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22 May 2024

The new Great Game

As China and the US compete for power and resources, Europe is left a bystander.

By Helen Thompson

When he devised the idea of geopolitics in a lecture to the Royal Geographic Society in 1904, the British academic Halford Mackinder made control of the Eurasian heartland, part of which is the territory being fought over by Russia and Ukraine, the pivot of world history. During the 19th century, Britain and Russia had been rivals in a Great Game for influence in Central Asia, not least Persia. Now, Mackinder foresaw a future in which a power controlling both Russia and China, while allied to Germany, would achieve a world empire. In his mind, since there was no territory left to conquer, the era he called the Columbian Epoch, which began in the 15th century with Iberian maritime imperialism, was ending.

For Mackinder, the transcontinental railways then being built across Eurasia would become the trading engine of a new economic era in which sea powers such as Britain and the US would be disadvantaged. But his prophecy was not vindicated by history. The 20th century would be dominated by an oceanic state from the Western Hemisphere, with the US impacting the balance of power in Eurasia in its own right and not, as Mackinder predicted, indirectly through Russia.

Today, Eurasia still looms large in the geopolitical imaginary. As Russia, under the protection of Mutually Assured Destruction, seeks to end Ukraine’s independence, Iran and Israel fight a long-term religious war, and China lays claim to Taiwan, home to over 90 per of the world’s advanced chip production, the stakes in Eurasia are dramatic and obvious. By contrast, events in the Americas can seem less historically significant and, for Europeans at least, an unwelcome distraction for Washington from the fates of Ukraine and Gaza.

But that is, like Mackinder, to overlook how the future of world history has often been determined by changes in the Western Hemisphere. Present events in the Americas already speak to this reality. If Donald Trump does retake the presidency next January, America First is more likely to mean the Americas First, given that the world’s dominant power shares a border with a state that has lost control of its territory to drug-trafficking organisations, which rule by violence and extortion. During his first administration, Trump reportedly asked for military options to attack Mexican drug cartels in their own country. Already, on the campaign trail, he has promised to deploy “all necessary military assets” to stop them.

By the time Mackinder spoke in 1904, the rise of American power had shown that even seemingly low-level conflicts in the Western Hemisphere, including over maritime transit, could have an historic impact on Eurasia. Since it gained independence from Spain in 1821, Venezuela had laid claim to the land on the western side of the River Essequibo in what was then the British colony of Guyana. For decades, Caracas sought help from Washington to take possession of the territory, citing the US Monroe Doctrine of 1823. This stated that any attempt by a foreign power, including Britain, to intervene in the Western Hemisphere was a threat to US security. President Grover Cleveland finally took up the Venezuelan cause in 1895 and forced London to put the dispute to international arbitration. Thereafter, the Western Hemisphere became a near-exclusive US sphere of influence just as oil was being discovered in the lands around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. While the European powers fought each other for control over Eurasia’s oil-rich regions in the Middle East and the Caucasus, none could back a commercial presence in Mexico and Venezuela with military power.

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Having turned a rhetorical assertion of primacy in the Western Hemisphere into a geopolitical fact, the US moved decisively into the Pacific, forcibly annexing the islands of Hawaii and Guam while taking colonial control of the Philippines from Spain in 1898. Subsequently, as the world’s dominant power, it remained preoccupied with the relationship between the defence of the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson entered the First World War not because of German submarine warfare in the Atlantic but because of Berlin’s plotting with Mexico to invade Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. During the Cold War, when the US contained the Soviet Union – at a time in which its alliance with China and control over eastern Germany produced a Eurasian power akin to the one Mackinder dreaded – Washington deployed the bulk of its navy to the Pacific.

Whether the US will remain as the dominant Pacific power is what is now in question in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Having been pushed out of its military bases in the Philippines in the early Nineties after the end of the Cold War, Washington has over the past decade been busy resurrecting its military relationship with its former colony.

But the US is now also trying to stop China’s free navigation into the West Pacific Ocean, while the revisionist powers of Eurasia – Russia, China and Iran – manoeuvre in the Western Hemisphere. Beijing now exercises enormous economic influence in the region. It is South America’s largest trading partner, and 22 Latin American and Caribbean states are members of its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Washington has demanded that Latin American governments drop the Chinese tech firm Huawei from their telecommunication networks, but its appeals have been less effective than they have been in Europe.

