The Geography of Chinese Power

Our Bob has an article in the International Herald Tribune on, well, the geography of Chinese power. The article appears below, abridged — click the link for the full story.

The Geography of Chinese Power

Today China’s ambitions are as aggressive as those of the United States a century ago, but for completely different reasons. China does not take a missionary approach to world affairs, seeking to spread an ideology or a system of government. Instead, its actions are propelled by its need to secure energy, metals and strategic minerals in order to support the rising living standards of its immense population…

North of Mongolia and of China’s three northeastern provinces lies Russia’s Far East region, a numbing vastness twice the size of Europe with a meager and shrinking population and large reserves of natural gas, oil, timber, diamonds and gold.

As with Mongolia, the fear is not that the Chinese army will one day invade or formally annex the Russian Far East. It is that Beijing’s demographic and corporate control over the region is steadily increasing.

China’s influence is also spreading southeast. In fact, it is with the relatively weak states of Southeast Asia that the emergence of a Greater China is meeting the least resistance.

There are relatively few geographic impediments separating China from Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, and China continues to develop profitable relationships with its southern neighbors. It uses Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as a market for selling high-value Chinese manufactured goods while buying from it low-value agricultural produce.

Central Asia, Mongolia, the Russian Far East and Southeast Asia are natural zones of Chinese influence. But they are also zones whose political borders are not likely to change. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is different. No one really expects China to annex any part of the Korean Peninsula, of course, But although it supports Kim Jong-il’s Stalinist regime, it has plans for the peninsula beyond his reign…

So can the United States work to preserve stability in Asia, protect its allies there, and limit the emergence of a Greater China while avoiding a conflict with Beijing?

Strengthening the U.S. air and sea presence in Oceania would be 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.

Still, the very fact of China’s rising economic and military power will exacerbate U.S.-Chinese tensions in the years ahead. To paraphrase the political scientist John Mearsheimer, the United States, the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere, will try to prevent China from becoming the hegemon of much of the Eastern Hemisphere. This could be the signal drama of the age.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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24 Responses to The Geography of Chinese Power

  1. Balok says:

    Wish this article could’ve been a bit longer – it covers a lot of territory so doesn’t dwell too much on any of the really interesting issues he brings up. China’s possible designs on the Russian Far East is a very, very important issue which doesn’t get enough discussion. The population density of China’s side of the border is about 100 times greater than the Russian side, and Russia’s population ain’t going anywhere but down. Add in the fact that Russia forced Qing China to sign a few “unequal treaties” in the 19th century which turned a million square kilometers of Manchuria over to Russia, and you have the seed of a future conflict. China has a long memory when it comes to those unequal treaties, and there are lots of yummy resources over the Amur River in Russia. Maybe Russia and Japan should settle their dispute over the Kuriles ASAP, since they could both then turn more of their attention on the far bigger threat China poses to them than they pose to each other.

  2. Richard says:

    Longtime reader, first time commenting.

    I think Kaplan underestimates the likelihood of an ASEAN backlash against China, particularly in Indonesia. He also overlooks the very likely possibility of Korea and/or Japan militarizing to hedge against their historical enemy, with both countries remaining natural U.S. allies.

    Unfortunately, I think Kaplan is right that Taiwan will get swallowed up within the next 50 years and become either a province, SAR, or satellite state.

    Kaplan also fails to account for the possibility of an Indian navy dominating or at least actively patrolling the Indian Ocean. I doubt that India will emerge as a serious naval threat but it remains a possibility and China is certainly preparing for that eventuality. China is also continuing to beef up defenses on the Indian border so they take the Indian threat quite seriously.

  3. ElamBend says:

    Navy, Navy, Navy, Navy. Especially subs.

    Other than that, the US would do well to follow the Sicilian’s advice concerning land wars in Asia over the next century or so (which if they occur, the US wouldn’t be a primary belligerent anyway).

