The Great Game Reinvigorated: Geopolitics, Afghanistan, and the Importance of Pakistan

August 15, 2019
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Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:
Who rules the World-Island commands the World.
Halford J. Mackinder 

Geopolitical conditions in South and Central Asia have changed dramatically since the commencement of the Afghanistan War and the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001. In 2019, great power politics are at the forefront of national security considerations. Russia is increasingly belligerent, and China has forcefully reasserted its role and influence in the global order. Linked to both these developments is Central Asia’s potential as an economic corridor of geostrategic importance underpinned by unprecedented Sino-Russian cooperation in Eurasia.

Russia and China are posturing to take advantage of post-NATO Afghanistan by seeking to deny the United States enduring influence in South Asia and secure their regional interests. As American commitment to Afghanistan comes under further pressure, Russia and China continue to play the long game by supporting all sides in the Afghan conflict. Iran adds further complexity due to its evolving strategic partnership with Russia and its increasingly disquieting relationship with the United States. Like Russia and China, Iran is seeking to expand its regional clout and has increased support to the Taliban, providing further opportunity to respond to American sanctions by proxy.

The return of great power geopolitics has transformed Afghanistan’s strategic circumstances, affecting both its future and the long-term interests of the United States. These conditions reinforce the enduring importance of Pakistan to America’s strategic flexibility, particularly in an era of renewed great power competition.

The Heartland Construct and its Contemporary Implications for South Asia

Map of the Heartland Theory, as published by Mackinder in 1904. (Wikimedia)

Geopolitics is one framework for understanding the resurgence and implications of contemporary great power politics in the region. Geopolitical theorist Halford J. Mackinder developed his heartland theory in response to the 19th century competition between Great Britain and Russia. This contest was characterised in large part by the Great Game played out in Central and South Asia. This period included the first and second British-Afghan Wars and further emphasised Afghanistan’s historic role as the crossroads of empires.

Mackinder’s theory is based on the premise that Eurasia is the global pivot point and whoever controls the Eurasian continent—which he refers to as the world island— can exercise global dominance. His theories were contested and to an extent discredited by Nicholas Spykman, who argued it was control of what he called the “rimlands” and maritime power that held the key to global supremacy. Spykman argued a lack of maritime power in the heartland undermined Eurasia’s ability to dominate global trade. Spykman largely conceived the rimlands as the United States and coastal Western European powers who controlled the Atlantic Ocean. The Second World War and Cold War seemed to reinforce Spykman’s argument—a view that continues to dominate contemporary geopolitical forecasting. Spykman foresaw the re-emergence of China as the dominant Pacific power; he did not, however, anticipate it becoming a Eurasian power due to its anticipated rivalry with Russia—an assumption that has held for much of the 20th century.

Spykman’s predominance and the ebb and flow of great power politics in the 20th century saw Mackinder’s heartland theory wane as a means to describe inter-state competition. However, based on changed geopolitical dynamics since 2001, Mackinder’s theory provides a valuable prism through which to view renewed great power competition in Central and South Asia. It is here that Russian and Chinese interests intersect, and also where the United States is seeking to retain hard-won but fragile influence. This highlights that the Great Game never stopped, it just changed character. Eurasia’s relevance may have waned during the Cold War, but it never lost its geopolitical importance.

Classical geopolitics failed to account for China’s potential to simultaneously become a Eurasian land power and rimland maritime power.

