The Geopolitics of China: A Great Power Enclosed


The central government was balanced between the divergent interests of coastal China and the interior. The coastal region, particularly its newly enriched leadership, had an interest in maintaining and intensifying relations with European powers and with the United States and Japan. The more intense the trade, the wealthier the coastal leadership and the greater the disparity between the regions. In due course, foreigners allied with Chinese coastal merchants and politicians became more powerful in the coastal regions than the central government. The worst geopolitical nightmare of China came true. China fragmented, breaking into regions, some increasingly under the control of foreigners, particularly foreign commercial interests. Beijing lost control over the country. It should be noted that this was the context in which Japan invaded China, which made Japan's failure to defeat China all the more extraordinary.

Mao's goal was threefold, Marxism aside. First, he wanted to recentralize China — re-establishing Beijing as China's capital and political center. Second, he wanted to end the massive inequality between the coastal region and the rest of China. Third, he wanted to expel the foreigners from China. In short, he wanted to recreate a united Han China.

Mao first attempted to trigger an uprising in the cities in 1927 but failed because the coalition of Chinese interests and foreign powers was impossible to break. Instead he took the Long March to the interior of China, where he raised a massive peasant army that was both nationalist and egalitarian and, in 1948, returned to the coastal region and expelled the foreigners. Mao re-enclosed China, recentralized it, and accepted the inevitable result. China became equal but extraordinarily poor.

China's primary geopolitical issue is this: For it to develop it must engage in international trade. If it does that, it must use its coastal cities as an interface with the world. When that happens, the coastal cities and the surrounding region become increasingly wealthy. The influence of foreigners over this region increases and the interests of foreigners and the coastal Chinese converge and begin competing with the interests of the central government. China is constantly challenged by the problem of how to avoid this outcome while engaging in international trade.

Controlling the Buffer Regions

Prior to Mao's rise, with the central government weakened and Han China engaged simultaneously in war with Japan, civil war and regionalism, the center was not holding. While Manchuria was under Chinese control, Outer Mongolia was under Soviet control and extending its influence (Soviet power more than Marxist ideology) into Inner Mongolia, and Tibet and Xinjiang were drifting away.

At the same time that Mao was fighting the civil war, he was also laying the groundwork for taking control of the buffer regions. Interestingly, his first moves were designed to block Soviet interests in these regions. Mao moved to consolidate Chinese communist control over Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, effectively leveraging the Soviets out. Xinjiang had been under the control of a regional warlord, Yang Zengxin. Shortly after the end of the civil war, Mao moved to force him out and take over Xinjiang. Finally, in 1950 Mao moved against Tibet, which he secured in 1951.

The rapid-fire consolidation of the buffer regions gave Mao what all Chinese emperors sought, a China secure from invasion. Controlling Tibet meant that India could not move across the Himalayas and establish a secure base of operations on the Tibetan Plateau. There could be skirmishes in the Himalayas, but no one could push a multidivisional force across those mountains and keep it supplied. So long as Tibet was in Chinese hands, the Indians could live on the other side of the moon. Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria buffered China from the Soviet Union. Mao was more of a geopolitician than an ideologue. He did not trust the Soviets. With the buffer states in hand, they would not invade China. The distances, the poor transportation and the lack of resources meant that any Soviet invasion would run into massive logistical problems well before it reached Han China's populated regions, and become bogged down — just as the Japanese had.

China had geopolitical issues with Vietnam, Pakistan and Afghanistan, neighboring states with which it shared a border, but the real problem for China would come in Manchuria or, more precisely, Korea. The Soviets, more than the Chinese, had encouraged a North Korean invasion of South Korea. It is difficult to speculate on Joseph Stalin's thinking, but it worked out superbly for him. The United States intervened, defeated the North Korean Army and drove to the Yalu, the river border with China. The Chinese, seeing the well-armed and well-trained American force surge to its borders, decided that it had to block its advance and attacked south. What resulted was three years of brutal warfare in which the Chinese lost about a million men. From the Soviet point of view, fighting between China and the United States was the best thing imaginable. But from Stratfor's point of view, what it demonstrated was the sensitivity of the Chinese to any encroachment on their borderlands, their buffers, which represent the foundation of their national security.

Protecting the Coast

With the buffer regions under control, the coast is China's most vulnerable point, but its vulnerability is not to invasion. Given the Japanese example, no one has the interest or forces to try to invade mainland China, supply an army there and hope to win. Invasion is not a meaningful threat.

The coastal threat to China is economic, though most would not call it a threat. As we saw, the British intrusion into China culminated in the destabilization of the country, the virtual collapse of the central government and civil war. It was all caused by prosperity. Mao had solved the problem by sealing the coast of China off to any real development and liquidating the class that had collaborated with foreign business. For Mao, xenophobia was integral to national policy. He saw foreign presence as undermining the stability of China. He preferred impoverished unity to chaos. He also understood that, given China's population and geography, it could defend itself against potential attackers without an advanced military-industrial complex.