China is a huge continental country, with a diverse population, which has historically been economically backward and militarily vulnerable. Even after modernizing and becoming the world's second largest economy, with advanced technology and a large military, China's geography still poses difficult problems for national security.
The Geographic, Demographic, and Economic Facts
China's territory is about the same size as that of the U.S., but at 1.4 billion its population is more than four times as big. Sixty percent of the population lives in only 22% of the territory, most of them concentrated in a band of about 600 miles wide along the eastern and southern coasts. The other 78% of Chinese territory lying inland, to the north and west, is for the most part relatively thinly populated, much of it by "national minority" peoples like the Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region or the Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Moslem groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Many of these minority peoples have doubtful loyalty to China, strained relations with the central government, and active cross-border ties with related groups in neighboring countries.
China's borders are easier to invade than to defend. The long coastline is open to invasion from the sea. The inland borders are mostly mountainous, cold, remote, and difficult to garrison. With the sometime exceptions of Vietnam and North Korea, China has had no buffer states on likely invasion routes between it and potential invaders. China's most likely potential battlegrounds are internal or near its coastline, rather than overseas.
China’s economy in the heartland regions was traditionally one
of labor-intensive agriculture. Only in the PRC period (since 1949) has
China industrialized to a significant degree, and only in the reform
period (since 1978) have some sectors of Chinese industry achieved high standards of efficiency and quality. Only since the 1990s has China been able to modernize its army and expand its navy, which, although formidable, remain untested in combat.
The Foreign Policy Implications
China was invaded (by Central Asian tribes during the dynastic era, by Western powers during the 19th and 20th centuries, and by Japan in the 1930s). One of its top foreign policy priorities is to maintain sufficient economic and military strength to deter and if necessary defeat invasion or attack.
Paradoxically, however, such self-strengthening has required close economic ties with the West. From the founding of the People’s Republic
of China in 1949 until his death in 1976, Chinese Communist Party chief
Mao Zedong experimented with self-reliant methods for developing China
without significant contact with the West, but these failed. Hence the "open-door
policy" of the reformer, Deng Xiaoping (in power, 1978-1997), and his successors. The dilemma for China is that the Western powers are both the main source
of its technology and markets and a major source of capital, yet at the
same time the potential enemies against whom China is preparing to defend
itself should relations turn bad.
The second foreign policy goal dictated by China’s internal geography
is the need to maintain territorial integrity. Some parts of China were
removed in the course of history, and other regions contain movements
that would like to separate from China. Hong Kong and Macao were former
British and Portuguese colonies which were restored to Chinese rule in
1997 and 1999 respectively. Hong Kong citizens have been increasingly dissatisfied with control exerted over their territory from Beijing in violation of the commitment to leave Hong Kong's distinctive social and legal system in place for fifty years. Taiwan is a former Japanese colony, which today has a separate government under the name Republic of China. China
would like to reassert sovereignty over this island, and this has become
a major issue in its relations with Taiwan’s main patron, the United
The main regions under China’s control which harbor strong separatist
movements are Tibet and Xinjiang. In Tibet, much of the population is
loyal to the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile and favors what he calls
an "autonomous" Tibet; however, Chinese authorities charge
him with promoting Tibetan independence. In Xinjiang, a small number of Uyghur separatists with allies in Central Asia and Turkey have engaged in acts of violence to promote independence, while the larger population is resistant to Chinese control. The Chinese government devotes much effort not
only to suppressing these movements within the borders but to cutting
off their sources of diplomatic and other support from outside the borders.