Indeed, changes to the global geopolitical balance resulting from China’s re-emergence provide an opportunity to reconcile the heartland and rimland perspectives as demonstrated by the scope and scale of the Belt and Road Initiative and expanding cooperation between China and Russia. Classical geopolitics failed to account for China’s potential to simultaneously become a Eurasian land power and rimland maritime power. China’s role as a Pacific power is well understood, but the heartland must also, once again, be conceived as including China. Where previous great power competition may have highlighted the European aspects of the heartland, the 21st Century conception of Eurasia cannot underestimate the geopolitical importance of Asia, dominated by a revisionist China.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (Straits Times)

China’s economic and military growth and burgeoning security cooperation with Russia create potential for political and economic collaboration that controls the heartland, while still being able to project military power from the rimlands. A confluence of interests between Russia and China creates a situation where a Pacific rimland power like China can control maritime access to Eastern Eurasia, following an anti-access area-denial paradigm, while accessing economic advantage through a land-based economic corridor connecting Asia to Western Europe through Central Asia. The potential for China to cooperate with a great power rival like Russia to achieve this would be a novel and dangerous shift.

The Belt and Road Initiative is both a land and maritime construct focused on enhancing China’s economic leverage. Increasingly, however, expanded military reach will be needed to protect it. Growing economic and diplomatic cooperation between Russia and China creates the potential for a politico-economic zone of unparalleled size and influence. As Ismailov and Papava argue, “Geopolitical unity is the sine qua non of [Mackinder’s] Pivot’s functional validity on a Eurasian Scale.” This expanding unity of purpose between Russia and China has the potential to return the Eurasian landmass, with Central Asia as its pivot, to global pre-eminence.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation provided a basis for increased Sino-Russian cooperation. With a deepening of the relationship, this cooperation is now based on a shared interest in redefining the terms of the global order in competition with the United States. There are good reasons for China and Russia to continue historic competition, but it is the shared desire to reduce American influence through complementary competition that incentivises expanded cooperation. This provides opportunity to enhance both nations’ positions in the event of conflict with the United States.

Cooperation, competition, and the potential for conflict in Central Asia are simply the manifestation of fear, honour, and interest in inter-state behaviour. Too little attention is being paid to the prospect of China and Russia gaining valuable strategic advantage in the heartland while the Western world remains focused on the rimlands.

Mackinder’s Heartland and Spykman’s Rimland Theory (Class Connection)

A critical vulnerability for this collaboration might be the seam running through Central and South Asia where both Chinese and Russian physical reach starts to ebb. In case of a conflict between the United States and Russia and/or China, Afghanistan’s position at the Eurasian crossroads can be important, as will Pakistan’s criticality to accessing it.

For America, access to the heartland through this Central Asian seam can only come through the rimlands. But, with a significant troop reduction or complete withdrawal after an Afghan political settlement, the United States would lack the forward basing to be able to meaningfully project force into Central Asia without viable entry from the Indian Ocean. Iran is unlikely to support an attempt to project force into Central Asia, ruling out Charbahar Port. And despite growing diplomatic cooperation, India cannot offer direct, uncontested access into Central Asia. These considerations reinforce the critical importance of Pakistan to America’s future interests in the region.

Reassessing Relations with Pakistan

American concerns about the return of great power competition see it attempting to balance China’s regional expansion by enhancing its relationship with India. All regional actors are posturing to benefit from an Afghan peace deal, and Taliban interactions with Russia and Iran demonstrate their political calculations are influenced by malign actors whose long-term interests are antithetical to those of the United States. This reinforces the need for America to carefully calibrate regional diplomatic activity to bring to bear effective diplomatic pressure. The aim of this would be an Afghan peace deal and the securing of long-term interests and positioning in the region following its implementation.

This underlines the importance of America’s recent review of strained relations with Pakistan. A permanent loss of American influence with Pakistan could limit its strategic flexibility if required to project military force to disrupt Chinese or Russian activities along the Central Asian seam. These limitations in projecting military power through South Asia due to a loss of access to and through Pakistan could also exacerbate the loss of American influence in Afghanistan that must be expected as a result of a peace agreement with the Taliban.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chinese Premier Li Kequiang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2018. (AFP)

