Contemporary China is an island. It is not surrounded by water, except on one side. Rather it is surrounded by terrain that is difficult to traverse in either direction. There are of course some areas that can be traversed, but to understand China we must begin by visualizing the mountains, jungles and wastelands that surround it. This outer shell both contains and protects China.
Internally China must be divided into two parts: The Chinese heartland and the non-Chinese buffer states surrounding it. There is a line in China called the 15 inch Isohyet. On one side of this line the there is more than 15 inches of rain a year. On the other side, there is less. The bulk of the Chinese population lives east and south of this line. This is Han China, the Chinese heartland. It is where the vast majority of Chinese live and the home of the ethnic Han, what the world regards as the Chinese. It is important to understand that over a billion people live in an area about half the size of the United States.
The Chinese heartland is divided into two parts, northern and southern, which in turn is represented by two dialects, Mandarin in the north and Cantonese in the south, which share a writing system but which are mutually incomprehensible in speaking. The Chinese heartland is defined by two major rivers—the Yellow River in the north and the Yangtze in the South along with a third lesser river in the south, the Pearl. This region defines China’s agricultural region. However—and this is the single most important fact about China to remember—China has about one-third the arable land per person as the rest of the world. This pressure has defined modern Chinese history—both living with it and trying to move beyond it.
The Chinese heartland is surrounded by lightly inhabited by non-Han Chinese inhabitants. A ring of non-Han regions surround this heartland—Tibet, Xinjiang province, home of the Muslim Uighurs, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. These are the buffer regions that have been under Chinese rule when China is strong, and have broken away when China was weak. Today, there is a great deal of Han settlement in these regions, a cause of friction, but today Han China is strong.
This is also the region where the historical threat to China originated. Han China is a region full of rivers and rain. It is a therefore a land of farmers and merchants. The surrounding areas are the land of nomads and horseman. In the 13th Century, the Mongols under Ghenghis Khan invaded and occupied parts of Han China until the 15th century when the Han re-asserted their authority. Following this period, Chinese strategy remained constant: the slow and systematic assertion of control over this outer region in order to protect themselves from incursions by nomadic cavalry. This imperative drove Chinese foreign policy. In spite of the imbalance of population, or perhaps because of it, China saw itself as extremely vulnerable to military forces moving from the north and west. Defending a massed population of farmers against these forces was difficult. The easiest solution, the one the Chinese chose, was to reverse the order and impose themselves on their potential conquerors.
There was another reason. Aside from providing buffers, these possessions provided defensible borders. With borderlands under their control, China was strongly anchored. Let’s consider the nature of China’s border sequentially, starting at the southeastern border, ranging from Vietnam to Myanmar. The border with Vietnam is the only border readily traversable by large armies or mass commerce. In fact, as recently as 1975, China and Vietnam fought a short border war, and there have been points in history where China has dominated Vietnam. However the rest of the southern border where Yunnan province meets Laos and Myanmar is hilly jungle, difficult to traverse, with almost no major roads. Major movement across this border is almost impossible. During World War II the United States struggled to build the Burma Road to reach Yunnan and supply Chang Kai Shek’s forces. The effort was so difficult it became legendary. Apart from massive road building projects—roads that are easily blocked in time of war—China is secure in this region.
Hikabo Razi, almost 19,000 feet tall, marks the border between China, Myanmar and India. From this point onward, China’s southwestern frontier begins, anchored in the Himalaya mountains. More precisely, it is where Tibet, controlled by China, borders India and the two Himalayan states, Nepal and Bhutan. This border runs in a long ark past Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kirgizstan, ending at Pik Pobedy, a 25,000 foot mountain marking the border with China, Kirgizstan and Kazakhstan. It is possible to pass through this border region with difficulty, and historically parts of it have been accessible as a merchant route, but on the whole, the Himalayas are a barrier to substantial trade and certainly to military forces. India and China, and China and much of Central Asia, are sealed off from each other.
