The Geography of Chinese Power

Robert Kaplan points out that China’s blessed geography is so obvious that it tends to get overlooked.

American president Barack Obama tours the Great Wall in Badaling, China, November 18, 2009
American president Barack Obama tours the Great Wall in Badaling, China, November 18, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Writing for the International Herald Tribune, Robert D. Kaplan makes good geopolitical sense again. This time, he describes “China’s blessed geography,” so obvious, according to Kaplan, “that it tends to get overlooked.” But it is essential nonetheless. “It means that China will stand at the hub of geopolitics even if the country’s path toward global power is not necessarily linear.”

China’s foreign policy is not inspired by a missionary spirit to spread faith or ideology. Abroad, China only seeks to secure its interests which, oftentimes, take the shape of mineral resources.

Internally, this means that China can’t accept self-government in its provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet which are rich in oil, natural gase, copper and iron ore. Beijing has long maintained an internal migration policy of populating its hinterlands with Han Chinese therefore and in recent years, it has begun, almost frantically, to built roads and railroads across these areas.

To the north, China is interested in Outer Mongolia and the Russian Far East for exactly the same reasons: because these regions contain vast natural gas, oil, timber and gold reserves. “Beijing is poised to conquer Mongolia again,” notes Kaplan, “albeit indirectly,” by buying up its resources.

As with Mongolia, the fear is not that the Chinese army will one day invade or formally annex Russian territory, in spite of concerns with Russian governors there. “It is that Beijing’s demographic and corporate control over the region is steadily increasing.”

China’s influence is also extending southward. “In fact,” according to Kaplan, “it is with the relatively weak states of Southeast Asia that the emergence of a Greater China is meeting the least resistance.” China came to a free-trade agreement with ASEAN in recent months and has gradually been building leverage with neighboring Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

The last zone of direct Chinese interest is the Pacific. “China is as blessed by its seaboard as by its continental interior,” writes Kaplan, “but it faces a far more hostile environment at sea than it does on land.” From South Korea to Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines to Indonesia and Australia, China faces a chain of nations that aren’t always particularly comfortable about its rise. China, indeed, feels “boxed in” and this frustration can at time upset its relations with the United States.

In order to address that perceived threat from the high seas, Beijing is preparing to envelop Taiwan “not just militarily but economically and socially.” How this plays out will be pivotal for the future of East Asia.

Kaplan warns that if the United States simply abandon Taiwan, other American allies in the Pacific “will begin to doubt the strength of Washington’s commitments.” That could lead them right into China’s arms.

What to do? Kaplan suggests to strengthen American air and sea presence in the region as a compromise approach “between resisting a Greater China at all cost and assenting to a future in which the Chinese Navy policed the first island chain. This approach would ensure that China paid a steep price for any military aggression against Taiwan.”

In any event, the coming years will see increased Sino-American tension as Washington is unlikely to accept China as the “hegemon of the Eastern Hemisphere.”

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