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China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the South-China Sea Debacle: Through the Lens of the Rimland Theory


The term geopolitics (Geopolitik) was originally coined by Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén in 1899 and this term had been popular between WWI to WWII (1918-39). According to ‘dictionary.com‘, geopolitics means, “the combination of geographic and political factors influencing or delineating a country or region.”

Historically, geopolitics has persuasively impacted world politics by furnishing lots of influential theories and ideas. For instance, Friedrich Ratzel’s (1844–1904) “Lebensraum” (living space) theory became the core of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime expansionist policy during WWII. Halford J. Mackinder’s Heartland theory, Alfred Mahan’s Sea Power policy, and Nicholas J. Spykman’s Rimland theory really shaped the Political Geography discourse that we see today. All these theories influenced world politics and are still influencing policymakers and foreign policy experts from numerous standpoints.

Political Geography has reemerged in world politics as an important field for analysis both in International Relations (IR) and International Politics after the Cold War era (1945-1990). The decline of unipolarity and the emergence of multipolar world order has brought the influential classical geopolitical thoughts again in the practice of big players strategy and policymaking. The Rimland theory was one of them. But before diving into it, we must have a glimpse at the precursor to Rimland theory i.e. the Heartland theory of Halford J. Mackinder.

The Heartland Theory of Mackinder

Sir Halford J. Mackinder published the Heartland theory in 1904. This theory explained the importance of preventing the ever-growing power of Germany and the colossal empire of Russia from forging an alliance as it could severely throw Britain off balance and threaten its very existence, effectively cutting it off from its colonial assets in the “Heartland” (Central Asia to be precise) and areas adjacent to it (Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East).  To show the relevancy of his idea, he reiterated the famous statement “whoever controls the Heartland, controls the world island. Whoever controls the World Island, will soon rule the world”. This statement ultimately came to haunt Russia (then USSR) in 1941, when Hitler took on Operation Barbarossa to obliterate the Soviet Union and take over the Heartland.

Fig-1: Halford J. Mackinder (Top Left) and his Heartland Theory.

The Rimland Theory of Spykman

Even though Mackinder’s Heartland theory was very intriguing, it miserably failed to identify the growth and importance of airpower after the conclusion of World War I. By then most of the world powers have resorted to building their own air force and could easily outmaneuver land and sea defenses to take over Heartland in one fell swoop. Seeing this great deficiency, Nicholas J. Spykman, a Dutch-born prominent professor of International Relations at the University of Yale, coined the famous Rimland theory in his well-known book “The Geography of Peace” in 1942.  According to Spykman, the coastal stretches of land that encircles Eurasia are far more important than the Heartland for controlling the Eurasian continent.

Fig-2: Nicholas J. Spykman (Top Left) and his Rimland Theory.

He emphasized three main areas; European coastland, Arab-Middle Eastern desert, and the Asiatic monsoon land. By paraphrasing Mackinder’s statement, Spykman reiterated that “Who controls the Rimland controls Eurasia or world island. And who controls Eurasia controls the world.” He emphasized that the inner crescent and the world island are more important rather than the pivot area of Mackinder’s Heartland theory. In today’s map, it encompasses Asia Minor, Iran, China, the Arabian Peninsula, East Siberia, and the coastal area of the Mediterranean Sea, a place rich in oil and forms the most valuable trade route in the world.

At present, the hegemonic world powers like the USA, China, India, Japan, and Russia are vying for the control of the Rimland area for the protection of its imported oil and trade routes my means of establishing military bases (US base in Bahrain), naval bases (Diego Garcia naval base of the US in the south Indian Ocean) , Sea-Lane of Communications (SLCs) (China establishing it to counter India in the Indian Ocean) or Export-Processing Zones (EPZs; Japan, China, Russia and India building EPZs in the Rakhine coastline of Myanmar by ousting of Rohingya refugees) around that vicinity. All of them are actively engaged in securing their own interest in that geostrategic area.

Belt and Road Initiative and the question of South-China sea

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and South-China sea policy is the glaring example of the application of Rimland theory. BRI extended to more than 87 countries ranging from the Middle East to Europe, South-East Asia, and Africa.  After completing the BRI project, it will connect the European coastland, the Arab-Middle Eastern desert, and the Asiatic monsoon land- the Spykman’ world island. A huge proportion of world trade occurs through this region and this region is full of natural resources like oil, gas, gold, and so on.

Fig-3: China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

On the other hand, in 2013 when China’s Premier Xi Jinping ascended to power, China’s position on the question of the South-China sea has become very nationalistic. China believes only it has exclusive rights in the resource-rich South-China sea by historical legacy. As a show of might, it unilaterally started to build artificial islands in the South-China sea and increase military presence based on their controversial ‘Nine-dash Line’ to establish hegemony in this region. But other neighboring coastal countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei are vehemently opposed to China’s unlawful claim. According to UNCLOS III (Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), an independent country can claim up to 12 nautical miles of maritime territory from its coastline and 200 nautical miles is called “Exclusive Economic Zone”. Any state can exercise its economic activity within 200 nautical miles. But China repeatedly claims 2000 more nautical miles from their coastal area. For this reason, the squabble between China and other countries is gradually increasing day by day. 

Fig-4: China’s claims in the South China Sea.

The USA also wants to secure this important maritime route for itself as well as for countering the ever-growing Chinese threat in the region. It is no wonder why the US established QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) between its staunch allies Australia, India, and Japan to conduct joint-naval exercises in the Indian Ocean or South-China sea for effectively sidelining China.

The South-China Sea is one of the busiest maritime regions in the world. The region is connecting Africa and Europe with Asia. For this, the region is very important for trade and military. The region has a vast collection of natural resources like 125 billion gallons of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and China consumes 4.5 billion gallons of oil a year. As consequence, if this region is under their control, they will get the advantage of energy supply.

Moreover, the South-China Sea is also important for commercial shipping. About 3.36 trillion worth of goods is shipped there every year. In 2016, 30 percent of the global oil trade was transported through this region. Eighty percent of China’s imported oil reaches mainland China via the South-China Sea and the Malacca Strait in Indonesia. In addition, ten percent of the world’s fish is collected in this region. So, this region is also the source of food for millions of people.


Looking at the current relevance of the Rimland theory, we can also find in various aspects such as Iran’s strategy on the Middle East, India’s ambition in the Indian Ocean, China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The global players like the USA, China, and Russia had always looked for ways to influence this geostrategic area since the end of World War II and the subsequent Cold War till today, because it has[i] significant location, natural resources, sea access, the combination of land power & sea power for achieving one’s interest and spread hegemony all over the world. For this reason, many US naval bases are present in this region. Besides, Iran is trying to control the Hormuz strait and China is trying to control the east China sea and spread the BRI project across the world, Japan and India also try to establish their dominance in that region.


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Preprint. Zurich : LIT, 2018, (World society studies ; vol. 2018) ISBN: 9783643802682


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by Helen R. (editor) Spykman, Nicholas John; Nicholl

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Pages 51-69 | Published online: 09 May 2013


Zhao Hong , Pages 27-43 | Published online: 18 Feb 2013




















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