The Strategic Importance of the Yangtze River

Mar 29, 2013 | 18:11 GMT

Video Transcript: The Yangtze River is the key geographic, ecological, cultural and economic feature of China. The river stretches more than 6,400 kilometers from its sources in the Tibetan Plateau to its terminus in the East China Sea — both dividing and connecting the country. The Yangtze, even more than the Yellow River, dictates the strategic imperatives of China's rulers. The Yellow River may be the origin of Han Chinese civilization, but on its own it is too weak to support the economic life of a great power. The Yellow River is China's Hudson or Delaware. The Yangtze, by constrast, is China's Mississippi. Only when the lands both north and south of the Yangtze are united does the Chinese empire emerge. Today, the Yangtze River is by far the world's busiest inland waterway for freight transport. In 2011, the river carried 40 percent of the nation's inland waterborne freight. The nine provincial capitals along the Yangtze and its major tributaries had a combined GDP of 1 trillion dollars, by 2011. That gives these cities a total wealth comparable to the GDP of Mexico. Industrialization of the Yangtze River corridor isn't just an economic process. It's a political one, as well. It is part of the Chinese government's broader struggle to develop and better integrate China's inland provinces with coastal economic hubs like Shanghai and Shenzhen. As the competitiveness of low-cost, export-oriented manufacturing along the coast wanes, Beijing will look to the cities of the Yangtze River corridor to drive urban and industrial development in China's vast interior. One of the most important cities in this process is Wuhan. Located equidistant between Chongqing and Shanghai, and straddling the Beijing-Guangzhou Railway, Wuhan is inland China's most important transportation crossroads. Recognizing Wuhan's strategic significance for future inland development, the Chinese central government plans to invest nearly 30 billion dollars to expand and redevelop the city'sports over the next five years. The rising importance of transport hubs like Wuhan reflects the changing geopolitics of the Yangtze River. In the past, the Yangtze divided China into its two most basic units — north and south. Today, it serves primarily to connect China's interior regions to the coast. Over the last decade, Beijing has made significant progress in its ambitious plans to develop the Yangtze River corridor and inland provinces more generally. But whether the government can keep up the momentum — in the face of slowing economic growth and mounting social and political pressures — will be the vital question, and a massive challenge going forward.