In short, with America First populism now a major force in this country’s politics, assume that Europe will pursue a foreign policy increasingly freed from Washington’s influence.
Central Asia’s Geopolitics
And Europe may be the least of it. The stunning capture of Kabul highlighted an American loss of leadership that extended into Asia and Africa, with profound geopolitical implications for the future of U.S. global power. Above all, the Taliban’s victory will effectively force Washington out of Central Asia and so help to consolidate Beijing’s already ongoing control over parts of that strategic region. It, in turn, could prove to be the potential geopolitical pivot for China’s dominance over the vast Eurasian land mass, home to 70% of the globe’s population and productivity.
Speaking at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan in 2013 (though nobody in Washington was then listening), China’s President Xi Jinping announced his country’s strategy for winning the twenty-first-century version of the deadly “great game” that nineteenth-century empires once played for control of Central Asia. With gentle gestures that belied his imperious intent, Xi asked that academic audience to join him in building an “economic belt along the Silk Road” that would “expand development space in the Eurasian region” through infrastructure “connecting the Pacific and the Baltic Sea.” In the process of establishing that “belt and road” structure, they would, he claimed, be building “the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential.”
In the eight years since that speech, China has indeed been spending over a trillion dollars on its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to construct a transcontinental grid of railroads, oil pipelines, and industrial infrastructure in a bid to become the world’s premier economic power. More specifically, Beijing has used the BRI as a geopolitical pincers movement, a diplomatic squeeze play. By laying down infrastructure around the northern, eastern, and western borders of Afghanistan, it has prepared the way for that war-torn nation, freed of American influence and full of untapped mineral resources (estimated at a trillion dollars), to fall safely into Beijing’s grasp without a shot being fired.
To the north of Afghanistan, the China National Petroleum Corporation has collaborated with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to launch the Central Asia–China gas pipeline, a system that will eventually extend more than 4,000 miles across the heart of Eurasia. Along Afghanistan’s eastern frontier, Beijing began spending $200 million in 2011 to transform a sleepy fishing village at Gwadar, Pakistan, on the Arabian Sea, into a modern commercial port only 370 miles from the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Four years later, President Xi committed $46 billion to building a China–Pakistan Economic Corridor of roads, rails, and pipelines stretching nearly 2,000 miles along Afghanistan’s eastern borderlands from China’s western provinces to the now-modernized port of Gwadar.
To the west of Afghanistan, Beijing broke through Iran’s diplomatic isolation last March by signing a $400 billion development agreement with Tehran. Over the next 25 years, China’s legions of laborers and engineers will lay down a transit corridor of oil and natural gas pipelines to China, while also building a vast new rail network that will make Tehran the hub of a line stretching from Istanbul, Turkey, to Islamabad, Pakistan.
By the time these geopolitical pincers pull Afghanistan firmly into Beijing’s BRI system, the country may have become just another Middle Eastern theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia. While the religious police harass women and troops battle festering insurgencies, the Taliban state can get down to its real business — not defending Islam, but cutting deals with China to mine its vast reserves of rare minerals and collect transit taxes on the new $10 billion TAPI gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan (which desperately needs affordable energy).
With lucrative royalties from its vast store of rare-earth minerals, the Taliban could afford to end its current fiscal dependence on drugs. They could actually ban the country’s now booming opium harvest, a promise their new government spokesman has already made in a bid for international recognition. Over time, the Taliban leadership might discover, like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran, that a developing economy can’t afford to waste its women. As a result, there might even be some slow, fitful progress on that front, too.
If such a projection of China’s future economic role in Afghanistan seems fanciful to you, consider that the underpinnings for just such a future deal were being put in place while Washington was still dithering over Kabul’s fate. At a formal meeting with a Taliban delegation in July, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi hailed their movement as “an important military and political force.”
In response, Taliban head Mullah Abdul Baradar, displaying the very leadership that American-installed President Ashraf Ghani so clearly lacked, praised China as a “reliable friend” and promised to foster “an enabling investment environment” so that Beijing could play “a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development.” Formalities finished, the Afghan delegation then met behind closed doors with China’s assistant foreign minister to exchange what the official communiqué called “in-depth views on issues of common concern, which helped enhance mutual understanding” — in short, who gets what and for how much.
The World-Island Strategy
China’s capture of Eurasia, should it be successful, will be but one part of a far grander design for control over what Victorian geographer Halford Mackinder, an early master of modern geopolitics, called the “world island.” He meant the tricontinental land mass comprising the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. For the past 500 years, one imperial hegemon after another, including Portugal, Holland, Britain, and the United States, has deployed its strategic forces around that world island in a bid to dominate such a sprawling land mass.
While for the last half-century Washington has arrayed its vast air and naval armadas around Eurasia, it generally relegated Africa to, at best, an afterthought — at worst, a battleground. Beijing, by contrast, has consistently treated that continent with the utmost seriousness.
When the Cold War came to southern Africa in the early 1970s, Washington spent the next 20 years in an arm’s-length alliance with apartheid South Africa, while using the CIA to fight a leftist liberation movement in Portuguese-controlled Angola. While Washington spent billions wreaking havoc by supplying right-wing African warlords with automatic weapons and land mines, Beijing launched its first major foreign-aid project. It built the thousand-mile Tanzania-to-Zambia railway. Not only was it the longest in Africa when completed in 1975, but it allowed landlocked Zambia, a front-line state in the struggle against the apartheid regime in Pretoria, to avoid South Africa when exporting its copper.
From 2015 on, building upon its historic ties to the liberation movements that won power across southern Africa, Beijing planned a decade-long trillion-dollar infusion of capital there. Much of it was to be designated for commodities-extraction projects that would make that continent China’s second-largest source of crude oil. With such an investment (equaling its later BRI commitments to Eurasia), China also doubled its annual trade with Africa to $222 billion, three times America’s total.
While that aid to liberation movements once had an ideological undercurrent, today it’s been succeeded by savvy geopolitics. Beijing seems to understand just how fast Africa’s progress has been in the single generation since that continent won its freedom from a particularly rapacious version of colonial rule. Given that it’s the planet’s second most populous continent, rich in human and material resources, China’s trillion-dollar bet on Africa’s future will likely pay rich dividends, both political and economic, someday soon.
With a trillion dollars invested in Eurasia and another trillion in Africa, China is engaged in nothing less than history’s largest infrastructure project. It’s crisscrossing those three continents with rails and pipelines, building naval bases around the southern rim of Asia, and ringing the whole tricontinental world island with a string of 40 major commercial ports.
Such a geopolitical strategy has become Beijing’s battering ram to crack open Washington’s control over Eurasia and thereby challenge what’s left of its global hegemony. America’s unequalled military air and sea armadas still allow it rapid movement above and around those continents, as the mass evacuation from Kabul showed so forcefully. But the slow, inch-by-inch advance of China’s land-based, steel-ribbed infrastructure across the deserts, plains, and mountains of that world island represents a far more fundamental form of future control.
As China’s geopolitical squeeze play on Afghanistan shows all too vividly, there is still much wisdom in the words that Sir Halford Mackinder wrote over a century ago: “Who rules the World Island commands the World.”
To that, after watching a Washington that’s invested so much in its military be humiliated in Afghanistan, we might add: Who does not command the World Island cannot command the World.
Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy
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