Just like it has an aggressive land expansion ambitious strategy, China also has an aggressive strategy for its maritime ambitions.
China is a rising power, no doubt and volumes of literature have been produced and continue to be produced trying to understand China and its prolific rise to prominence in the contemporary international order. The evolution of the Chinese order has seen changes both in its internal and external dynamics, some fathomable and a bit perhaps unfathomable, primarily because of the secrecy within the Chinese political system. However, China’s location and geography are something that China cannot override. Geography is a given variable for every country, and it’s true for China too.
Thus China’s political ambitions and geopolitical strategies, especially strategic calculations, must attune to the geographical realities. This discussion will throw some light on the geography-led geopolitical realities that China has to encounter; it impacts both the internal and external dynamics of that country. The argument here is that geography-led realities curtail China’s prolific rise as a formidable military force within the region especially, as scholars indicate, as a maritime power. Two points will be discussed here:
- China is an important player in international politics however that China’s policies and moves (ala strategies) vis-à-vis international politics are also a factor of its geographical determinants and compulsions.
- That China is a continental power with limitations and, therefore, will not be able to emerge as a formidable maritime power given the geographical drawbacks.
Let us discuss the first point. To do so, one must understand the geography of China. China is divided into three regions – Eastern, Central and Western; Geographically, the Western part covers a larger part of China. The Western has 12 provinces, the Central has eight provinces, and the Eastern Part has 11 provinces. o ensure territorial security to a large extent, China has control over peripheral regions; these serve as a buffer(s) and are four in number – Inner Mongolia in the north, Manchuria in the Northeast, Tibet in the Southwest and Xinjiang in the Northwest. Of these buffer zones, two are stable – Inner Mongolia and Manchuria two are not so stable – Tibet and Xinjiang. Perhaps one of the reasons why Inner Mongolia and Manchuria are stable is because of demographic change in these regions with the influx of the Han Chinese.
China’s geography presents a more critical challenge for its growth. There is a distinct chasm between the coastal and interior regions in terms of availability and access to resources and in terms of growth and development. Coastal China has vibrant contact with the outside world through trade and commerce however, interior China is deprived of the same. So while coastal China attracts international customers and generates revenue, Beijing would like to transfer the benefits for the development of interior China. The tension between the two geographical divisions has always been evident, sometimes manifesting through ethnic tensions, sometimes through the division between political leadership and bureaucracy and sometimes through party factionalism. However, access to international trade in the coastal regions also allowed customers (external forces) to intervene.
Look at the British intervention in the C19th until the British left the region after WWII. So the point is that given China’s geographical divisions, internal differences, tensions and conflicts compounded by external intervention impacted economic activity and created a strong case for state control – From Mao to Xi. Thus Mao Zedong closed all external economic activities and legitimised the dictatorship. Deng Xiao Ping’s period was marked by the slow opening of the economy and trying to catch up on modernisation by boosting trade and selling cheap goods worldwide.
With limited state intervention (or even with the state export model), China’s trade surged, leading to two things. Internally the coastal regions again surged while interior China lagged behind; thus, China witnessed export-led prosperity but also witnessed inequality too. Externally, China’s exports were directed to western countries. Exports were mostly directed towards the US and Europe, as a result of which China’s economic fate was too a large extent, dependent on markets outside China. Thus when, in 2008, the western order(s), namely Europe and the United States, were hit by the recession, and China’s exports fell, weakening Chinese growth.
For China, maintaining the weakening businesses and ensuring employment with low domestic demand meant an increase in the cost of production. Once again, the prosperous coastal region wanted to shed the load off the underdeveloped interior. Responses to that phase of growing economic hardship were divergent, and the lack of uniform policy responses created a case for a stronghanded intervention once again. As head of the state, Xi Jinping thus responded by establishing complete state control, signalling that he was not ready to tolerate regional divisions. He sought to establish control over the state, and to do that, he sought to establish control over the party. His anti-corruption campaigns were not only a way to ensure total control over the system and wipe away factionalism, but it was also a master stroke to wipe away economic factionalism giving a clear message that the coastal region will not be given favour.
However, unlike Mao, he did not shun exporting to the world, and his centralisation did not lead to disruption of the economy. Yet, Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the system impacted US interests, including US concerns for human rights. Xi’s differences with the US have grown more and more over time, resulting in China looking for alternative plans and markets. Xi responded by creating a new generation of Chinese high-tech experts and continues to stress on improving cutting-edge technology and innovation, especially in the face of US sanctions like that related to semiconductors chips. Moreover, China has been looking for an overseas market as an alternative to the US. Therefore China has sought to build links, roads and railways, and maritime contact with countries around its neighbourhood and beyond till Europe (Eurasia).
The One Belt One Road Initiative is an answer to the geographical compulsions that have conditioned China’s internal economy and politics as well as tuned China’s external strategic posturing, especially in the maritime domain. The way to address the geographical dis-uniformity and economic challenges also roll into a military one. As China attempts to reach out to the regional markets, the maritime domain becomes more critical, wherein China is likely to confront the United States militarily.
