on geopolitics

Revisiting the Geopolitics of China

Rodger Baker
Senior VP of Strategic Analysis, Stratfor
11 MINS READMar 15, 2016 | 08:00 GMT

In 2008, Stratfor published The Geopolitics of China: A Great Power Enclosed, the second in a series of monographs describing the underlying geopolitics of key countries and explaining their current positions within that context. In the eight years since its publication, despite major changes in the global situation, the monograph has largely stood — largely, but not completely. Since then, a new imperative has emerged for China, one that is pulling it into a much more active global posture despite economic, social and political undercurrents at home.

At the core of the monograph is an assertion of China's strategic imperatives — the core compulsions and constraints on the state imposed by the interaction of geography, economics, politics, security and society throughout history. As we stated at the time, China has three overriding geopolitical imperatives:

  • Maintain internal unity in the Han Chinese regions.
  • Maintain control of its buffer regions.
  • Protect the coast from foreign encroachment.

If we were to summarize the monograph (though we recommend reading it in its entirety), we could recount these three imperatives fairly succinctly.

Maintain internal unity in the Han Chinese regions: The core of the nation sits along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, the heart of Han China. This area encompasses the bulk of the population and, if the Pearl River is added, comprises most of China's agricultural and industrial activity. Ensuring the unity of the Han core is vital to maintaining the cohesion of China and the security of the Communist Party as the paramount power. But even the Han core is extremely complex and diverse culturally, geographically and economically. Balancing these differences requires a deft hand at the center, and with China's current economic slowdown, this balancing act is growing more difficult.

Maintain control of the buffer regions: One challenge faced historically by the agricultural and stationary Han civilization was that it was surrounded to the north and west by nomadic tribes, and faced fluctuating borders and populations in the mountains and dense forests to the south. To secure the Han core, China historically fought (and occasionally was overcome by) its neighbors and established a Middle Kingdom policy, whereby it kept neighbors at bay through a nominal tributary system, requiring minimal military force but also gaining minimal true influence or control. Modern China has integrated a series of buffer regions, stretching from Manchuria in the northeast through Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet, into Yunnan and along the mountains in the south. These territories provide strategic depth but bring their own challenges in the form of internal ethnic policies and cohesion.

Protect the coastline: For much of China's history, the country was largely self-sufficient in natural resources. What additional resources or luxuries it needed could be supplied along the Silk Road routes to the west. The coast was often plagued by piracy and suffered occasional international raids, but given its massive interior and its ethnic diversity, China rarely focused on naval power, concentrating instead on coastal defense or even alternatives to coastal travel, such as its Grand Canal system. The much-touted "treasure fleets" of Zheng He were more frivolities than a true assertion of military might. Traders and fishermen plied the seas but with minimal protection from the central government. Even modern China's naval development policies are designed primarily to fill a coastal defense role.

An Emerging Imperative

These three imperatives long remained the core of China's national and international strategy. But imperatives are not static, and at times the pressures on a state can add an imperative. China's economic growth created a new imperative, one that shifted China out of what had been a near self-reliant capability and into one that left China vulnerable to international involvement. Although we didn't formally recognize this new imperative in our 2008 monograph, we did allude to it as a manifestation of the coastal protection imperative.

This new, fourth imperative builds from that imperative but is not simply a matter of coastal defense. Namely, it is: Protect China's strategic trade routes, resources and markets from foreign interdiction.

A strategic imperative is more than just an interest, more than a policy desire.

China's economic success has broken its national independence. China imports at least as much of its key commodities as it produces. Foreign trade is a vital piece of China's economic activity, even as the country attempts to drive its economy toward a domestic consumption model. Outbound investments provide access not only to markets and resources but also to technology and skills. This has impelled China to seek ways to secure its vulnerable supply lines, expand its maritime presence, and extend its international financial and political presence.

And it is this relatively new Chinese imperative that has caused such upheaval in regional relations and such consternation in Washington. It represents a major break from what was seen as the status quo, and it clashes directly with two of the United States' key imperatives, as asserted in our 2011 monograph. That monograph asserts five imperatives for the United States:

  • Dominate the Greater Mississippi Basin.
  • Eliminate all land-based threats to the Greater Mississippi Basin.
  • Control the ocean approaches to North America.
  • Control the world's oceans.
  • Prevent any potential challengers from rising.

China's economic ascent, and particularly its need to break from its past semi-isolation, clashes squarely with the United States' fourth and fifth imperatives, and potentially also with its third. Since the North American continent is relatively secure, it is the world's oceans that continue to drive U.S. strategy: The way to preserve American strength is by keeping potential threats distant. China, driven by economic success and global integration, sees its further economic stability potentially challenged by a dominant U.S. naval force. The United States sees a rising China and expanding Chinese navy as a direct challenge to the underlying strategy of U.S. national security.

Imperatives Collide

From the viewpoint of strategic imperatives, which drive nations to follow certain courses to protect their interests as they develop, it is no wonder that the United States and China have such a complicated relationship, colored as much by economic interdependence as by strategic competition. A strategic imperative is more than just an interest, more than a policy desire. It is a force impelling a nation, though it does not force decisions. It shapes constraints and compulsions. Failing to pursue the imperative has costs. Pursuing the imperative has costs. Not all imperatives are achievable or even desirable. But beneath the surface, they press on nations, press on leaders, and create conditions both for international friction and for cooperation.