The one exception is the next section of the border, with Kazakhstan. This area is passable but has relatively little transport. As the transport expands, this will be the main route between China and the rest of Eurasia. It is the one land bridge from the Chinese island that can be used. The problem is distance. The border with Kazakhstan is almost a thousand miles from the first tier of Han Chinese provinces, and passes through sparsely populated, Muslim territory, a region that has posed significant challenges to China. Importantly, the Silk Road from China ran through Xinjiang and Kazakhstan on its way west. It was the only way to go.
There is, finally, the long northern border first with Mongolia and then with Russia, running to the Pacific. This border is certainly passable. Indeed, the only successful invasion of China took place when Mongol horseman attacked from Mongolia, occupying a good deal of Han China. China’s buffers—Inner Mongolia and Manchuria—have protected Han China from other attacks. The Chinese have not attacked northward for two reasons. First, there has historically not been much there worth taking. Second, north-south access is difficult. Russia has two rail lines running from the west to the Pacific, the famous Trans-Siberian Railroad runs to European Russia, while the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) connects those two cities. Aside from that, there is no east west ground transportation. There is also no north-south transportation. What appears accessible really isn’t.
The one area that is accessible is the region bordering the Pacific, the area from Russia’s Vladivostok to Blagoveschensk. This region has reasonable transport, population on both side of the border, and advantages to both sides in taking the region. This is the area which, if there was ever to be conflict with Russia, would be the center of that conflict. It is also the area, as you move southward and away from the Pacific, borders on the Korean Peninsula, the area of China’s last major military conflict.
There is then pacific coast, which has numerous harbors and has historically had substantial coastal trade. It is interesting to note that apart from the attempt by the Mongols to invade Japan, and a single major maritime thrust by China into the Indian Ocean—primarily for trade and abandoned fairly quickly—China has never been a maritime power. It has not, prior to the 19th Century, faced enemies capable of posing a naval threat, and its interest in expending large sums of money to build a navy.
China, when it controls Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria is an insulated state. Han China has only one point of potential friction, in the southeast with Vietnam. Other than that it is surrounded by non-Han buffer states that it has integrated into China politically. There is a second friction point in eastern Manchuria, touching on Siberia and Korea. There is finally a single opening into the rest of Eurasia on the Xinjiang-Kazakh border.
Its most vulnerable point, since the arrival of Europeans in the Western Pacific in the mid-19th Century, has been its coast. Apart from European encroachments in which commercial interests were backed up by limited force, China suffered its most significant military encounter—and long and miserable war—after the Japanese invaded and occupied large parts of eastern China along with Manchuria. In spite of the mismatch in military power and more than a dozen years, Japan still could not force the Chinese government to capitulate. The simple fact was that Han China, given its size and population density, could not be subdued. No matter how many victories the Japanese won, they could not decisively defeat the Chinese.
China is hard to invade; given its size and population, it is even harder to occupy. This also makes it hard for the Chinese to invade others; not utterly impossible, but quite difficult. Containing a fifth of the world’s population, China can wall itself off from the world, as it did prior to the United Kingdom’s forced entry in the 19th century and under Mao Zedong. All of this means China is a great power, but one that has to behave very differently than other great powers.
China’s Geopolitical Imperatives
China has three overriding imperatives:
1: Maintain internal unity in the Han Chinese regions
2: maintain control of buffer states
3: Protect the coast from foreign encroachment
Maintain Internal Unity
China is more enclosed than any other great power. The size of its population coupled with its secure frontiers allows to develop with minimal intercourse with the rest of the world, if it chooses. During the Maoist period, for example, China became an insular nation, driven primarily by internal interests and considerations, indifferent or hostile to the rest of the world. It was secure and except for the Korean War and pacifying restless buffer states, was relatively peaceful. Internally, however, it underwent periodic, self-generated chaos.
The weakness of insularity for China is poverty. Given the ratio of arable land to population, a self-enclosed China is a poor China. Its population so poor than any possibility of economic development driven by domestic demand, no matter how limited it might be, is impossible. However, an isolated China is easier to manage by a central government. The great danger in China is a rupture within the Han Chinese nation. If that happens, if the central government weakens, the peripheral states will spin off, and China will then be vulnerable to foreigners taking advantage of Chinese weakness, and dominating it.
