I was flattered to see myself quoted by Nathan Hodge today in a Wall Street Journal survey of defense industry financial results. One of my comments in particular may have reminded some readers of an old debate about the nexus between geography and national strategy. I said, “If China comes to dominate the Western Pacific, it will control the industrial heartland of the global economy.” Heartland is the term that British geographer Halford Mackinder coined in 1904 to describe what he called the “geographical pivot of history.” In Mackinder’s conception, the globe contained three great land masses — the “world island” (Eurasia and Africa), the “offshore islands” (Britain and Japan), and the outlying islands (Australia and the Americas). He believed that whoever controlled the central region, or “heartland,” of the world island, stretching from Siberia to the Persian Gulf, would dominate the world.
I was thinking of Mackinder when I used the word heartland to describe the Western Pacific region — not because I believe in geographical determinism, but because the East Asian littoral really has become the center of the global economy. China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan produce most of the world’s steel, computers, cell phones, commercial ships and any number of other key industrial items. America and Europe are fading factors in global industrial production. The implication of this for America’s security should be clear: China doesn’t need to extend its influence to every corner of the globe to be the dominant power. It need only dominate its region, and it will control the global economy. That presents U.S. leaders with an unusual challenge, because trying to maintain American influence in China’s backyard would have been tough even without huge budget deficits and trade imbalances. Halford Mackinder may not have gotten the zip codes right, but a century after he propounded the notion of a global heartland, it actually exists — with China at its center.
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