The unipolar order has already collapsed as evident by the weaponization of economic dependencies and declining trust in the freedom of navigation. Eurasian transportation networks are not only creating more cost and time efficient transportation corridors, they are also reviving reliable connectivity in a multipolar format. Gradually, the Eurasian land powers are displacing the competitive advantage of the oceanic powers, writes Valdai Club expert Glenn Diesen.
Control over transportation corridors has throughout history been imperative for military and economic efficiency. Leading naval powers are more capable of maximising economic efficiency through trade, while land powers cannot gamble on the freedom of navigation as their economic survival would depend on the good graces of the naval hegemon.
Liberal international economic systems with reliable transportation corridors tend to form under economic hegemons with control over the seas. There is self-interest in providing public goods in the form of trust in open transportation corridors, as the “benign hegemon” can organise the international economic system under its administration. However, declining hegemons have incentives to limit or condition the freedom of navigation to prevent the rise of rivals, which causes a return to mercantilist traditions.
As the unipolar order has come to an end, Eurasian integration is facilitating a multipolar world in which trust can be restored in new transportation corridors.
European maritime powers versus Eurasian land powers
The economic power of the Athenians relied heavily on sea power. Profit from commerce enabled ancient Athens to equip and maintain a powerful strong fleet, while the mighty navy ensured well-protected commercial routes to sustain a strong economy. This geoeconomic value of controlling transportation corridors has remained true ever since.
After the land corridors of the ancient Silk Road dissolved, physical connectivity was gradually restored by European maritime powers from the early 16th century. Controlling the highways of the seas contributed significantly to the West enjoying 500 years of dominance in the international system. European “trading post empires” were established by capturing ports and controlling strategic sea lanes, which evolved into grand oceanic empires.
Both China and Russia suffered humiliating defeats in the mid-19th century as a result of the lack of control over strategic transportation corridors. China was defeated by the powerful British navy in the Opium Wars, which enabled Britain to seize control over Hong Kong, obtain port access, unrestricted access to China’s waterways, and extract various commercial privileges. The defeat of China resulted in economic collapse and ushered in the “Century of Humiliation”.
Russia was similarly defeated in 1856 in the Crimean War, partly due to weak transportation infrastructure. Britain and France could transport supplies and reinforcements faster from the maritime corridor from Gibraltar to Crimea than Russia could reach Crimea from Moscow.
Russia responded to the defeat in Crimea by developing a vast network of railroads to connect Eurasia – integrating its own territory and to expanding throughout Asia. The transcontinental railways could enable Russia to emulate the role of the nomadic Mongols who had connected the vast Eurasian supercontinent by land. Russia’s transcontinental land-corridors towards Iran, India and China threatened to displace the Britain’s maritime empire and led to an intense British-Russia rivalry for Eurasia throughout the rest of the 19th century.
Rise of US hegemony
In the 1890s, the influential US Navy Admiral, Alfred Thayer Mahan, outlined the intellectual foundations for the US becoming a superpower, by establish itself as a sea power like Britain to dominate international commerce. From the early 20th century, the US established incremental control over the Pacific, while also connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific by constructing the Panama Canal and placing it under US sovereignty.
After the Second World War, the US asserted global dominance over maritime transportation corridors, ranging from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal. Containment of the Soviet Union depended on limiting Moscow’s entry to the Atlantic by constraining reliable access through the Arctic, Baltic Sea and Black Sea. Similar war strategies were developed to end Soviet access to the Pacific.
A maritime containment strategy was also developed against China by establishing two “island chains” to encircle China and the Soviet Union in the Pacific Ocean. These two island chains continue to be at the centre of containing China to this day. Control over key choke points such as the Strait of Malacca enables the US to suffocate the Chinese economy if necessary, much like Britain starved Germany a century earlier with naval blockades.
The “benign hegemon” of the post-Cold War era
After the Cold War, the US sought to expand its role as the benign hegemon globally. Yet, preserving hegemony entailed continuing containment of China and Russia as key rivals.
In Europe, NATO has been instrumental to expand US control over the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Arctic. NATO expansion to Bulgaria, Romania and possibly Ukraine aims to convert the Black Sea into a NATO lake. In the Baltic Sea, NATO membership to Baltic states has extended the reach of the US. Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, argued that the pending NATO expansion to Sweden and Finland was a strategic victory because “if we wish, we can block all entry and exit to Russia through St. Petersburg”. The US is also expanding its reach in the high north by converting Norway into a frontline in the Arctic with increased military activity and soon to establish four US military bases on Norwegian soil.
In East Asia, the US is also solidifying its control over the island chains as part of the “pivot to Asia” to contain China. To facilitate the secession of Taiwan, the US is incrementally dismantling the 40-year old One-China Policy, which recognises Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan and limits US relations to Taiwan to cultural and economic ties.
The US also launched its own Silk Road concept targeting Central Asia. Instead of connecting Europe with Russia and China, the US Silk Road aimed to connect Central Asia with India to weaken the influence and power of Russia and China.
As the rise of China gradually made it a challenger to US primacy, Beijing began to construct its blue-water navy, man-made islands, and assert greater control over transportation corridors to ensure reliable access to resources and markets. China’s main state-owned companies were encouraged to procure foreign transportation assets, while the “string of pearls” term refers to China’s efforts to establish maritime infrastructure across the Indian Ocean.
China’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative connects the world to China by land and sea, with faster and cheaper transportation routes that also circumvent key choke points vulnerable to American aggression. When European countries like Greece and Hungary became important nodes in the Belt and Road Initiative, the EU and US rediscovered the reality that economic dependencies are followed by politically loyalties. As Eurasian transportation corridors matured, the bloc loyalty to the EU weakened.
Russia, without the same economic might as China, has a geography conducive for Eurasian integration. The key transportation corridor from East Asia to Europe is prioritised, which is developed by upgrading the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Baikal-Amur Railway. This corridor is strengthened by modernising Russia’s western ports in places like Ust-Luga and the eastern free ports on the Pacific coast.
Russia’s East-West corridor also has a maritime component, the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which crosses the Russian Arctic. Supported by a growing fleet of icebreakers, the NSR can provide cheaper and faster maritime connectivity between East Asia and Europe. The NSR has also been incorporated into China’s Silk Road concept under the Polar Silk Road label.
The International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) is a more than 7000km-long transportation network consisting of ships, rail and road across the Caspian region. The corridor connects Russia, Iran and India, yet also the adjacent Central Asian region. The connectivity also extends further into South East Asia. The corridor, already operational, provides a faster and cheaper transportation corridor than the Suez alternative.
Restoring connectivity in a multipolar system
The unipolar order has already collapsed as evident by the weaponization of economic dependencies and declining trust in the freedom of navigation. Eurasian transportation networks are not only creating more cost and time efficient transportation corridors, they are also reviving reliable connectivity in a multipolar format. Gradually, the Eurasian land powers are displacing the competitive advantage of the oceanic powers.