For China to prosper, it has to engage in trade, exporting silk or industrial products. Historically, land trade has not posed a problem for China. The Silk Road allowed foreign influences to come into China and the resulting wealth created a degree of instability, but on the whole, it could be managed.
The dynamic of industrialism changed both the geography of Chinese trade and its consequences. When Europe—led by the British—moved into the South China sea and compelled the Chinese government, then averse to foreign commerce, to give trading concessions to the British, it opened a new chapter in Chinese history. For the first time, the Pacific coast was the interface with the world, not Central Asia. This in turn, massively destabilized China.
As trade between China and the world intensified, Chinese engaged in trading increased their wealth dramatically. The coastal provinces of China, most deeply involved in trading, became relatively wealthy, while the interior (not the buffer states which were always poor, but the non-coastal provinces of Han China) remained poor, subsistence farmers.
The central government was balanced between the divergent interests of coastal China and the interior. The coastal region, particularly its newly enriched leadership, had an interest in maintaining and intensifying relations with European powers, as well as the United States and Japan. The more intense the trade, the wealthier they became and the greater the disparity between the regions. In due course, foreigners allied with Chinese coastal merchants and politicians became more powerful in the coastal regions than the central government. The worst geopolitical nightmare of China came true. China fragmented, breaking into regions, some increasingly under the control of foreigners, particularly foreign commercial interests. Beijing lost control over the country. It should be noted in that this was the context in which Japan invaded China, which made Japan’s failure to defeat China all the more extraordinary.
Mao’s goal was three fold, Marxism aside. First, he wanted to recentralize China, reestablishing Beijing as China’s capital and political center. Second, he wanted to end the massive inequality between the coastal region and the rest of China. Third, he wanted to expel the foreigners from China. In short, he wanted to recreate a united Han China.
Mao first attempted to trigger a rising in the cities in 1927. He failed because the coalition of Chinese interests with foreign power was impossible to break. Instead he took the long march to the interior of China, there raised a massive peasant army that was both nationalist and egalitarian and, in 1948, returned to the coastal region and expelling foreigners. Mao re-enclosed China, recentralized it, and accepted the inevitable result. China became equal but extraordinarily poor.
The geopolitical issue is this. For China to develop it must engage in international trade. If it does that, it must use its coastal cities as an interface with the world. When that happens, the coastal cities and surrounding regions become increasingly wealthy. The influence of foreigners over those regions increases and the interests of foreigners and the coast converge and begin competing with the interest of China and the central government. China is constantly challenged by the problem of how to avoid this outcome while engaging in international trade.
Prior to Mao’s rise, Manchuria was under Chinese control, Outer Mongolia was under Soviet control and was extending its influence (Soviet power more than Marxist ideology) into Inner Mongolia, and Tibet and Xinjiang were drifting away, as the central government weakened and Han China was engaged simultaneously in war with Japan, civil war, and regionalism.
At the same time that Mao was fighting the civil war, he was also laying the framework for taking control of the buffer states. Interestingly, his first moves were designed to block Soviet interests in these regions. Mao moved to consolidate Chinese communist control over Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, effectively leveraging the Soviets out of the region. Xinjiang had been under the control of a regional war lord, Yang Zengxin. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Mao moved to force him out and take over Xinjiang. Finally, in 1950 Mao started moving against Tibet, and secured it in 1951.
The rapid fire consolidation of the buffer states gave Mao what all Chinese emperors sought, a China secure from invasion. Controlling Tibet meant that India could not move across the Himalayas and establish a secure base of operations on the Tibetan Plateau. There could be skirmishes in the Himalayas, but no one could push a multi-divisional force across those mountains and keep the supplied. So long as Tibet was in Chinese hands, the Indians could live on the other side of the moon. Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria buffered China from the Soviet Union. Mao was more of a geopolitician than an ideologue. He didn’t trust the Soviets. But with the buffer states in his hands, they would not invade China. The distances, the poor transportation, the lack of resources, meant that any Soviet invasion would run into massive logistical problems well before it reached Han China’s populated regions, and bogged down in them as the Japanese had before.
