Weigert, Fischer, and Containment of China
The political geographer Saul B. Cohen defined geopolitics as the relation of international politics to its geographical setting. Since Britain’s Halford J. Mackinder in 1904 announced the end of the Columbian epoch of global discoveries, geopolitical thinkers have viewed the world as a “closed political system.” One hundred fifteen years later, despite more than a century of remarkable technological and scientific advances that have figuratively made the world “smaller,” geography still matters.
Today’s international politics are dominated by the rivalry between the United States and China. It is not necessary to believe in the so-called “Thucydides Trap” to appreciate the inherent danger in the economic and geopolitical competition between the world’s two strongest economic and military powers. Competition and rivalry in international relations has been the norm throughout history. Our age is no different. The U.S.-China rivalry, however, need not result in war. China can be contained.
The key to containing China lies in the geography of East Asia and the Pacific Rim. In 1957, Hans Weigert of Georgetown University and Eric Fischer of George Washington University contributed a fascinating chapter to a little remembered book entitled Principles of Political Geography. Weigert and Fischer perceived the significance of the geographical pattern consisting of a succession of marginal and enclosed seas from the Aleutian Islands to Indonesia. “The continental mainland,” they wrote, “is separated everywhere from the open oceans by a succession of partly enclosed seas, each protected and easily defended on the Pacific side by curving peninsular and island barriers.” Within the enclosed waterways that link the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, they further noted, are “straits and narrows that have great strategic significance.”
Weigert and Fischer included in their chapter a map that should be on the desks or walls of every American strategist. Their map depicts a series of island chains that form a “cordon sanitaire” along China’s east-Asian coast. To the far north, the Aleutian Islands enclose the Bering Sea. Next, the Russian-controlled Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kurile Islands bar the exits from the Sea of Okhotsk. The Sea of Japan is bounded by Sakhalin Island, South Korea, and Japan’s main islands. Perhaps the most crucial island barrier is formed by southern Japan, the Ryukyu chain, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo, which separate the East China Sea and South China Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Furthest south, the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia sit astride the gateway to the Indian Ocean—the narrow and strategically crucial Strait of Malacca.
The Weigert-Fischer map also shows the central location of Taiwan in the geographical cordon sanitaire of China. Taiwan is the most likely flashpoint in U.S.-China relations—it plays a role similar to that played by West Berlin in the Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The freedom and independence of Taiwan is a challenge to the continued totalitarian rule of China’s Communist Party on the mainland. Should Taiwan fall under mainland China’s rule, the breach in the island cordon sanitaire of China would be irreparable. If Taiwan remains independent—as West Berlin did under similarly precarious circumstances during the Cold War—it might over the long term, coupled with internal unrest within China, lead to what George F. Kennan called the “break-up or the gradual mellowing” of Communist power.
The Obama administration proclaimed a strategic “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, but in reality the pivot was more rhetorical than real. A real and meaningful pivot to the Asia-Pacific would seek to take advantage of the geography depicted in the Weigert-Fischer map. In practice, this would mean improving relations with Russia, bolstering our alliance with Japan, renewing strategic ties to the Philippines, further strengthening ties to Vietnam, maintaining good relations with Singapore and, above all, ensuring that China does not peacefully annex or forcibly conquer Taiwan. This would also mean a significant shift in military resources, especially air and naval power, to the region. The geographical cordon sanitaire of the Pacific Rim must be supported by adequate military forces.
Writing in the National Review at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, James Burnham described America’s East Asian security frontier as running from “the Aleutians down the Japanese Islands, the Ryukyus and Formosa to the Philippines.” The abandonment of Taiwan (Formosa) to the communist Chinese, he wrote, “would be a staggering disaster for the U.S.” It would sever a key link in the geographical barriers of containment of mainland power. As Weigert and Fischer wrote, once this barrier is breached by a mainland power, “the entire peripheral strategy of the Free World would be endangered. The sea communications of the Free World are secure only if the seas through which they pass and the narrow straits on which they converge are secure.”
Containment of China would be further strengthened by improved relations between the U.S. and Russia, and the U.S, and India. The more China is strategically distracted on the continent of Eurasia, the fewer resources it can to devote to challenging American air and sea power along the Pacific Rim.
American policymakers and strategists should study the Weigert-Fischer map and remember the words of the great German political geographer Friedrich Ratzel: “Great statesmen have never lacked a feeling for geography . . . . When one speaks of a healthy political instinct, one usually means a correct evaluation of the geographic bases of political power.”