Heartland Reunion: Geopolitical Chimera or Historical Chance?

13 february 2019

Andrey Kortunov is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, President of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow. He is also the president of the Information Scholarship Education Center (ISE) and a member of the Educational Board of the Open Society Institute.

Resume: Anyone who has at least some idea about the theory of international relations should remember the oft-quoted formula put forward by the father of British geopolitics, Halford Mackinder: “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.”

Anyone who has at least some idea about the theory of international relations should remember the oft-quoted formula put forward by the father of British geopolitics, Halford Mackinder: “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” For those who are sceptical about geopolitical constructs and terminology, this logical chain may seem like a meaningless shamanic incantation. Over the course of a century, “Mackinder’s formula” was repeatedly criticized, corrected, repudiated, anathematized, parodied and ridiculed. And yet, strange as it may seem, not only has this formula survived an entire century, but it is also perhaps more relevant today than it was a hundred years ago.

Of course, the question hinges on how we understand the concept of Heartland. Mackinder interpreted it as the geographical centre of Eurasia, or, more precisely, as the massive central and north-eastern part of the Asian continent, which on the whole coincided with the Asian areas ruled by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Today, it seems obvious that the “Eurasian core” must be sought south of the harsh, poorly developed and scarcely populated Siberian plains and barren deserts of Central Asia. Just like in the days of Mackinder, Siberia and Central Asia remain repositories of raw materials and energy resources. Just like before, these lands may be considered the “great natural fortress” of the land peoples, adjusted for the new arsenal of means of projecting military power that appeared in the 20th century. However, these lands did not become a true “axis of history”: contrary to Mackinder’s prophecies, their transport infrastructure remained incomplete and disconnected, while their role in the development of the Eurasian continent over the past 100 years has shrunk rather than grown.

At the risk of incurring the righteous indignation of the current geopolitical orthodox, let us postulate that the Eurasian Heartland of the 21st century is actually what Mackinder saw as the “inner crescent.” Primarily China and India, in relation to which the rest of the Eurasian massif – Russia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and even the extended European peninsula of the Asian mainland – act as continental limitrophe states. Despite the undeniable significance of these border states to European history, politics, economics and security, the fate of Europe depends primarily on how relations in the new Heartland (that is, between China and India) unfold. And the future of the whole world to a great degree depends on the fate of Eurasia. This is one of Mackinder’s main points, and it is by no means outdated.

The Prerequisites for Consolidation

It would seem that there are no fundamental obstacles to the consolidation of the Heartland: the interests of Beijing and New Delhi coincide on most major international issues. China and India have much in common. Both countries are, in their own way, historically stable and internally cohesive alternatives to Atlantic civilization. China and India are, along with the Arabic East (and to a lesser extent Tropical Africa south of the Sahara), the two most important points of the crystallization of “non-western” ideals. The fact that China and India are growing stronger is the most significant indicator that the “western” stage in the development of the system of international relations has drawn to a close.

As powerful drivers of economic growth both in Eurasia and around the world, both China and India are currently experiencing a stage of long-term economic, cultural and civilizational upheaval. Neither has fully overcome the deep trauma of national consciousness caused by their status as outsiders in global politics in the 19th and 20th century, and this trauma continues to have an impact on the historical narratives that dominate China and India and the foreign policy ambitions that emanate from these narratives. Beijing and New Delhi are “revisionist” players on the global stage in the sense that both China and India are interested in revising the old rules of the game that serve the interests of the “collective West.” China is leading a broad economic and financial offensive – from Central Europe to Latin America. India, lagging behind China in terms of foreign economic expansion, is focusing instead on closing the political gap by laying claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The two countries are exposed to all the standard “growing pains” – the negative side effects of rapid economic and social growth. Both China and India suffer from severe environmental problems, a shortage of natural resources, growing social inequality and widespread corruption. In addition to this, there are pockets of separatism and terrorism in both countries. China and India are also witnessing a conflict between modernization and traditionalist forces. The concept of “national sovereignty” is paramount in both states, and any attempt to interfere in their domestic affairs is met with hostility. People in both countries question the stability of the current model of socioeconomic development, and many fear or predict inevitable crises and upheavals in the future.

