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Suryakant Prakash Nikam asked: What is the relevance of Spykman's rimland model in the context of the ongoing South China Sea conflict?

Abhay Kumar Singh replies: Geography matters in geopolitics. Yale Professor Nicholas J. Spykman in his book America’s Strategy in World Politics wrote “Geography is the most fundamental factor in the foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent. Ministers come and go, even dictators die, but mountain ranges stand unperturbed.” Much before Spykman, John Mackinder in his seminal work Political Pivot of Geography made a case for the relevance of geography to statecraft. Positing Eurasian landmass as heartland, MacKinder theorised that whoever controlled the heartland controlled the world, and that this heartland represented the greatest natural fortress on earth. Spykman proposed a theory which countered Mackinder's Heartland Theory. According to his rimland theory, the coastal areas or littorals of Eurasia are key to controlling the World Island, not the Heartland.

As per Spykman, landlocked states usually faced security challenges from their immediate neighbours. Island states normally faced potential pressure from other naval powers, but if they are offshore island states (Great Britain and Japan) they could also face security challenges from nearby coastal powers. Offshore island states often approached the latter security challenge by conquering or colonising coastal areas, maintaining coastal buffer states and/or supporting a balance of power between continental powers. States with both land and sea frontiers determined their principal security orientation, which among others include the extent of their sea and land frontiers, and the power potential of their immediate or nearby neighbours.

Mackinder’s work suggests the struggle of Heartland-dominated land power versus sea power, with Heartland-based land power in the better position. Spykman held that rimland was the key to world power; not Mackinder’s Heartland, since seapower and airpower through their domination of littoral’s coast would be able to contain and dominate heartland. The two geopolitical theories remain at the core of continental versus maritime approach in the security calculus of rimland states with continental orientation, which include China and India.

Spykman realised the strategic significance of China’s geography and its geopolitical importance. His articulation seems prophetic: “A modern, vitalized, and militarised China.…is going to be a threat not only to Japan but also to the position of the Western Powers in the Asiatic Mediterranean. China will be a continental power of huge dimensions in control of a large section of the littoral of that middle sea. Her geographic position will be similar to that of the United States in regard to the American Mediterranean. When China becomes strong, her present economic penetration in that region will undoubtedly take on political overtones. It is quite possible to envisage the day when this body of water will be controlled not by British, American, or Japanese sea power but by Chinese air power.”

The South China Sea for China is the “girdle of the marginal seas.” Control of the margin sea will not only act as a protective buffer against any belligerent seapower, but also allow China to project its seapower further in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. The importance of the South China Sea is the potential it contains for wealth as well as the strategic advantage it will bequest upon whoever controls it.

Posted on November 18, 2016

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