By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
The headlines about China involve two ostensibly unconnected issues: China's new naval aggressiveness in the Western Pacific, and the increasing fragility of China's one-party state in the face of economic trouble. But the two are deeply connected by a third element: China's stability on its vast land borders. By not having to worry about its frontier areas, China is in the position to go to sea like it has. And it is the safeguarding of such stability in its ethnic-minority borderlands that provides China's autocrats with yet another crucial incentive to hold on to power.
Securing its land borders and building a great navy are the ways in which China's leaders signal to the West that the period of humiliation for China is over. In the 1800s and early 1900s, China suffered gross territorial humiliation at the hands of the Western powers, with foreign troops occupying significant sections of Chinese cities — the so-called treaty ports. In the 1930s and 1940s came occupation by Japan. Mao Zedong's portrait still hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing partly because — despite the depredations of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution — he unified China, thus providing the context for its current expansion in the Western Pacific.
Sea power, while obviously a prerequisite for island nations, is not altogether necessary for continental ones such as China. The fact that growing Chinese naval power is slowly altering the correlation of forces in the Western Pacific — challenging the totality of U.S. naval dominance for the first time since the end of World War II — is possible only because of China's successful management of the upland terrain beyond the ethnic-Han Chinese core: to the north, west and southwest. Indeed, for the first time since the High Qing Dynasty in the early 19th century, the interior of China — for more than three decades now — has not been in profound domestic turmoil. Projecting power into what China considers blue territorial space is a natural consequence of this happy fact. As one Chinese student told me fervently in Beijing last year, Chinese naval expansion is "harmonious" because it only serves to incorporate what is rightfully China's, while America's naval presence in the South China and East China seas is "hegemonic" because the United States has no business being half a world away from its own shores.
But despite the bravado, China is still vulnerable because a Tibet or a Uighur Turkic Xinjiang in serious, sustained upheaval could divert the attention of party chiefs away from the islands in the Western Pacific. A decaying authoritarian China might be able to deal with low-level insurgencies in both Tibet and the Uighur area and also send submarines into the South China and East China seas, but its military — while dangerous and unpredictable in such a circumstance — would lack the advantage of a focused civilian power structure behind it.
In other words, lurking behind China's intensifying political drama is a profound geographical one. As Beijing's one-party rule comes under increasing pressure in the months and years to come, China's cohesiveness as a sprawling, continental-sized state also comes into question. For more freedom means heightened ethnic awareness. The question now becomes whether the dominant Hans, who constitute more than 90 percent of China's population and live mainly in the arable cradle of China abutting the Pacific coast, are able to permanently keep the Tibetans, Uighur Turks and other minorities who live on the drier, higher-altitude peripheries under control.
China's arable cradle was first linked in the second century B.C. and then truly united between 605 and 611 A.D. with the building of the grand canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, making a singular civilization out of the wheat millet-growing northern area of the cradle and the rice-growing southern area. This eased the north's conquest of the south during the medieval Tang and Song dynasties, thus consolidating the core geography of agrarian China. China's rapid economic and technological development may make these distinctions now seem quaint, but they hold in terms of a densely populated Han island teeming with hundreds of millions of people embraced by more sparsely populated and poorer minority areas, whose elevated tablelands make up roughly half of China's territory and hold the water sources on which the island of Han culture depends. It is precisely in the minority areas where the oil, natural gas, copper, iron ore and other strategic natural resources are located. Coal, which provides roughly 80 percent of China's power generation, is mined mainly in the northern and western plateaus.
The minority areas are sometimes larger than they appear on the map, owing to the spread of communications between dissident ethnics by way of the Internet and cellphones. For example, of the more than 30 self-immolations of ethnic Tibetans protesting Han Chinese rule between March 2011 and April 2012, almost all occurred outside the Tibet Autonomous Region itself in adjacent ethnic Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu. Thus ethnic unrest need not be confined to the legal confines of Tibet, for example, even as such unrest would be invigorated by democratic stirrings within the Han core.
There is also Xinjiang, the Turkic Uighur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang only became part of China in the middle of the 18th century. Mao Zedong's communists kept Xinjiang quiet, but in 1990 and again in 2009, there were riots and bloodshed protesting Chinese rule. Here, too, the political liberalization that the West urges is precisely what Beijing fears, because it could ignite further unrest in a peripheral plateau area twice the size of Texas. Indeed, freedom explodes in all directions, releasing individual identity as well as identity within an ethnic solidarity group. This is particularly true in Tibet and Xinjiang, where the large populations of Han immigrants are concentrated together in garrison cities such as Lhasa and Urumqi, while the rest of those areas are heavily Tibetan and Uighur.
The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to the north and northwest of Beijing is hard up against the border with Mongolia proper. Ethnic Mongolians constitute only 20 percent of the population of 24 million, yet the region has been rocked by ethnic protests over land seizures and pollution. A minor irritant by the standards of the Tibetan and Uighur problems, Inner Mongolia offers another demonstration of how China is, albeit to a much smaller extent than the former Soviet Union, a prison of nations waiting to express themselves once central authority weakens. In this prison, ethnic problems can become inflamed by their interaction with contentious issues such as the deteriorating physical environment, property rights and so on.
What China becomes in the 21st century will ultimately depend not on military hardware but on the ability of the arable Han core to project peace and prosperity into the dusty plateaus where minorities live. This is not easy. With its economy in structural crisis, Beijing lacks the budgetary bandwidth to simply buy off the minorities. Moreover, the minorities know that true autonomy is out of the question. China's best option is to address the underlying social stress in both Tibetan and Uighur areas: the perception of a loss of culture, language and history to the dominant, occupying "Hans." But encouraging local languages, as the authorities have started to do, is itself risky. Because different factions exist within the Tibetan and Uighur communities themselves, there is not one policy that can mitigate tensions across the board.
China's best hope is the evolution of a truly pan-ethnic Middle Kingdom identity rooted in the past. The Qing, themselves of foreign Manchu descent, governed both Inner and Outer Mongolia. The 13th and 14th century Yuan dynasty was Mongolian, not Chinese. The early medieval Tang dynasty oversaw trade routes throughout Central Asia as far as northeastern Iran. So there is no conflict between Chinese history and greater decentralization aligned with cultural self-rule: It is the Communist Party that has distorted China's multiethnic past through severe repression of all ecumenical visions of the country. Here is where the ideals of human rights meet the dictates of geography.