Historically, relations between India and China have always been less conflict-ridden than, say, the relations between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the west of the Eurasian continent. In a sense, it is fair to speak not only of the economic, cultural and spiritual compatibility of these two ancient civilizations, but also of the fact that these aspects have penetrated the other country and even complement one another. There are numerous examples of this – from the epic history of the Great Silk Road to the equally impressive chronicle of how Buddhism spread across Eastern Asia. In essence, the consolidation of a China–India Heartland would not mean the creation of something fundamentally new, but simply the natural reunification of a torn Eurasia, the restoration of a recently lost continental unity.

Hence, there are objective prerequisites for the consolidation of a new Heartland. It is worth adding here that, while recognizing all the difficulties and tactical losses, such a consolidation would serve the long-term interests of both countries. The implementation of the joint China–India project would contribute to the stabilization of the geopolitical situation in the entire Eurasian space and open up fundamentally new opportunities for transcontinental cooperation in various fields.

It would not be out of place to draw a parallel with post-War Western Europe here, when the reconciliation between France and Germany led to the launch of European integration processes. In turn, it was ultimately France and Germany that benefitted most from this process: the political will and the willingness to compromise demonstrated by the leaders in Paris and Bonn paid off time after time in the following decades.

The numerous benefits of consolidating the Eurasian heartland are too obvious to not be a subject of contemplation on both sides of the Himalayas. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi have, for at least the past six decades, developed more along the lines of a rivalry than cooperation – and this rivalry has on more than one occasion turned into direct confrontation. Why is this the case? Could it be the subjective mistakes of the leadership? Personal ambitions of leadership? The underhand practices of internal forces? The tragic accidents of history? Or perhaps there are some objective “ force majeure circumstances” that stand in the way of a new Heartland coming together?

The Dimensions of the Eurasian Schism

Let us start with what everyone already knows – the two countries represent very different types of government. The differences between China and India today are greater than those between France and Germany 50 years ago. While China is much farther away from Europe than India, it is, on the whole, considerably closer in terms of being a nation state in the European mould. Despite the fact that there are a significant number of national minorities in China and substantial regional differences, ethnic Chinese (Han Chinese) are a single people and make up more than 90 per cent of the country’s population. Of the 34 Chinese provinces, including the autonomous regions and cities of central subordination, only Taiwan falls outside the vertical power system of governance, for obvious reasons.

India does not have a dominant national people. In terms of its ethnocultural and linguistic diversity, the Indian subcontinent does not resemble a separate European state or China, but rather the European Union as a whole. And in terms of religious diversity, the multi-structural nature of the economy and the regional disparities, India goes way beyond the whole of Europe put together. India is made up of 29 states and seven union territories, which exist in a state of complex political interaction. India is essentially a grandiose integration project in South Asia that is primarily turned inwards rather than outwards. If we stretch the analogies somewhat further, we can say that, as a single state, China has the same problems in its dialogue with the eclectic and insulated India that centralized Russia has in its interactions with the amorphous and insulated European Union.

Evidently, the historical trajectories of the two countries have also diverged greatly, especially over the past 250 years. India was a British colony, and the nearly 200 years of British rule left an indelible imprint not only on the country’s political system, but also on its culture. China, on the other hand, has never been colonized by a foreign country. While British democracy was a “system-forming” factor for independent India, communist China regarded the Soviet Union of the 1950s as a model to be emulated. Despite the fact that both countries have moved far from their original models of the mid-20th century, there are no grounds to suggest that their political or economic systems have drawn any closer.

In theory, the China–India partnership could even benefit from the fact that their political systems are so different: China would assume the main role in its interaction with various authoritarian regimes, while India would take the lead when it comes to developing ties with western liberal-democratic regimes. In practice, however, the dissimilarity of the systems hinders cooperation and, more importantly, mutual understanding. In is noteworthy that Beijing has found it far easier to establish relations with Moscow in the 21st century than with New Delhi, although the history of China–Russia relations is far more dramatic and controversial than the history of China–India relations.

Since China and India are the two largest countries in continental Asia, competition for natural resources, foreign markets, control of transport corridors and influence over common neighbours is inevitable. The close proximity of the two major powers gives rise to border disputes: the countries share 4000 km border, and the problem right now is not even about resolving territorial disputes, but merely about preserving the territorial status quo and preventing an escalation. The sides feel tempted to support various instruments of influence in each other’s territories. What is more, the question of what best meets the development needs of other Asian countries – Chinese socialism or Indian democracy – remains open.

Trade between China and India is growing at a rapid pace; however, both India and China are more focused on global markets than they are on each other. And for decades they have been purchasing the main resources needed for modernization – investments and modern technologies – from the West, often competing directly with each other for them. Bilateral trade remains asymmetrical, with Chinese exports to India far outweighing its imports from that country. Moreover, Chinese economic activity in India is far from always seen by the latter in an exclusively positive light.