China had a geopolitical problem with Vietnam and an issue with Pakistan and Afghanistan, with which it shared a border, but the real problem for China would come in Manchuria, or more precisely Korea. The Soviets, more than the Chinese, had encouraged a North Korean invasion of the south. It is difficult to speculate on Stalin’s thinking, but it worked out superbly for him. The United States intervened, defeated the North Korean Army and drove to the Yalu, the river border with China. The Chinese, seeing the well armed and trained American force surge to its borders decided that it had to block their advance, and attacked south, into Korea. What resulted was three years of brutal warfare in which the Chinese lost about a million men. From the Soviet point of view, China and the United States fighting was the best thing imaginable. But from our point of view, what this shows is the sensitivity of the Chinese to any encroachment on their borderland, their buffers. That represents the foundation of their national security.
Protect the Coast
With the Buffer states under control, the coast is the most vulnerable point to China, but its vulnerability is not to invasion. Given the Japanese example, no one has the interest or forces to try to invade mainland China, supply an army there and hope to win. Invasion is not a meaningful threat.
The coastal threat to China is economic, and most would not call it a threat. As we saw, the British intrusion into China culminated in the destabilization of the country, the virtual collapse of the central government and civil war. It was all caused by prosperity. Mao had solved the problem by sealing the coast of China off to any real development and liquidating the class that had collaborated with foreigner business. For Mao, xenophobia was integral to natural policy. He saw foreign presence as undermining the stability of China. He preferred impoverished unity to chaos. He also understood that given China’s population and its geography, China could defend itself against potential attackers without an advanced military-industrial complex.
His successor, Deng, was heir to a powerful state in control of China and the buffer states. He also felt under tremendous pressure politically to improve living standards, and undoubtedly understood that technology gaps would eventually threaten Chinese national security. He took a historic gamble. He knew that China’s economy could not develop on its own. Its own internal demand for goods was too weak—the Chinese were too poor. There was too much technology to develop. There was too much training needed.
Deng gambled that he could open China to foreign investment and reorient the Chinese economy away from agriculture and heavy industry, toward export oriented industries. By so doing he would increase living standards, import technology, train China’s workforce. He was betting that this time, doing this would not destabilize China, not create massive tensions between the prosperous coastal provinces and the interior, not foster regionalism and not put the coastal regions under foreign influence or control.
The threat to the Chinese coast is not primarily military. It is economic. The threat is that as China engages in international trade, the coastal regions will prosper disproportionately, form alliances with foreign businesses and resist the central government. In short, the coastal threat is that prosperity will once again destabilize China. Deng bet that he could avoid it by maintaining a strong central government, based on a loyal army and communist party apparatus that would contain these tendencies. His successors have struggled to maintain the loyalty of the Army and Party to the state, rather than to foreign investors who could make them individually wealthy. That is the bet that is currently being played out.
China’s Geopolitics and its Current Position
From a politico-military standpoint, China has a achieved its strategic goals. The buffer states are intact and China faces no threat in Eurasia. It sees Western attempts to force China out of Tibet as an attempt to undermine Chinese national security, but since China has no possible intention of leaving Tibet, the Tibetans cannot rise up and win, and no one is about to invade Tibet, this is a minor irritant. Similarly, the Uighar Muslims represent an irritant in Xinjiang and not a direct threat. The Russians have no interest or capability of invading China, and the Korean Peninsula does not represent a direct threat to the Chinese, certainly not one they couldn’t happen.
The greatest military threat to China comes from the United States Navy. The Chinese have become highly dependent on sea borne trade and the United States Navy is in a position to blockade China’s ports if it wished. Should the United States do that, it would cripple China. Therefore, China’s primary military interest is to make such a blockade impossible.
China cannot build a surface navy able to compete with the United States in under several generations. Simply training naval aviators to conduct carrier based operations effectively would take decades—until trainees became Admirals and Captains at the very least. That does not take into account the time it would take to master the technology of carrier operations and build one, along with carrier capable aircraft.
