IISS: The Eurasian Sea


The Eurasian Sea

The waters around the Eurasian continent have evolved from a set of separated seas into a maritime ring-road, a locus of new rivalries and security dilemmas.

By Jonathan Holslag, August 1 2013.

Maritime disputes in Eastern Asia have been sending odd ripples of excitement through Western Europe for the past few years. Experts and policymakers claim that Europe cannot stay aloof. Some speculate that China might cut off trade routes in the event of a conflict and that Europe needs to collaborate with the United States to keep them open. A few go so far as to say that Europe’s credibility as a security actor hinges upon the ability to send gunboats to the Pacific, and that it should build on the grand maritime tradition of member states such as the United Kingdom. Others assume that the European model of regional integration could be a way of settling the wrangling over the South China Sea. Maritime disputes in the East are, to be sure, a source of much uncertainty, and could escalate. But is this a reason for Europe to dive into the play pool of the Pacific powers?

This question needs to be examined through a broad geopolitical prism. The Eurasian continent has become a true world island. Trains plough from Shanghai to Rotterdam, pipelines branch out from the energy-rich heartland in all directions, and imposing mountain passes are pierced by wide, blacktopped highways. In parallel, the seas bordering the world island have merged into a single, crowded maritime ring-way, a vital conduit for trade in raw materials and manufactured goods, and for the projection of influence.

The framework of modern geopolitics was set out by thinkers such as Halford Mackinder and John Spykman. The two agreed on one main point. If a power seized control over Eurasia, or the ‘World Island’ as Mackinder called it, it would eventually dominate the whole world. But they disagreed over the zone that was at the centre of the contest for influence over Eurasia. To Mackinder it was clear: if protagonists such as Russia or Germany could tap into the resources of Siberia and Central Asia by means of railways, they would become unstoppable. Spykman, however, maintained that not the heart of the Eurasian continent but its maritime fringes was where the battle for influence was most decisive. Hence the need for containing the ambitions of rising powers in Eurasia from this rimland.

At the time Mackinder and Spykman were writing, about three-quarters of the Eurasian continent was, from their perspective, an empty space beckoning the imperialist capitals as a defenceless preserve. The surrounding seas lay open as entranceways for gunboats. For a century, whether the contest for power centred on the ‘heartland’ or the ‘rimland’, power was sparsely spread, sovereignty an elastic concept and the ambition of the imperial masters unbridled.

For complete article, see Jonathan Holslag, The Eurasian Sea, IISS, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, August 1 2013.

(Emphasis added)