develop a number of key strategic industries by 2025 in order to lessen Chinese reliance upon overseas providers. Third, there is the policy of ‘Dual Circulation’. This is the aim to create a relatively self-sufficient domestic economy that is not overly reliant upon overseas suppliers, whilst t the same time being the supplier of choice to overseas parties. If we think of China as a central node in a network of economic, political, and diplomatic activity, that would be a fair assessment of Chinese policy objectives.
In many ways, this is the reversion to what China sees as the natural order of things. China is the leading economy in the world. China dominates global politics. Chinese institutions set the global standards. In between this vision and the reality we face stands one inconvenient factor — the United States. The current global institutional architecture is American by design. Originating from the end of the Second World War, it places emphasis upon North America and Europe at the expense of all other parts of the world. As the world economy has changed over the past forty years, these institutions have not changed and are seen as in somewhat need of reform. Attempts at reform have achieved little, which has led China to commence the process of designing a different set of institutions for the twenty-first century.
In designing these institutions, China has started to gaze westwards, across the Eurasian landmass, towards Europe. The three developmental factors have embodied this perspective. The BRI has been central to the development of road and rail transportation links across Asia. In achieving this, the Chinese relationship with Russia, Iran, and Turkey have risen to prominence. In recent times, new relationships with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with Kazakhstan and the four other ‘Stans’ has assumed some importance. It would seem that Chinese ambition would bind the Eurasian landmass into a large commercial block.
This is not a new phenomena. At the start of the twentieth century, a British geographer — Halford Mackinder-floated the notion of ‘The Heartland Of The World’. The thesis was quite simple. Modern communications technologies (at the time: rail networks, the telegraph, and refrigerated freight) would allow the Eurasian landmass to be bound together in a single economic block. Mackinder suggested that the nation that controlled The Heartland would control the world — they would be the ‘Pivot of History’. Given the nature of Chinese ambition, perhaps now might be the right time to revive that thinking?
We all know now that the Pivot of History didn’t come about. It is worth thinking about why that is the case. Much reduces to two factors. First, the differential development rates between Europe and North America and Asia. Over the twentieth century, Europe and North America developed at a much faster rate than Asia. Asian entities simply couldn’t keep up. That had a bearing upon the second factor — the cost of cargo shipment. The cost advantage of moving goods by ship, as opposed to overland, lay with the maritime powers. It still lays there today.
However, change is afoot. Over the past forty years, Asian, especially East Asian, economies have undertaken a process of catching up with Europe and North America. The locus of the global economy has moved away from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It is quite likely that, by the middle of this century, Asia will overtake at least Europe, and possibly North America, in economic might. It is also possible that the cost of overland cargo will be disrupted by newer technologies. We have the potential for autonomous high-speed trains, guided by GPS, controlled by remote autonomous agents. A digital transformation could alter the cost balance of moving freight between East Asia and Europe. This vision underlies much of the thinking behind the BRI, which draws upon ‘The Pivot of History’.
What is currently lacking is the political means to make it happen. The withdrawal of the United States from Central Asia rather leaves this part of the world as uncontested territory for China. The major brake upon Chinese ambition could be Russia. However, the systematic evisceration of the Russian economy through the war in Ukraine rather leaves Russia a bit more reliant upon Chinese largesse. This reliance is likely to be at a price that furthers the ambitions of the BRI. Russia has hydrocarbon and mineral wealth that could be very useful to the Chinese economy, but it is the diplomatic heft wielded by Russia in Central Asia that could be of more importance. It is not hard to envisage a situation where the Central Asian states — such as Kazakhstan-are reliant upon Russia; and in turn Russia looks to China for leadership. From a Chinese perspective, that would be the dream ticket.
There is a case for reviving the thinking around the ‘Pivot of History’, if only because it seems to capture much of Chinese ambition in the Eurasian landmass. Time will tell whether anything comes of it or not, but for now it provides us with a template through which we can appraise current events. On that matter, events in Ukraine make such an outcome more likely rather than less.
© Stephen Aguilar-Millan 2022