GEOGRAPHY is one of the soft spots in the US anatomy. The most important region in the world in terms of geography and geopolitics is the Eurasian Heartland. This is what Sir Halford Mackinder, who is considered to be the father of geopolitics, referred to as the “geographic pivot of history.” Mackinder theorized: “..who rules (the Eurasian) Heartland controls the World Island (referring to the three continents of Asia, Europe and Africa taken as one); who rules the World Island controls the World.”
Since 1904 when Mackinder put forward his theory, great powers have been ceaselessly trying to gain control of the Eurasian Heartland. The US-led wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine, Libya, and Syria were all part of this effort to control the Heartland. This includes the hundreds of US/NATO military bases deployed to encircle the three major powers physically occupying the Eurasian heartland: Russia, Iran and China.
If a major war were to eventually break out between the US with its NATO allies and the major occupiers of the Heartland, the main battlefield will be in the heartland of Eurasia and its periphery. Being the sole world superpower, the US and its NATO and other allies (like Japan, Australia, Canada, etc.) will necessarily be the invaders or aggressors; while Russia, China, Iran, and other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be the defenders.
In this kind of scenario, the Heartland defenders have the edge, while the US and its major allies are placed at a great disadvantage by geography. How so?
Being the invader, the US has to bring its troops and war materials to the battlefields of Eurasia. In doing so, it has to cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; thus, being forced to operate on exterior lines with extended sea lanes of communication (SLOC) vulnerable to interdiction by enemy submarines, strategic bombers, long-range cruise missiles, and land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles.
In contrast, the Heartland defenders will be operating on secured and protected interior lines within their respective territories or the territories of their allies within the SCO. In the case of China, troop movements and maneuvers will be greatly aided by the proliferation of high-speed rail system (of more than 20,000 kilometers); which now exceeds the world’s entire high-speed rail combined. High-speed maneuvers will allow Chinese forces to rapidly concentrate firepower to defeat any invading forces one by one. In the not too distant future, the whole of the Heartland of Eurasia will be crisscrossed by this high-speed rail system—courtesy of China. Not only does high-speed rail aid in rapid military maneuvers; it also links supply chains, markets, and trade routes. In the end, high-speed rail may turn out to be a much better strategic weapon than aircraft carrier battle groups, strategic stealth bombers, and nuclear submarines.
So, the Heartland defenders (Russia, China, and Iran) enjoy the geographical advantage of operating on secured interior lines while the US and its allies will be disadvantaged by being forced to operate on vulnerable exterior lines. In addition, the US will be forced to fight in several major fronts: the Russian Front (Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, etc.); the China Front (South China Sea, East China Sea, Japan, Taiwan, Korean Peninsula, etc.); the Iranian Front (Strait of Hormuz, Persian Gulf, etc.); and the Indian Ocean Front (Pakistan focused on Gwadar). These four major fronts can be expanded further if the US attacks the Russian and Chinese mainland themselves. Russia and China can send their own nuclear submarines to attack US east and west coast, respectively, thus creating six major war fronts simultaneously. This will force the US to spread its military forces thinly on a global scale, rendering it weak everywhere.
There is a military dictum which states: “Never hit with both fists in two directions at the same time.” In the battle for control of the Eurasian Heartland, the US will be forced to hit not only in two, but six directions at the same time.
Now, what about the hundreds of US and NATO military bases surrounding Russia, Iran, and China? Are they not a huge advantage for the US and its allies? The US maintains some 150,000 of its troops in these military bases (US forces-in-being) with logistics-in-place in such foreign military bases. These US forces-in-being and logistics-in-place no longer need to cross the oceans to reach the Eurasian battlefields.