America’s political objective in Afghanistan is a negotiated settlement, rather than the defeat of the Taliban. This sees American interests converge with Pakistan’s. All sides now agree the Taliban have a role to play in future Afghan governance. As such, it makes little strategic sense to continue to sanction Pakistan over its support to the Taliban and risk impacting long-term geostrategic flexibility. The Taliban now present a shared interest to exploit for the strategic gain of both sides

The potential for America to reset relations with Pakistan must be understood, however, in the context that China is increasingly viewed as Pakistan’s primary strategic partner. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor offers economic opportunity for a nation in desperate need of foreign investment. China is also investing USD$60B to upgrade Pakistani infrastructure; this includes Gwadar Port, where China has been granted exclusive operating rights until 2057, potentially providing the deep water port required to expand China’s Indian Ocean access and influence. This is textbook Chinese debt-trap diplomacy and comes at a time when Pakistan is vulnerable because of debt crisis and continued reductions to American military and economic assistance. This reduction creates a gap both China and Russia have shown a willingness to fill. Despite Chinese influence, Pakistan can still provide critical support to America’s future interests in the region, both as a bulwark against expanding Sino-Russian influence and as a hedge for the continuation of India-Russia relations at the expense of an expanded partnership with America.

As a peace agreement in Afghanistan becomes increasingly plausible it is important for America to focus on maximising long-term interests to retain a position of relative advantage and enduring influence in the region after the Afghan mission is complete. The burgeoning relationship with India is part of this, but if it comes at the cost of a productive relationship with Pakistan and increased tensions with China and Russia its value would be questionable.

This pragmatic approach must also recognise that a peace settlement for Afghanistan which fails to account for Pakistan’s interests will ultimately fail, particularly if it is perceived to favour India. If Pakistan’s interests—which have sustained the Taliban insurgency for 17 years—are not incorporated into a political settlement, Pakistan will simply destabilise the resultant governance framework. This would sow the seeds for the next round of conflict, with an American brokered peace potentially viewed as the proximate cause.

Recent sanctions mean the United States has few coercive levers left to use with Pakistan and should instead be actively looking to maintain and enhance what influence remains. If America returned to shunning Pakistan diplomatically and defining the relationship through Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, Pakistan might be forced to ally itself with China and Russia. This could extend a Sino-Russian sphere of influence to the Indian Ocean while isolating Afghanistan, leaving it with few options but to also join an emerging Sino-Russian compact.

It is probably not Pakistan’s preferred option to move in this direction, but for a rapprochement to be successful it has to be based on personal relationships and shared interests. The easy option is to hector Pakistan, in turn pushing them ever closer to China and Russia. The harder option is to make a conscious choice to leave the past behind and look at building a sustainable partnership for the future based on shared long-term interests.


The heartland is once again at the forefront of Great Power politics, forcing a reconsideration of diplomatic and military priorities in the region. By resetting relations with Pakistan, the United States can potentially reduce Pakistan’s reliance on an emerging Sino-Russian security-economic partnership. This may prove critical to sustaining gains made in South and Central Asia since 2001. If Pakistan falls decisively into the Sino-Russian camp then by extension so will Afghanistan. Therefore, the best way for America to maintain influence in Afghanistan in the long-term is to continue its reinvigorated engagement with Pakistan.

Pakistan is more important to America’s long-term interests in Central and South Asia than Afghanistan as its geography offers an opportunity to exploit the geopolitical seam running through the region. This potentially offers an opportunity to disrupt Chinese economic flows and security infrastructure as a counter to its Pacific military power, while also providing an ability to threaten Russia’s Southern flank in any future confrontation. Ultimately, access to and through Pakistan provide strategic options unavailable elsewhere. As the Great Game is reinvigorated in the heartland, America’s approach to this critical bilateral relationship may well define its strategic flexibility in the future.

The heartland is once again at the forefront of Great Power politics, forcing a reconsideration of diplomatic and military priorities in the region.

Mark Gilchrist is a serving Australian Army Officer. The views offered here are his own and do not reflect any official positions.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

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