As China feels impelled to move into a more active global role, however cautiously, it pushes up against a U.S. imperative. U.S. dominance of the global seas is now seen as a very real threat to Chinese maritime trade and thus to China's economic and strategic well-being. China sees U.S. capability and reads U.S. intent. By building a military presence to deter U.S. intervention in the waters of the South and East China seas, a natural move given its economic position, China sends a reciprocal signal to the United States that U.S. interests are now being challenged, that freedom of navigation may not be guaranteed in these waters. If the United States is to be able to disrupt the rise of regional hegemony or conduct spoiling wars far from its shores, it needs unfettered access to the seas. So the United States seeks to counter China, and China sees this as containment and counters again. Neither side is the aggressor, but both see capability and read intent, and both are driven by deeper strategic concerns.

China's naval development, its advancements in anti-ship missiles and its assertive reclamation of islands and reefs in what it considers its territory in the South China Sea are perceived by the United States as aggressive behavior from a rising nation. China's maritime expansion to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden — its so-called string of pearls port development — and its military reform and modernization further heighten these concerns. Meanwhile, China sees these measures as defensive behavior against a dominant United States. Both are right; both are wrong. But each government is primarily beholden to its own national interests, not to the feelings or concerns of the other. Those concerns may help guide diplomatic efforts or shape policy details, but the underlying realities drive the imperatives and impel action. Geopolitics does not dictate the response, but it does frame the options and, more directly, the costs of action and inaction.

But U.S.-Chinese competition is not limited merely to naval developments in the South China Sea or questions of missile defense in Asia. China's international economic networks and dependencies have made it harder for Beijing to retain older policies of noninterference. The larger and more active China becomes economically, the fewer countries around the world will consider Chinese actions innocuous. China faces political and security challenges to its investments and economic interests in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, Central Asia and elsewhere. As China seeks advanced technologies to remain on par with other global economic powers, it is stymied by political opposition, national security concerns and fears of competition.

Big Country, Big Impact

Even in lower-end technologies, such as steel or shipbuilding, China's sheer size has massive repercussions that trigger often unintentional, but no less important, consequences and responses. Chinese steel production, driven both by a massive surge in internal infrastructure development and by the desire of local and regional governments to maintain employment programs, spurred a huge spike in the price of iron ore internationally. While Beijing might not have intended to crush global steel markets, the combination of high input costs and the massive surplus of steel products produced in China led to a collapse in prices and has put heavy strain on other steel producers. Given China's scale, its surge in shipbuilding, its foray into solar panel manufacturing and its imports of raw materials all have a disproportionate effect on other nations, whether consumers or producers.

The United States seeks to counter China, and China sees this as containment and counters again.

China's resource needs also shape the international situation in other ways. As China falls behind in certain technologies or process refinements, its competitive advantage in bidding for mineral or resource projects, or even for infrastructure development projects, lies along two paths: price and political blindness. On the first, China often either outbids or underprices its competitors, relying on extensive — if at times unofficial — government backing to ensure success. But China will also turn a blind eye toward political concerns, working with countries with which the West is largely unable to contract or acting in areas riven by internal conflict. Combined, these increase China's overall reach and influence and at times undermine U.S. attempts to shape international behavior through non-military means.

But China is moving well beyond such policies toward a greater role in international finance. One of the strengths of the United States is the ubiquity of the U.S. dollar and the larger role the United States plays in many aspects of international trade. This is a strategic risk to China, from Beijing's perspective, because the United States sets the rules and shapes the global economy, leaving China in a reactive position. Beijing's pursuit of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, its inclusion in the International Monetary Fund's de facto currency in regional trade deals and its granting of low-interest loans all reflect an attempt to balance if not break free from U.S. influence in international finance. Perhaps ironically, were China to bring about a real break and create competing international financial and trade systems, it would lose some of the protection of the single integrated global system that currently prevents the United States from seeking a true containment policy against China, as it did against the Soviet Union.

Future Imperatives

There are numerous additional examples of military, economic and political areas in which China and the United States contend, but each can be seen as a collision of their strategic imperatives. When fundamentals, more than simply ideology or political expediency, take shape, the stakes are higher and the cost of inaction outweighs the cost of action. Although both may couch their public statements in terms of ideology, global norms, or proper economic or political systems, those are only the veneer overlaying the hardened oak of geopolitics.

China is changing, and it is impelled to change its behavior or accept the risk of inaction. Given its size and history, it is unlikely that the Chinese would simply accept their role in a U.S.-structured system, with the attendant risks and vulnerabilities it brings. And the United States, seeing a pattern in Asia breaking and seeing Chinese activity across the globe, will not simply hope that U.S. interests remain unthreatened — the emergence of a real Asian hegemony would violate another U.S. strategic imperative. If the United States can prevent or shape that rise, it will seek to do so. The cost of inaction is too high not to try.

Editor's Note

A version of this essay was published in Limes, the Italian geopolitical monthly, a partner of Stratfor.

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