China's Geography and Security Goals

Internal Geography

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 States.

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.

Regional Geography

China is closely surrounded by a large number of other countries, with whom it has complicated and not always friendly relations.

The Facts

China has more different political units as immediate neighbors than any other country except Russia. On land, China shares borders with fifteen states. The most important of these are Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and four states of Central Asia. At sea, Chinese territorial claims abut or overlap with those of some of the same states plus six others, including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

China has had border disputes with many of these countries, leading to military clashes in the post-1949 period with India, Russia (at that time the Soviet Union), and Vietnam, on land. At sea, China still has unresolved border issues with many of its neighbors.

Due not only to territorial conflicts but to other conflicts of interest, China’s relations with its major neighbors have seldom been friendly. Prime examples were Japan and Russia.

China and Japan

While China was historically the paramount power in the region, with Japan a lesser power, the Japanese modernized quickly in the late 1800s and reversed this traditional relationship, defeating China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1884-95 over the right to dominate Korea. Taiwan became a colony of Japan at this time and remained so until 1945. The Japanese became the dominant power in Asia and invaded China in the 1930s, occupying and ruling much of eastern China until 1945. During the Cold War, Japan aligned itself closely with China’s chief rival, the United States. When U.S.-China relations thawed in the 1970s, so did those between China and Japan. But the relations remained tense, shadowed by Chinese demands for Japanese apologies for atrocities committed during World War II, by each side's concerns over the other side's growing military power, and by competition between the two powers for economic and diplomatic influence throughout the Asian region. Trade, investment, and Japanese aid to China have helped consolidate relations – the two are among each other’s major economic partners – yet have also provided occasions for frictions over technology transfer, consumer protection, and similar issues.

China and Russia

China and the USSR signed a formal alliance in 1950, building on the relationship between the two communist parties that dated back to the 1920s. But Mao Zedong was always suspicious of Soviet efforts to keep China the junior partner in the relationship. Over the course of several years before and after the 1960 Sino-Soviet split occurred, and for 25 years after the split, the 4000-mile long border with the Soviet Union was the longest unfriendly border in the world. At one point over one and a half million troops armed with nuclear weapons were ranged closely along the two sides of this line. Relations improved in the mid-1980s and have continued to be friendly in the post-Soviet era, partly based on a common antipathy to the United States. But under the surface friendship, Russian policy-makers are uneasy because China is by far the wealthier and stronger partner in the relationship.

The Foreign Policy Implications

Chinese regional foreign policy seeks to prevent the domination of the Asia-Pacific by others while expanding cooperation with its neighbors. China's location at the center of Asia surrounds it with potential enemies and involves it in complicated rivalries. It also gives it the potential to dominate the most dynamic region of the world. Should another nation dominate the rest of the region, it could turn its attention to dominating China itself. On the other hand, too strong a hand could alarm China's neighbors into thinking that China seeks to exert excessive influence over them and lead them to resist Chinese influence. A careful mix of military capability, economic power, and diplomatic involvement is needed to influence neighbors without pushing them into hostility.

The Global Context

China is a major power global power first of all because of its size and strategic location. It is a crucial actor in four separate regional subsystems: Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia. As its economy as grown, its status as a major power has been strengthened by its globe-spanning economic influence as an importer, exporter, investor, and aid donor. Its economic influence has been strengthened by the Belt and Road Initiative which is building infrastructure links between China and most of the rest of the world. Economic growth has also enabled China to expand its navy, which has begun to have global reach. And China is one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The Facts

China’s complex security interests require it to cope with the presence of other major powers on a global basis. When there were two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, China found itself in a difficult position. From 1950 to about 1960, China was able to maintain an uneasy alliance with the Soviet Union. But this alliance did not give it much protection against the containment policy of the U.S. From 1960 to 1971, China maintained a relationship of antagonism with both superpowers, which required it to turn inward and rely on itself for economic development. From 1971 until about 1985, China enjoyed the benefits of the "strategic triangle" by which its support was courted by both the U.S. and the USSR. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, China has had to deal with the pre-eminence of the United States as the "sole super-power." in which its support was courted by both the U.S. and the USSR. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, China had to deal with the pre-eminence of the United States as the "sole super-power." American power seemed to weaken in the early part of the 21st century while China's continuing economic growth and military modernization gave it the resources to emerge as a strategic rival to the United States, if not yet a peer competitor.

The Foreign Policy Implications

Chinese foreign policy favors "multi-polarity," by which China means that other countries should resist efforts by the United States to dominate the international system. China therefore often votes against the U.S. – or abstains – in the UN Security Council, and criticizes the U.S. for intervention in the affairs of states such as Iraq and Lybia. China has also resisted U.S. human rights diplomacy, which seeks to use various forms of pressure to induce China to improve its human rights practices.

Yet in many aspects Chinese foreign policy interests overlap with those of the U.S. For example, China has cooperated with the U.S. in seeking stability on the Korean peninsula. Like American foreign policy, Chinese foreign policy seeks to create a favorable global environment for economic growth. China favors stable world markets, opposes trading blocs, and works to improve its own access to developed-country markets. China has, however, delayed the full opening of its own markets, even after it joined the World Trade Organization.

In an international system that remains more influenced by the United States than any other power, China takes an ambivalent posture. It wishes to participate and enjoy the advantages of the system, but whenever it can it tries to prevent the Americans from using the system to enhance their own power.

The consultant for this unit is Andrew J. Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University. The unit draws from Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997) and from Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China's Search for Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Discussion Questions

  1. List three factors of China's internal geography and discuss how each influences China's search for security and its foreign policy.
  2. Consult a map of Asia. With how many countries does China share common borders? With how many other countries in Asia does China have overlapping security and foreign policy interests?
  3. What role would China like to play in Asia?
  4. Discuss what factors make China a "major power" in the world. What factors do you think prevent China from being considered a "superpower"?