A stable balance of powers between China and India in Asia is hindered by the fact that, right now, China is stronger than India both economically and militarily, and this asymmetry is likely to persist for the foreseeable future. A consolidated Eurasian Heartland would be less of an equal partnership than that of France and Germany in the second half of the 20th century.

India is still dogged by painful memories of the 1962 Sino–Indian Border Conflict. The model of Asia and a “closed” system is thus advantageous for Beijing, with China’s dominance in this system being in no doubt. For the same reason, New Delhi is interested in an “open” Asia, in which the asymmetry in the balance of powers between China and India could be compensated by introducing external players (who are, of course, on India’s side) into the mix.

The Interests of External Players

The interests of the United States in Asia are obvious and depend very little on the change of administration in the White House, although Donald Trump’s team has articulated these interests more clearly and more gruffly than its predecessors. Washington cannot but fear the consolidation of the European Heartland and will therefore continue to capitalize on the deepening contradictions in China–India relations. Naturally, it is trying to manage this process somehow without steering it towards a large-scale military conflict with unpredictable consequences.

Today we are witnessing an attempt by the United States to replicate the successful approaches of Henry Kissinger taken in the 1970s and to build a Eurasian geopolitical triangle. The difference is that the USSR is replaced by China, and China is replaced by India. This explains the increased attention of the United States to New Delhi and the persistent attempts to involve India in multilateral groupings that include allies of the United States that are located on the island periphery of the Eurasian continent, namely Japan and Australia (the concept of a “democratic Indo-Pacific”). If Washington had succeeded in achieving the sustainable institutionalization of these groupings in the form of a military-technical alliance similar to NATO, this would have created long-term guaranteed preventing the consolidation of the Heartland. However, at this juncture, any format of allied relations with Washington is politically unacceptable for the Indian elite, which is pushing for the preservation of the country’s strategic independence. What is more, India cannot sacrifice its continental Eurasian partners (primarily Moscow and Tehran) – not even for the sake of friendship with Washington.

The European Union is less interested in the preservation, much less the exacerbation, of the confrontation between China and India. Of course, the consolidation of the Heartland would present a serious challenge for Europe too, but one that is more to do with economics than geopolitics. The formation of a single Eurasian economic space would undoubtedly speed up the displacement of Europe as the economic centre of activity in Eurasia to Asia and reduce the role of the European Union in the Eurasian and global economies. On the other hand, China and India are two of the most promising foreign markets for the European Union, and the further development of these markets in line with the strategic interests of Brussels.

As far as the European Union is concerned, the main question is: On what basis can the consolidation of the Eurasian Heartland take place? Of course, Brussels would like to see Eurasian consolidation based on European standards, in compliance with European procedures and in line with European standards. The worst option for Brussels would be the gradual “economic absorption” of India by China and the implementation of the Eurasian integration process based on something that is entirely different from the European vision (for example, on the implementation of the One Road, One Belt initiative).

Russia’s interests in the various development scenarios for China–India relations are the subject of heated debates within the country’s expert community. On the one hand, it is often argued that maintaining tension in relations between Beijing and New Delhi makes Moscow a more valuable partner for both sides. Right now, Russia’s relations with China and India are better than those between China and India, meaning that it occupies the most advantageous position in this triangle. Based on this logic, we can assume that the consolidation of the Eurasian Heartland around the China–India axis would entail a further shift in the Eurasian centre of gravity towards the south of Russia’s borders. This would marginalize Russia even further as a participant in the Eurasian community.

On the other hand, it is safe to predict that attempts to capitalize on the contradictions between China and India will inevitably raise suspicions both in Beijing and in New Delhi, cause them to doubt the sincerity of Russia’s actions, etc. It is easy to imagine a situation in which Moscow will be unable to maintain its neutral position and be forced to choose between its two most important partners in Asia, and whatever choice it makes will inevitably entail major losses. Let us not forget that the escalation of the confrontation between China and India – a factor that stands in the way of the consolidation of the Heartland – would leave the door wide open for the United States, which is not likely to be among Moscow’s friends any time soon. Moreover, such an escalation is fraught with the risk of a major military conflict breaking out on the continent, and this would inevitably affect Russia’s security. To summarize the advantages and disadvantages of consolidation for Russia, the only reasonable conclusion is that the expected benefits of a consolidated Heartland clearly outweigh the potential costs.