For China, the primary mission is to raise the price of a blockade so high that the Americans wouldn’t attempt it. The means for that would be land based anti-ship missiles. For China, the strategic solution is the construction of a missile force sufficiently dispersed that it can’t be suppressed by the United States, and with sufficient range to engage the United States at substantial distance, as far as the central Pacific.
In order for this to be effective, the Chinese need to be able to identify and track potential targets. Therefore, if the Chinese are to pursue this strategy, they must also develop a space based maritime reconnaissance system. These are the technologies that the Chinese are focusing on. Anti-ship missiles and space based systems, including anti-satellite systems designed to blind the Americans represents the military counter to what is their only significant military threat.
This would also allow them, if they chose, to use those missiles to blockade Taiwan by interdicting ships going to and from the island. But the Chinese do not have the naval ability to land a sufficient amphibious force and sustain it in the fighting. Nor do they have the ability to establish air superiority over the Taiwan Straits. China might be able to harass Taiwan it will not invade. Missiles, satellites and submarines constitute China’s naval strategy.
For China, the primary problem posed by Taiwan is naval. Taiwan is positioned in such a way that it can readily serve as an air and naval base that could isolate maritime movement between the South China Sea and the East China Sea, effectively leaving the northern Chinese coast and Shanghai isolated. When you consider the Ryukyu Islands that stretch from Taiwan to Japan and add them tot his mix, a non-naval power could blockade the northern Chinese coast, if it held Taiwan.
Taiwan is not, therefore important to China unless it became actively hostile or became allied with or occupied by a hostile power, such as the United States. If that happened, its geographical position would pose an extremely serious problem for China. Taiwan is also an important symbolic issue to China and a way to rally nationalism. It poses no immediate threat. However, China cannot simply ignore Taiwan because of its potential danger.
There is on area in which China is being modestly expansionist, Central Asia and particularly Kazakhstan. Traditionally a route for trading silk, Kazakhstan is now an area that can produce energy, badly needed by China’s industry. The Chinese have been active in developing commercial relations with Kazakhstan, and also in developing roads into Kazakhstan. These roads are opening a trading route that allows oil to flow in one direction and industrial goods in another.
In doing this, the Chinese are challenging Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. To this point the Russians have been prepared to tolerate increased Chinese economic activity in the region, while being wary of it turning into political power. Kazakhstan has been European Russia’s historical buffer state against Chinese expansion and it has been under Russian domination. This region must be watched carefully. If Russia begins to feel that China is becoming to assertive and aggressive in this region, they have military responses to Chinese economic power.
Chinese Russian relations have historically been complex. Before World War II, the Soviets attempt to manipulate Chinese politics. After World War II, the relations between the Soviet Union and China were never as good as some thought, and sometimes became directly hostile, as in 1968 when Russian and Chinese troops fought a battle along the Ussuri River. The Russians have historically feared a Chinese move into its Pacific Maritime provinces. The Chinese have feared a Russian move into Manchuria and beyond.
Neither of these things happened because the logistical challenges involved were enormous and neither had an appetite for the risk of fighting the other. We would think that this caution will prevail under current circumstances. However, growing Chinese influence in Kazakhstan is not a minor matter for the Russians and they may choose to contest China there. If they do and it becomes a serious matter, the secondary pressure point for both sides would be in the Pacific region, complicated by proximity to Korea.
But these are only theoretical possibilities. The threat of an American blockade on China’s coast, of using Taiwan to isolate northern China, conflict over Kazakhstan are all possibilities that the Chinese must take into account, under the principle for planning for the worst. But in point of fact, the United States does not have an interest in blockade and the Chinese and Soviets are not going escalate the competition of Kazakhstan.
China does not have a military based geopolitical problem. It is in its traditional strong position, holding its buffer states and physically secure. It has achieved it three strategic imperatives. What is most vulnerable at this point is its first imperative: the unity of Han China. That is not threatened militarily. Rather, the threat to that is economic.