    The US would also do well to fete the Chinese when our interest align (and they often will) and work silently in the opposite direction when they don’t. Making friends with small countries on the periphery of China works well too. Sixth Fleet ships would likely find a friendly port in Haiphong if we play it right.

    As for Korea, a Chinese tutelage of N Korea is probably the preferred outcome for both the Chinese and the S. Koreans (and maybe the US?)

  4. Curzon says:

    “China’s possible designs on the Russian Far East is a very, very important issue which doesn’t get enough discussion. ”

    Elambend, what would that scenario result in, I wonder?

    In my own provincial way, the biggest question I have on such a scenario is if this would give Japan a chance to snatch up the Kurils and Sakhalin.

  5. The Chinese would probably not actively offend the Russians by claiming sovereignty over Siberia. If they got to invest there, and send their own people in there to extract resources, the Russians could retain the facade of possession and authority. If the Chinese go into Siberia the way they have gone into Africa, they will simply cut the local politicians in on the profits, and simply do what they want economically. The Russian elite will probably be happy to be bribed so long as they get to keep up the pretense that they have given up nothing. That is the low risk, low stress approach for the Chinese and Russian elites, so it is the most likely course.

    Interesting to see Kaplan citing to arch-Realist Mearsheimer. I eagerly await Kaplan’s new book. These bits and pieces we are getting are intriguing.

  6. kurt9 says:

    The article just stated that China is not an expansionist, ideological superpower. What is exactly the problem with China being the hegemon of the Eastern hemisphere?

  7. NaughtyFerret says:

    Curzon;

    “In my own provincial way, the biggest question I have on such a scenario is if this would give Japan a chance to snatch up the Kurils and Sakhalin.”

    Snatch up Sakhalin? That would imply that it doesn’t rightfully belong to Japan…bring back Karafuto Prefecture!

  8. elambend says:

    Curzon,
    My thinking on this reflects Lex’s. China gains control by osmosis. Sure the Chinese have designs on the far eastern resources; but just as the Chinese are unlikely to offend the Russians by trying to exert overt control, the Russians will avoid confrontation by not, for example, mass expelling of Chinese workers and businesses.
    To further tweak your provincialism, why would the US invade Canada when it already gets what it wants out of there – lots of oil and comedians. (or as my Russian wife would say, why buy the cow when you get the milk for free).
    The local Russians simply lack the workforce to get anything done out east and need that labor and investment for development. Although they are looked down upon somewhat, the Chinese workers are needed because they will actually work. Outside of the western cities, Russia suffers from a cultural malaise that leads to high alcohol and drug use – and consequently a poor work force.

    As for Sakhalin, I think the Russian state would start mass shipping peasants from South Russia before he gave up control on such a source of revenue.

  9. Ralph Hitchens says:

    The whole passage you included reeks of 19th & 20th century geopolitical thinking that really doesn’t reflect the socio-economic and political realities of the current era. Economic penetration is what China seeks, to fuel its development. The notion that political control might also be sought is pretty far-fetched. The CCP has its hands full with mainland China. There are plenty of signs suggesting that they are barely keeping the lid on.

  10. elambend says:

    Curzon,
    My thinking on this reflects Lex’s. China gains control by osmosis. Sure the Chinese have designs on the far eastern resources; but just as the Chinese are unlikely to offend the Russians by trying to exert overt control, the Russians will avoid confrontation by not, for example, mass expelling of Chinese workers and businesses.

    Plus, Ralph is right, the Chinese state is not omnipotent and it’s got a lot of problems of its own at home. (they’re probably secretly grateful that they can send so many citizens away in a close proximity).

    The local Russians simply lack the workforce to get anything done out east and need that labor and investment for development. Although they are looked down upon somewhat, the Chinese workers are needed because they will actually work. Outside of the western cities, Russia suffers from a cultural malaise that leads to high alcohol and drug use – and consequently a poor work force.

