In 1904, the British Geo-strategist Halford Mackinder (one of the founding fathers of classical Geopolitical thinking) presented his phenomenal paper titled ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’, an analysis of the Euro-Asian landmass. Due to the topography of this steppe region as a landlocked, fertile and undulating terrain along with its geographical connectivity with Europe, Russia, China and South Asia, he accorded it a status of the most coveted landmass on earth. The smooth plains of the steppes, marked by inland river irrigation but absence of sea resulted in sustenance of populations without any threat of a maritime invasion and hence, due to the absence of sea that this region escaped colonial conquests till late 19th Century. Moreover, these conditions also allowed the native populations to mount invasions on Europe, West Asia as well as South Asia, especially by the hyper ‘mobile’ Turkic and Mongol invaders who ravaged Europe and India on a repeated basis with their horse mounted armies.
He termed this region as the ‘Pivot’ region, making it a core element of his ‘Heartland’ theory later. It was this analysis of Mackinder which introduced the supremacy of and driven-mobility into global political discourse. Hence, there is a need to analyze the importance of the region’s geography, as well as the ‘mobility’ factor through a contemporary analysis, especially the Central Asia-Caucasus region and its fringes.
After the First World War, the Central Asia-Caucasus region went into a hibernation phase due to the Soviet control and the centralization of the affairs of all Soviet republics by Moscow. With the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991, the region breathed a new life and the legacy of Mackinder found expression in the combination of economic potential and geopolitics of energy the region characterized. The herald of 21st century witnessed the nascent beginnings of the transformation of Central Asian regional integration through infrastructure corridors and pipelines. The designs to integrate this region have manifested in several ways, first by Europe, then by China and lately by India.
The first development was in 1992 when the idea of a pipeline connecting Central Asia to Europe was conceived. A pipeline project was proposed from the Caspian fields of Azerbaijan to Turkey which was completed by 2005. This pipeline, known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, runs from Azerbaijan via Georgian Capital and ends at the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in Turkey. From here, the oil is transported to other European countries. Another parallel gas pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi- Erzurum (BTE) or the South Caucasus pipeline has also been completed. The idea behind this project was to reduce Europe’s dependence on the monopoly of Soviet pipeline network. The fact that the project was majorly funded by World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development also proves that the project was aimed at linking Central Asian region to Europe through the Geopolitics of energy. A further proposal to extend the pipeline westward is the Nabucco pipeline, which will extend the BTE gas pipeline to Austria.
Next, China the greatest driving force which has invested heavily in integrating the region. Beginning with the Trans Asian Pipeline which is a network of 1,800 Kilometers long oil and gas pipelines coming from Central Asia, China has begun construction of transnational highways and railroads to integrate the region aimed at securing its access to Europe. A recent example is the commencement of a rail freight corridor which connects China with Spain via Kazakhstan, Russia, Germany and France. This route, approximately 10,000 Kilometers long, is the world’s longest railway line.
China has already unveiled her $40 Billion Silk Road Economic Belt project, a transcontinental infrastructure corridor which will link China with Europe thereby unifying the entire Central Asian region. Besides this, several other multimodal transportation routes exist and new lines are proposed to link China to Europe via Central Asia through which China also eyes to link its economy with the distant ports of western and Southern Europe. Lately, the Chinese Silk Road has extended to South Asia in the form of China Pakistan Economic Corridor project(unveiled in 2015), which will link Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to China’s Xinjiang, which is China’s gateway province to Central Asia owing to its borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
After China, India has become the new (but nascent) player to alter the regional dynamics of Central Asia. In 2002, India and Russia unveiled the International North South Trade Corridor(INSTC), a multimodal transport network which aims at reducing the trade distance between India and Central Asian nations. The route links India’s Mumbai port to the Iranian ports, which further connect St. Petersburg (Russia) via Turkmen territory through railway lines. Many feeder networks are proposed to be linked to this main route, which is expected to make inroads into Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan which lie to the east of this route. The INSTC aims to link Central Asia along the north-south axis. Another ambitious project, the 1800 Kilometers long Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India(TAPI) gas pipeline finally got thrust with a formal groundbreaking ceremony recently, although its idea was conceived in 1990s. Again, the idea is to link the energy starved South Asia with Central Asia via this mobility of energy.
These developments bring our focus back to the imaginations of Mackinder’s Heartland theory along with his prophecy of the power of transcontinental transportation systems which have given immense boost to the land power. He defined this new age of mobility as a Post-Columbian epoch which signaled a move away from the Columbian era superiority of maritime power based mobility to land based mobility. Along with the mobility of economic power through these transport corridors, the rapidly growing network of energy transportation via oil and gas pipelines also increases the salience of Central Asia’s stability and integration to provide a safe access of oil and gas through pipelines.
It is undoubted that Economy and Energy have been the driving factors behind the importance accorded to Central Asia, but in the background it is the positioning of this heartland region at the Crossroads of Europe and Asia which make it indispensible to them. Mackinder’s ideas, which were primarily meant to address the imperial interests of the British Empire, are being manifested as competing economic linkages being offered to the region, which will integrate the region economically. His emphasis on mobility also transcends the power of transportation as it also encompasses the mobility of energy. Finally, the latest proposal of laying Fibre optic network under the Silk Road Economic Belt is a signal towards the next revolution, that is, the ‘Digital’ Mobility.
*Prateek Joshi is pursuing post-graduation work at South Asian University, New Delhi.