Economic Dimensions of Chinese Geopolitics
The problem of China is economic, it is rooted in geopolitics, and it comes in two steps. The first is simple. China is an export oriented economy. It is in a position of dependency. No matter how large its currency reserves or how advanced its technology or how cheap its labor force, it depends on the willingness and ability of other countries to import their goods—as well as the ability to physically ship them. Any disruption of this flow has a direct effect on the Chinese economy.
The primary reason other countries buy Chinese goods is price. They are cheaper because of wage differentials. Should China lose that advantage, to other nations or for other factors, China’s ability to export would decline. Thus, for example, as energy prices rise, the cost of production rises and the relative importance of the wage differential decreases. At a certain point, the value of Chinese imports relative to the political cost of closing down factories in importing countries will shift.
The most important problem in all of this is that it is outside of Chinese control. China cannot control the world price of oil. It can cut into its cash reserves to subsidize those prices for manufacturers but that would essentially be transferring money back to consuming nations. It can control rising wages by placing price controls on them, but that would cause internal instability. The center of gravity of China is that it has become the industrial workshop of the world, and as such, it is totally dependent on the world to keep buying its goods rather than someone else’s.
There are other issues for China, ranging from a dysfunctional financial system to farm land being taken out of production for factories. These are all significant and add to the story. But in geopolitics we look for the center of gravity, and for China the center of gravity is that the more effective it becomes at exporting, the more hostage it becomes to its customers. Some have mentioned that China might take its money out of American banks, for example. Unlikely, but assume it did. What would it do without the United States as a customer.
China ultimately has placed itself in a position where it has to keep its customer happy. It struggles against this reality daily, but he fact is that the rest of the world is far less dependent on its exports than China is dependent on the rest of the world.
Which brings us to the second, even more serious problem. The first geopolitical imperative of China is to assure the unity of Han China. The third is to protect the coast. Deng’s bet was that he could open the coast without disrupting the unity of Han China. That is what is now being put to the test. As in the 19th century, the coastal region has become wealthy. The interior has remained extraordinarily poor. The coastal region is deeply enmeshed in the global economy. The interior is not. Beijing is once again balancing between the coast and the interior.
The interest of the coastal region and the interests of importers and investors are closely tied to each other. Beijing’s interest is in maintaining internal stability. As pressures grow, it will not decrease but seek to increase its control of the political and economic life of the coast. The interest of the interior is to have money transferred to it form the coast. The interest of the coast is to hold on to its money. Beijing will try to satisfy both, without letting China break apart or resorting to Mao’s draconian measures. But the worse the international economic situation becomes, the less demand for product there will be, and the less room for maneuver the Chinese have.
The second center of gravity derives from the first. Assuming that the global economy does not decline now, it will at some point. At the point where the economy declines and Chinese exports fall dramatically, Beijing will have to balance between an interior hungry for money and a coastal region that is hurting badly. The interior has mass on its side. The coast has the international trading system on its. Emperors have stumbled over less.
Geopolitics is based on geography and politics. Politics is build on two foundations, military and economic. The two interact and support each other but are ultimately distinct. For China, securing its buffer states generally eliminates military problems. What problems are left for China are long term issues concerning northeastern Manchuria and the balance of power in the Pacific.
China’s geopolitical problem is economic. Its first geopolitical imperative, maintain the unity of Han China, and its third, protect the coast, are both more deeply effected by economic considerations than military ones. Its internal and external political problems flow from economics. The dramatic economic development of the last generation have been ruthlessly geographic. They have benefited the coast and left the interior—the vast majority of Chinese—behind. It has also left China vulnerable to global economic forces it can’t control and can’t accommodate. This is not new in Chinese history, but its usual resolution is in regionalism and the weakening of the central government. Deng’s gamble is being played out by his successors. He dealt the hand. They have to play it.
The question on the table is whether the economic basis of China is a foundation or a balancing act. If the former, it can last a long time. If the latter, everyone falls down eventually. There appears to be little evidence that this is built on a foundation. It excludes most of the Chinese from the game, people who are making less than $100 a month. That is a balancing act and it threatens the first geopolitical imperative of China: protect the unity of the Han Chinese.