    As for Sakhalin, I think the Russian state would start mass shipping peasants from South Russia before he gave up control on such a source of revenue.

  11. Vejadu says:

    Over the past 20 years the Chinese have incrementally increased their ethnic population of the Russian Far East thru illegal immigration. Given the lack of population controls in place once you leave China, this is strong inducement for Chinese nationals to emigrate to allow larger families. Contrast with the Russian decline in fertility. Reasonable to project cultural/ethnic majority within a few generations. The Russian Far East will become de facto Chinese; the political change will be accomplished if/when it becomes advantageous to all parties involved. Basically figure they’re taking the long view . . .

    One of many references: http://www.stratfor.com/memberships/1527/analysis/chinas_creeping_expansion_poses_threat_russias_far_east

  12. elambend says:

    Just to expand, and this is where the Bob is missing something, the only motivation that China would have to make a grab at Russian East Asia is that they were desperate for the materials and Russia refused to sell to them. A good example is probably the US cutting off Japan’s supply of oil right before WWII. (I don’t think the pre-WWI example of Germany needing its own colonies is quite right – besides China does have inroads in Africa).

    This would presume that the Russians would sell to someone else. The Russians like the exchange because it brings in hard currency. The problem is that absent Chinese workers and even, probably, Chinese companies, little to none of those natural resources would be extracted. Cutting out China would be a massively money losing prospect. So, short of any irredentist belligerence from the Chinese, Russia has no motivation for trying to stop the exchange.

    I guess Russia could cut out the Chinese by offering anyone who can hold a pick a free entry visa, but why, and would that work? China also benefits by having one more frontier (like Xinjiang and Tibet) to send its extra men. Neither party has reason to upset the status quo.

    I can see a future (even more) nationalist Russian government making lots of noise about China in its far east, but for the reason above, I can’t foresee real change, short of the illogical.

  13. Curzon says:

    Ralph: You are of course correct, in that you have accurately state the present reality, and observed the recent evolution of the last three decades, by which (1) superpowers get burned when they try to take territory (USSR in Afghanistan), and (2) regional powers that invade smaller powers get thumped by the rest of the world (Iraq in Kuwait). I would also note that Chinese companies and contractors are OVERWHELMINGLY the most active players in the growing Iraqi market. But this is only the present state of affairs, and things may well change in the next years or decades.

  14. Bryan says:

    I also agree with Ralph. Chinese decision-making is driven by domestic issues, issues that make domestic problems in Western countries look childish. Their appearance on the international scene has expanded, obviously, but their gaze remains fixed at home…

    Helps explain their dreadful international PR efforts as well.

  15. Curzon says:

    ” the only motivation that China would have to make a grab at Russian East Asia is that they were desperate for the materials and Russia refused to sell to them”

    Nonsense.

    They have tens of thousands (soon hundreds of thousands) of unmarried men who are going to be pissed about having no marriage prospects. They might decide the military option is ultimately cheaper than buying resources, and it might help them either reduce, or pacify the aggression, of those hordes of unmarried men.

    They might be able to buy the territory as Russia depopulates.

    They might ipso facto be forced to take the territory if Russia collapses.

    …and another dozen possibilities.

  16. Hugh says:

    Lexington Green said “The Chinese would probably not actively offend the Russians by claiming sovereignty over Siberia”

    You must be uninformed and unaware of Russian politics, because the second after the Chinese coughlyly half-claimed sovereignty over Siberia 98% of Russians would be furious and the Russian govt would be drafting half a dozen measures to assert their sovereignty.

  17. elambend says:

    Buying the land or simply filling a vacuum of power would be huge, but not a source of war. I was speaking of an actual aggressive takeover.
    But, to be more correct, change ‘only’ to ‘main’.

    As to the thousands of men, that’s what frontiers are for, like Xinjiang and Tibet. War to take over Taiwan would be another option. Plus, in a way, the Russian far east also fulfills this role, because I doubt many of the Chinese workers there now are family men.