China’s commercial presence in Mexico, in particular, is undermining Joe Biden’s bid to “friendshore” industrial production. Some Chinese goods, including cars and their component parts, which were once directly exported from China to the US, are now being re-exported from Mexico. The drug cartels that control perhaps a third of northern Mexico also import fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, from China, as they do the chemicals necessary to produce the synthetic drugs flooding into the US across the southern border. Any chance that the US has of derisking northern Mexico requires cooperation from Beijing. Yet that can only constrain US options in the Pacific, a fact made evident when China suspended all counter-narcotic operations with Washington for more than a year after the then House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022.

Under a succession of US sanction regimes, Venezuela has deepened its relations with all of the Eurasian revisionist states, exporting what oil it still can to China while receiving Iranian and Russian technical help to repair its dysfunctional hydrocarbons sector. Although US financial sanctions make it difficult for Venezuela to pay for this expert and material assistance, Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran have continued to send weapons systems to Caracas. They are doing so as Venezuela has started to build up its military forces on the Guyana border in the name of its old territorial claim to two-thirds of the country.

Perhaps most seriously, the geopolitics around the Panama Canal has been transformed by the return of China as a great power. In the years between the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 and its political realisation in 1895, both Britain and France sought to construct a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. But having established its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, and militarily underwritten Panama’s independence from Columbia, the US secured a territorial concession for the Panama Canal Zone in 1903.

Like the US at the start of the 20th century, China now has the same interest in trade across the world’s two principal oceans. While 14 per cent of maritime trade in and out of the US still passes through the canal, China controls ports at both its Atlantic and Pacific ends. Washington’s own policy under Trump of encouraging China to import liquefied natural gas from the Gulf of Mexico only intensified Beijing’s strategic interest in the canal. Iran’s navy has also been asserting itself. Since transit through the canal must be non-discriminatory, and Panama has enjoyed sole operational authority since 1999, the US was unable in February 2023 to force Panama to warn off two Iranian naval vessels from a loudly threatened sail through the canal.

Intensifying the stakes, Latin America holds over half the world’s reserves of lithium and copper, two metals that are essential for the transition to low-carbon energy. Much of China’s investment in the region has been in the resource sector, especially lithium. One purpose of Bidenomics is to develop competing US-centred supply chains for critical minerals. But Washington had already allowed Chinese companies to dominate mining and processing in the lithium triangle of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina before it joined the new Great Game for resources. The right-wing Argentinian president Javier Milei ran for office promising to turn away from Beijing, but since taking power in December 2023 he has not acted to push China out of the country’s lithium industry. Whatever Milei’s pro-US ambitions, which include wanting to join Nato, Buenos Aires cannot simply turn away from China, especially because it is at risk of defaulting on its sovereign debt and wants China’s help. In April, Argentina’s foreign and finance ministers were in Beijing to try to resurrect a currency swap that Beijing froze after Milei’s election.

Since a global geopolitics emerged at the start of Mackinder’s Columbian Epoch in the 15th century, China’s relationship to the Western Hemisphere has been history-making. From the 16th century, silver extracted from the mines of Spanish Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico was shipped, either directly across the Pacific or via Europe, to China. This trade created in the Spanish-American silver peso what might be considered the first world currency. That geopolitical configuration began to crumble with Britain’s victory in the First Opium War in 1842, keeping a weakened and isolated China outside the period of globalisation between 1870 and 1914 monetarily organised around the Gold Standard. In fact, it was the competition between all the major powers to carve up China during that period which provided the immediate geopolitical context for Mackinder’s original lecture on the future of Eurasia.

Preoccupied with coal-fuelled railways, Mackinder missed the reality that oil-fuelled vehicles, such as ships and aeroplanes, would drive the military geopolitics of 20th-century Eurasia. Where, including in China, there was the prospect of oil and weak empires or states, there would be great power competition. After the US had to adjust to becoming the world’s largest oil importer in the 1970s, its leaders entertained hopes well into the 1980s that China’s supposed offshore oil resources – then imagined to be the size of the onshore fields around the Persian Gulf – would deliver new supply. The Sino-American accommodation from 1972 upon which that ambition rested has largely shattered and given way to intense technological competition. In this unfolding historical moment, the attempted global energy revolution is starting to play out as a conflict between China and the US over metal resources in the Western Hemisphere, leaving Europe for the most part a bystander.

[See also: Joe Biden is deluded on Rafah]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024