Former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski managed to capture thousands of years of Chinese history in about 10 words. In his seminal work, The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski characterized China's geopolitics through the ages as "cycles of reunifications and expansions, followed by decay and fragmentations." The assessment gets at the heart of the the country's recurring struggle to unify an insurmountably vast landmass under a centralized authority — a struggle that continues to this day. Nearly 70 years after its most recent unification, following more than two centuries of decay and five decades of fragmentation, China is now on the verge of another period of expansion. And as its influence on the global stage increases, China will have to adapt to a new view of geopolitics.
The Middle Kingdom: A World Unto Itself
Compared with its counterparts in the West, China historically has taken a narrower view of geopolitics, one that reached scarcely farther than its borders. Part of the reason for its Sinocentric perspective is the country's sheer geographic scale and diversity. China's borders encompass a territory as immense and varied as that of the entire European continent. Though for the most part it has held together as a cohesive nation, the country is a collection of states, each with its own ethnic, cultural and economic characteristics. And whereas the sweeping European Plain is large enough to accommodate the Continent's many competing powers, China's heartland, making up less than one-third of its total area, doesn't lend itself to coexistence.
The strongest of China's rival forces periodically rose from the chaos to bring the country under centralized rule. Each successive dynasty, be it Han, Mongol or Manchu, followed a well-worn path to power, with few exceptions. Up until the 10th century, political power was concentrated largely in the Guanzhong Plain in northwestern China (and sometimes around the Central Plain), as were the wars and conquests aimed at expanding the central leadership's authority. The power eventually drifted eastward as the North China Plain took on increased economic and cultural importance, linking up with the fertile Yangtze Plain. As the empire pushed its frontiers farther to the north and east, the North Plain's prominence grew. The Yangtze Plain, by contrast, produced dynasties that quickly succumbed either to their own weaknesses, as the Southern Song did in the 12th and 13th centuries, or to their northern competitors, as the short-lived Nationalist government did in the 20th century.
And no matter how the power shifted across China's sprawling territory, the same process — competition for the Central Plain, or Zhongyuan — underlay each dynastic transition. The country's various factions understood that control of the heartland would give them control of the entire territory. This principle was laid out later by British geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder in his "Heartland Theory." As Mackinder might have put it, "Who rules the Central Plain commands the heartland; who rules the heartland commands the Middle Kingdom." The Sinocentric thinkers behind China's geopolitical strategy, however, would take the theory a step further: Who rules the Middle Kingdom commands the world.
This idea guided the country through centuries of unification, expansion, fragmentation and decay, prescribing a distinct approach for managing each stage in the cycle. At times of dynastic decay and rebellion, for instance, military strategy and defense were the answer for aspiring leaders trying to secure the "mandate of heaven." A different set of rituals and rules, interregional links such as the Grand Canal and military forays into the surrounding area helped a dynasty maintain the mandate it had worked so hard to attain. At the same time, subsidiary tiers of government extended the rulers' authority from the heartland to the rest of the Middle Kingdom and beyond. Using a tributary system of appointed officials and, in rare cases, military installations, China's leaders managed to radiate their power from Central Asia to the Korean Peninsula and Indochina, reaffirming their control of the heartland, the kingdom and the world as they saw it.
Facing the Sea
By the 17th century, though, the dawn of the maritime era would shatter China's illusions of the cloistered domain at its command. Maritime intruders began arriving on the country's shores, where the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty, China's last imperial dynasty, eventually met them. Though the Manchu boasted what Mackinder called the "superior mobility of horsemen and camelmen," their strategy to repel invasion was no different from that of the ethnic Han rulers that preceded them. Where the Han Ming dynasty built the Great Wall to defend their rule against the Manchus, the Qing Empire erected fortresses along the coastline to keep the intruders at bay. China had yet to develop its naval assets, and its geopolitical theory wouldn't evolve to account for maritime power for three centuries. Even then, the theory gained little attention in the country until Japan used it against China to win the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95. The defeat marked the start of another period of fragmentation in the Middle Kingdom — and the end of the Sinocentric strategy.
It took the so-called century of humiliation for China to realize that its limited worldview was no longer viable. Of course, the broader geopolitical strategy that prevailed in the West didn't serve the European powers much better. After struggling for control of the Eurasian landmass — what Mackinder dubbed the "World Island" — they emerged from two world wars and countless smaller conflicts only to find that the center of global power had shifted across the Atlantic Ocean. The difference is that while Europe had lost some of its clout in world affairs, China, preoccupied as it was with its own problems, was all but irrelevant — at least to many classical geopolitical thinkers of the time. When maritime and land-based power were the rule of the day, the combination of a disjointed territory on the edge of the Eurasian landmass and a hemmed-in coastline seemed to doom China to exist on the margins of the global order.
Casting a Wide Net
Nonetheless, the Middle Kingdom overcame its geographic circumstances and emerged once again as a unified nation. And in the process, its geopolitical thinking evolved. The trials it endured in the second half of the 20th century — including the wars on the Korean Peninsula and in Indochina, a U.S. maritime blockade and the simultaneous threat of pressure from the Soviet Union — helped China realize its strength. The geography that once seemed a curse to Chinese geopolitical theorists now brimmed with possibility. The country's location, after all, gives it maritime access to developed markets abroad and overland access to valuable energy assets in Central Asia and the Middle East, an advantage geopolitical theorist Nicholas Spykman identified in the early 1940s. Having caught on to its good fortune, China's geopolitical objective was now to tap into "the wealth to the east, and energy to the west," as Chinese scholar Zhang Wenmu put it.
Sure enough, China's position has enabled the country to rise to the status of a world power. An unprecedented focus on maritime theory in the 2000s helped the country build a formidable navy to channel its power on the high seas. In the years since, its geopolitical theorists have turned their attention to roads and railways as another conduit for the country's influence. The Belt and Road Initiative combines both tactics, reviving the land and sea routes of the ancient Silk Road to link China to the European continent. Despite its focus on infrastructure development, the project goes beyond economic or even diplomatic strategy; the Belt and Road Initiative is China's plan to expand its empire to suit its new geopolitical theory.
Geopolitics With a Familiar Ring
Beijing, however, understands the importance of restraint in this endeavor. As it has throughout history, China is embarking on its latest expansionary course more out of necessity than out of ambition. The Belt and Road Initiative, for example, aims above all to ease the country's economic and logistical dependence on its east coast and to develop its desolate inland regions. Similarly, Beijing's assertive maritime policy is an attempt to secure its access to overseas markets and prevent a challenger from emerging to threaten its multiplying interests around the world. And like the Han and Tang dynasties before it, China today will run up against other empires as it pursues its geopolitical strategy in the surrounding region and farther afield.
China will try to outmaneuver these risks wherever possible. As it does, though, the country will inevitably wind up extending its reach even farther and encountering new dangers along the way. China's expansionist geopolitical theory is a new approach, and one that will take some getting used to after centuries spent in the service of a largely self-contained strategy. But the Middle Kingdom will find its perils and imperatives familiar. China's history won't repeat itself, but it may well rhyme.