Interestingly China and the US have strong economic ala trade relations, but that has become increasingly contentious, resulting in almost trade wars and sanctions. Should China and the United States have an economic fallout, it will translate into a military confrontation – where else but in the maritime domain.
The maritime domain provides an additional challenge to China because of the existing tensions involving three issues – the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan. These existing, almost insolvable issues make it difficult for China to gain uninterrupted access to the oceanic waters. Moreover, the simmering tensions and procrastinated disputes over the islands have an impact on the overall state of relations between China and the contesting countries located around China. Herein comes the question of China’s geographical constraint in projecting itself as a formidable military power. China is a continental power and not a maritime power.
However, most of the literature on Chinese maritime prospects does project China with substantial maritime potential. Now the question that needs to be asked is whether that potential can be transferred into a real one. Here the argument is two-fold. First, a continental power is more disadvantaged than an insular power in its capacity to emerge as a maritime power. Continental powers are more likely to get balanced by other powers, especially insular ones. Second, China, with its large continentality and obligations in terms of territorial defence and territorial claims (even in the maritime domain), cannot emerge as a maritime power.
Given its limitations, the question arises why does China wish to expand its maritime capacity? One possible answer is that China genuinely believes that China’s its economic prosperity is linked to its capacity to expand its reach into the deep waters. China also believes maritime control and expansion is a definite way to ensure security. Therefore the country takes the two issues of encroachment and unification extremely seriously.
Territorial claims on Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Spratly’s and Paracel ought to be understood in the sense of concern for encroachment into what China would imagine its own maritime sphere. Similarly, Taiwan (also Hongkong and Macau) is an integral part of China’s narrative of unification and security. Therefore the point here is that China’s naval modernisation was an outcome of a larger Chinese understanding of its own needs and priorities, and the presence of the United States is only an antecedent condition to speed the process of naval modernisation and aggravate aggressive posturing. One needs to note here that the presence of the United States, which is an insular power, will ensure the limitation of Chinese capacity to project itself as a unilateral naval power.
Currently, China’s naval modernisation concentrates largely on A2/AD, primarily against the United States because China is intimidated by the US and is aware of it as a strong maritime power. However, the fact is that not only the United States, even Japan as an insular power can limit Chinese naval capacity in terms of naval confrontations. With the help of the US, Japan can trap PLAN manoeuvres to Ryukyu Islands Chain, and China will not have the superior airpower to counter Japan and the US in the Okinawa vicinity. Japan will have the advantage of its proximity to home base(es) for refuelling and other logistical support, while China will not.
Similarly, China’s military activism in the Indian Ocean region will be severely limited by the distance from mainland support. Even in a hypothetical condition where the United States may withdraw its presence, other regional players will determine China’s success in emerging as a maritime player. This will be possible by two ways of balancing. First, China will be balanced in the maritime domain with the help of the United States (along with multilateral arrangements and alliances). The United States will act as a net security provider doing offshore balancing simultaneously, supplying the regional players with military equipment and technology.
China’s attempt to force Taiwan into reunification through military means will not be a cakewalk given Taiwan’s mobile air defence systems are quite advanced, and amphibious operations will be difficult given the rugged terrain and coastal swaps around Taiwan. Second, China shares borders with 14 countries and has issues with all of them (at various magnitudes), besides the uncertainty and volatility of Tibet and Xinjiang and the sizeable disputed border of India will need military attention. India, with its military preparations and ability to face the Chinese army, as has been proven in incidents like Doklam and Galwan, is an additional stress factor for China.
Therefore China would not like to thin out its resources, opting for two-front confrontation situations, in which China’s maritime operations may get primarily compromised. China under Xi Jinping is out to prove that China will be reinstated to its own glory. He is a reactionary old blue-blood who truly believes in establishing the Chinese hegemony over the region as a stepping stone towards global leadership. He seeks to undo the burden of the colonial past and thus sees the unification of Taiwan and acquiring territories as a part of the duty to correct the historical past. This will set China on a trajectory of inevitable confrontation with other countries in the region and the United States.
However, given its present state of technological know-how and military strength, including naval modernisation China is clearly behind the United States. In addition, unlike the US, China lacks allies, that’s another disadvantage. China also needs to remember that East Asia is one of the most militarized regions of the world, and sustaining long-drawn military operations may not be possible. At this point, China has maintained the priority of its naval operations by maintaining the ‘near seas’ and ‘far seas’ categories.
Moreover, given the fact that geography will remain a constant variable, it will be a rather time taking, expensive and cumbersome project to overcome the geographical challenges and related geopolitical challenges to make Xi’s dream of reliving the historical dynastic glory of China. However, China is a very patient, resilient nation and will wait for many years to achieve its goal. Xi Jinping is on a correcting path and is in no hurry to achieve it within a short time. In a way, Xi is a Mao and a Deng rolled into one.
(Ishani Naskar is Professor, Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.)
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