Let us make it clear right away – whatever Russia’s role in the consolidation of the Eurasian Heartland, it will by no means be decisive. China–India relations have their own internal logic and their own dynamics that no external player (be it the United States, the European Union or Russia) can change. It would appear that, as the stronger party in these bilateral relations, China should go the extra mile to reduce suspicion and gain New Delhi’s trust. We could argue about what steps need to be taken and in what order, but this, strictly speaking, is not an issue for Russian foreign policy. However, this does not mean that Russia does not have a role in this most important issue.


On December 1, 2018, an attempt was made on the side-lines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires to step up the activities of the mechanism of tripartite cooperation between Russia, China and India (the RIC countries) and resume the practice of regular high-level meetings after a 12-year hiatus. According to Vladimir Putin, these meetings should focus on various aspects of security and the fight against protectionism and politically motivated restrictions in international trade. Developing these ideas, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi identified four possible areas for cooperation: regional and global stability, economic prosperity, the exchange of experience in areas of mutual interest, and cooperation on how to respond to emerging challenges. Similar thoughts were expressed by the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, who stressed the special responsibilities of the three powers to support regional and global stability.

In recent years, the RIC format has remained in the shadow of the more representative five-party cooperation structure that includes Brazil and South Africa (together, the five countries make up the BRICS association). Without belittling the significance of the latter two countries, it is worth noting that the geographical expansion of RIC into BRICS entailed certain institutional costs: the two non-Eurasian countries had their own tasks and priorities that differed from the agenda of the original Eurasian members. The fact that the last presidential election was won by Jair Balsonara, a far-right congressman, the so-called "Donald Trump of Brazil" raises a number of questions about the future of the five-party structure. In any case, it would surely be a grave miscalculation for Russian policy to “dissolve” RIC into BRICS completely.

In all likelihood, in the near future, tripartite summits will be held on the side-lines of larger multilateral events (G20 summits, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Asia–Europe Meeting, etc.). However, if everything is limited to brief and infrequent interactions between leaders, statements of coinciding positions or even the signing of general political declarations, then this will do little in terms of the consolidation of the Heartland. It is necessary to articulate, in a frank manner, the existing differences with regard to the most serious problems facing Eurasia. The leaders of the three countries should focus on the problems that are standing in the way of consolidation of the Eurasian space.

At the same time, considering the fact that these trilateral meetings are inevitably short, the issues raised should be studied thoroughly beforehand by experts and the relevant ministries in the track 1.5 and track 2 formats and with a view to developing specific “road maps.” It is precisely the specifics that have traditionally been lacking in joint statements adopted at the end of the annual meetings of RIC foreign ministers. Another urgent task that could help solve the problem of trust between the Chinese and Indian militaries is the creation of a permanent tripartite mechanism for military consultations and the holding of regular military exercises.

A practical political trialogue could begin with an open discussion of such issues as the future of Syria and Afghanistan, which are of great importance for all three participants. Equally significant are the development of individual functional dimensions of the Eurasian Heartland – joint initiatives in the fight against terrorism, managing migration flows, food and energy security, issues of international information exchange and the development of artificial intelligence. It is from the widest possible set of such functional regimes, not from old or new rigid institutional blocs, that the new Eurasian Heartland should be built.

India and China are Arctic Council observer states. As one of the leading members of this organization, Russia could suggest to its partners that they discuss Arctic issues together so that none of them could have any suspicions about Moscow possibly harbouring a position on these issues that could be considered “pro-China” or “pro-India.”

And, of course, more active trilateral interaction on issues that go beyond the geographical boundaries of the Eurasian continent would serve as a powerful incentive for the consolidation of the Heartland. The future of multilateral arms control. The reform of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and other global organizations. The development of international public law in the 21st century. Climate change and environmental issues. The management of technological progress. If Russia, China and India develop a united position on these and many other issues, it will carry far greater weight on the international arena than the individual opinions of each of these countries.

Ultimately, the Eurasian Heartland of the 21st century is not just a geopolitical, or a geo-economic concept. It represents, to a certain extent, common or similar views of leading Eurasian states on the future of the world order and a strategy for restoring manageability to a world that is coming apart at the seams. It is a joint sense of global stability and a common readiness to look beyond the narrow horizons of immediate national interests. It is only in the presence of such a community that the new Heartland can become the “axis of history” the illustrious father of British geopolitics and member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom Halford Mackinder wrote about, albeit in an entirely different context and according to a completely different logic.


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