The US problem is that these US/NATO bases surrounding Russia, Iran, and China, because of their geographic proximity to the Heartland defenders, are highly vulnerable. Such military bases are fixed, whose exact location can be plotted in advance. At the outbreak of a major military confrontation, these military bases can be wiped out in a pre-planned missile barrage attacks. They can be neutralized within the first few minutes, together will all the stealth and advanced aircraft they may be harboring. So instead of gaining advantage from this seeming encirclement of the Heartland, such bases become serious liabilities as geographic proximity makes the missiles of the Heartland defenders highly effective against the easily targetable and fixed military bases.
The US is clearly ahead of Russia, China, and Iran when it comes to stealth aircraft. But these weapons had to be brought within range of the battlefield to be effective; such as via aircraft carriers or air bases near potential targets. This makes them vulnerable to being eliminated in the first few minutes of armed conflict by the highly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles of their adversaries. Loss of air bases means loss of air cover; loss of air cover means loss of the war itself.
Geography blessed the Heartland dwellers with rich energy and other strategic natural resources, huge populations, and vast flatlands making the father of geopolitics (Mackinder) conclude that he who controls the Heartland will eventually rule the world. This fact forces the US to play the role of the aggressor, or the foreign invader, in its attempt to control the Eurasian Heartland; while the Heartland dwellers play the role of the defender of their homeland. Hence, the latter enjoys the “home court” advantage. They will enjoy the advantage of popular support among the populace while the US invaders will be faced with an angry and hostile population. Here is what Mencius had to say on the subject of popular support in relation to war: “Perfect timing is less important than geographical advantage; geographical advantage is less important than popular support.”
With regard to China’s geography in particular, China suffers two weaknesses that can put it at great risk. The first is the Malacca Strait where China’s supply of oil from the Middle East and Africa passes; as well as most of its imports and exports of traded goods to Europe, the Persian Gulf nations, and Africa. The US 7th Fleet can easily block the Malacca Strait itself, or conduct a distant blockade to prevent merchant ships destined for China or coming from China to proceed to their destination. Such a naval blockade can force the Chinese economy to grind to a halt.
The second geographical weakness of China is the existence of the Manila Trench that skirts the western portion of Central and Northern Luzon and goes all the way near Taiwan and close to the east coast of China. The Manila Trench happens to be the only portion of the South China Sea deep enough for US Ohio-class nuclear submarine (SSGN) can surreptitiously approach China’s east coast and conduct a first nuclear strike. Each Ohio-class SSGN carries 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles with a range of 2,500 kilometers; each missile, in turn, has a nuclear warhead of 200 kilotons—more than ten times that used in Hiroshima (15 kilotons). A first strike by four US Ohio-class submarines positioned off China’s east coast where China’s industrial base and majority of China’s population are concentrated, can bomb the Chinese nation and civilization to extinction in a matter of hours, if not minutes.
It is said that geography is immutable; that geography is destiny. How, then, did China change this huge geographic disadvantage? How did China change its destiny brought about by geography?
China’s solution was simple: construction of artificial islands with 3-km long runways; making the Malacca Strait and the Manila Trench easily accessible to China’s J-20 stealth multi-role fighter bombers and anti-submarine aircraft. This is coupled with sea-bottom hydroponic anti-submarine sensors with ground-based monitors in the islands; as well as swarms of underwater robots (UUVs) capable of sensing and attacking submarines – plus the 70 or so Chinese submarines lying in ambush against any US attempt of a submarine first strike.
The two weaknesses mentioned above are the main reasons why China is prepared to go to war with the US if the latter attempts to implement the PCA Hague ruling about those disputed islands in the South China Sea; as the incoming US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to do. The question now is: What happens to the Philippines if the US uses those five EDCA bases as launching pads to attack China? What happens to us if the US-China exchange turns nuclear? Have our military and political leaders given this matter serious thought?
A graduate of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1967, and an MPA 1990 from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, retired Brig. Gen. Victor N. Corpus spent five years with the New People’s Army (1971-1976). He was detained for 10 years under martial law and sentenced to death by musketry, but later became Chief of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. firstname.lastname@example.org