On January 5, 2021, the Navy Department released "A Blue Arctic," which it described as the Navy's "strategic blueprint for the Arctic [Ocean]." The 28-page paper recognizes that the Arctic Ocean is gradually turning from “white” to “blue,” meaning that “reduced ice coverage is making Arctic waters more accessible and navigable.” The melting polar ice cap has produced the “blue” Arctic.
The Navy paper notes that Russia and China are cooperating in developing and exploiting Arctic resources. The Arctic extends along Russia’s vast northern border, and China, as the paper notes, “views the Arctic Region as a critical link in its One Belt One Road Initiative.” “China’s growing economic, scientific, and military reach, along with its demonstrated intent to gain access and influence over Arctic states, control key maritime ports, and remake the international rules-based order,” the paper warns, “presents a threat to people and nations, including those who call the Arctic Region home.”
In 2018, China issued its own "Arctic Policy" paper in which it described the trans-Arctic sea passage as the “Central Passage.” China’s paper notes that there are now three Arctic shipping routes: the Northeast Passage, Northwest Passage, and the Central Passage, all of which fit into what Chinese Communist Party (CCP) strategists call the “Polar Silk Road.” And as noted in the U.S. Navy's paper, China is actively cooperating with Russia in this region. As the Arctic Institute notes, " Geopolitically, this has huge implications as it brings China and Russia closer together as allies."
The Arctic Region boasts an abundance of natural resources. A CNBC report notes that "At play is between one-fifth and a quarter of the world’s untapped fossil-fuel resources, not to mention a range of mineable minerals, including gold, silver, diamond, copper, titanium, graphite, uranium and other valuable rare earth elements. With the ice in retreat, those resources will come increasingly within reach.”
The "blue" Arctic today is mostly seasonal, but the gradually melting ice means that the “blue” season will become longer, and the "blueness" of the Arctic will become wider. One estimate claims that within decades a trans-polar central sea route will be available during summer months. In other words, ships may soon be traversing the Arctic Ocean at the top of the world for a few months in the summer.
The geopolitical implications of this climatic change are the most interesting and potentially worrisome aspect of the “blue” Arctic. The key to understanding these implications is found in a remarkable book written by the British geographer and statesman Halford Mackinder in 1919, entitled Democratic Ideals and Reality.
Mackinder wrote the book as a follow-up to his 1904 paper "The Geographical Pivot of History," in which he identified the northern-central core of Eurasia as the "pivot state" of world politics. In that 1904 paper, he warned that a hostile power or alliance of powers in control of the "pivot state" could extend its political reach across Eurasia and use the vase human and natural resources of the great continent to build a navy that could overwhelm the world's insular powers (i.e., Britain and the United States).
In Democratic Ideals and Reality, which was written at the end of the First World War, Mackinder expanded his geostrategic worldview. He renamed the “pivot state” the “Heartland.” More importantly, he developed the concept of the “World-Island.” Mackinder’s “World-Island” consisted of the triple continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, which he envisioned as a single geographical concept. He called the triple-continent “this newly realized Great Island.” Strategists, he wrote, "must no longer think of Europe apart from Asia and Africa. The Old World has become insular or, in other words, a unit, incomparably the largest geographical unit on our globe."
Mackinder's review of the history of the struggles for power among states and empires led him to conclude that the two key factors that affected those struggles were insularity and relative resources (human and natural). The World-Island, he explained, “possessed . . . the advantages both of insularity and of incomparably great resources.”
Mackinder then posed this memorable question:
What if the Great Continent, the whole World-Island
or a large part of it, were at some future time to become
a single and united base of sea power? Would not the
other insular bases be outbuilt as regards ships and
outmanned as regards seamen? Their fleets would no
doubt fight with all the heroism begotten of their
histories, but the end would be fated.
Add air and space power to Mackinder’s question, and its meaning is clear in the 21st century.
In Mackinder's time, the World-Island was not actually insular—it was not an island. Today, the melting polar ice has transformed the triple continent of Europe, Asia and Africa into an island. Mackinder's World-Island is a fact of the 21st century—it contains most of the world’s people and resources and has the strategic advantage of insularity if effectively politically controlled by a hostile power or alliance of powers.
This has created what Robert Kaplan called "a new strategic geography" in a paper he first wrote for the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment a few years ago entitled "The Return of Marco Polo's World and the U.S. Military Response." Kaplan concluded that the reunification of the Mediterranean Basin and the increased interactions across the Indian Ocean from Southeast Asia to East Africa means that "Afro-Eurasia" is a geopolitical reality and that the emergence of Mackinder's "World-Island" demands a U.S. strategic response.
That is why the emerging alliance of China and Russia is so dangerous. Together, those countries occupy the northern-central core of Eurasia—Mackinder's "pivot state" or Heartland. China's Belt and Road Initiative is, in essence, a geopolitical strategy for extending China's political reach throughout Eurasia and Africa and the adjacent seas. The emerging Arctic Sea Route—what China calls its Polar Silk Road—is an integral part of the Belt and Road Initiative. A Sino-Russian alliance that controlled the World-Island or a large part of it would be able to shape the global order according to its wishes.
Mackinder presciently warned in 1919: "[M]ust we not still reckon with the possibility that a large part of the Great Continent might someday be united under a single sway, and that an invincible se power might be based upon it.? . . . Ought we not to recognize that that is the great ultimate threat to the world's liberty so far as strategy is concerned, and to provide against it in our . . . political system."
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21stCentury, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War, and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. He has written lengthy introductions to two of Mahan’s books, and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, the University Bookman, Joint Force Quarterly, the Asian Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, the Claremont Review of Books, American Diplomacy, the Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.