  18. spandrell says:

    ¨They have tens of thousands (soon hundreds of thousands) of unmarried men who are going to be pissed about having no marriage prospects. They might decide the military option is ultimately cheaper than buying resources, and it might help them either reduce, or pacify the aggression, of those hordes of unmarried men. ”

    Its more like tens of millions. But that´s not the point, China´s population was probably as unbalanced during most of its history. And India has a huge female deficit now too. Doesn´t make them go berserk in Pakistan to take brides.

    I do see them taking the land if Russia collapses, but will it? Can you really mess with the biggest nuclear power on earth?
    China´s domination over ASEAN is become overwhelming though, and I guess that´s part of Japan´s panic over China´s rise. It used to be Japan´s backyard over there, now China has an FTA!!! It can´t go on much longer or they will be swallowed.

  19. Alistair Leadbetter says:

    I think the article is interesting but a little too localised in its thinking. Chinese power and quest for raw materials is already well developed and active further afield in Africa. Again, the philosophical or idealogical elements are not apparent. The Chinese build infrastructure (using Chinese workers), train the military and the Chinese get access to resources.

  20. Hugh, I was unclear. I agree with you. I meant the Chinese would NOT do that BECAUSE it would actively offend the Russians, to no point. I agree absolutely that the Russians would literally go nuclear if the Chinese claimed political control over Siberia. That is why they will just keep doing what they are doing.

  21. Aceface says:

    ”In my own provincial way, the biggest question I have on such a scenario is if this would give Japan a chance to snatch up the Kurils and Sakhalin.”

    Sorry,But Tokyo never asked for Kurils nor Sakhalin.Both are officially abandoned in San Francisco Treaty.The so-called Northern Territories do not belong to the Kurils,but the Hokkaido proper.
    Only The Japanese Communist Party is not recognizing Russian sovereignty on the Kurils and Sakhalin and demanding return for Soviet never signed the SF peace treaty and the sovereignty shall be negotiated at the table of future peace treaty talk between Moscow and Tokyo,currently non-existent.

    Kaplan also has little knowledge on Monglia too.Mongolia may have one of the lowest population density in the world,because the steppe ecosystem cannot manage agriculture of any kind.Something Beijing didn’t pay no attention in Inner Mongolia,thus causing massive desertification and annual sand storm that causing respiratory problems among the Beijinger.
    There has been some foreign migrants taking over small shops and logistics in the captol Ulaanbaatar and the traditonal niche has been occupied by the Chinese.But current day Mongolians had kicked out ethnic Chinese in the 80′s and currently the place is occupied by South Koreans and Inner Mongolians and seemingly to stay that way.So colonization of Mongolians by Han Chinese is an illusion.

    “China´s domination over ASEAN is become overwhelming though, and I guess that´s part of Japan´s panic over China´s rise. It used to be Japan´s backyard over there, now China has an FTA!!! It can´t go on much longer or they will be swallowed.”

    Actually Japan has been asking for an FTA to ASEAN members since the late 80′s and they’ve been turning it down.Economically speaking FTA between China and ASEAN do not harm Japanese economy since most of the Japanese manufactures had already moved their factory outside of Japan either to ASEAN countries or China.FTA with China was much more important for ASEAN nations since Japanese companies are shifitng their factories from ASEAN(with exception of Vietnam) to China looking for cheaper wages.So the reality of the power game between Japan and China over ASEAN is pretty much a virtual reality. The truth is Japanese companies chosed China over ASEAN nations.

  22. Michael says:

    Did he mention water and I didn’t catch it? If not, that’s the 600 lb gorilla in the room with China and ASEAN; until they learn to share, predictions about the wonderful relationship are premature.

  23. fds says:

    If anyone interested, here is a greate article on Chinese migration into Russia:

    The Myth of the Yellow Peril: Overhyping Chinese Migration into Russia
    http://www.russiablog.org/2009/04/post_15.php