In 2008, Stratfor published The Geopolitics of China: A Great Power Enclosed, the second in a series of monographs describing the underlying geopolitics of key countries and explaining their current positions within that context. In the eight years since its publication, despite major changes in the global situation, the monograph has largely stood - largely, but not completely. Since then, a new imperative has emerged for China, one that is pulling it into a much more active global posture despite economic, social and political undercurrents at home.
At the core of the monograph is an assertion of China's strategic imperatives - the core compulsions and constraints on the state imposed by the interaction of geography, economics, politics, security and society throughout history. As we stated at the time, China has three overriding geopolitical imperatives:
- Maintain internal unity in the Han Chinese regions.
- Maintain control of its buffer regions.
- Protect the coast from foreign encroachment.
If we were to summarize the monograph (though we recommend reading it in its entirety), we could recount these three imperatives fairly succinctly.
Maintain internal unity in the Han Chinese regions: The core of the nation sits along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, the heart of Han China. This area encompasses the bulk of the population and, if the Pearl River is added, comprises most of China's agricultural and industrial activity. Ensuring the unity of the Han core is vital to maintaining the cohesion of China and the security of the Communist Party as the paramount power. But even the Han core is extremely complex and diverse culturally, geographically and economically. Balancing these differences requires a deft hand at the center, and with China's current economic slowdown, this balancing act is growing more difficult.
Maintain control of the buffer regions: One challenge faced historically by the agricultural and stationary Han civilization was that it was surrounded to the north and west by nomadic tribes, and faced fluctuating borders and populations in the mountains and dense forests to the south. To secure the Han core, China historically fought (and occasionally was overcome by) its neighbors and established a Middle Kingdom policy, whereby it kept neighbors at bay through a nominal tributary system, requiring minimal military force but also gaining minimal true influence or control. Modern China has integrated a series of buffer regions, stretching from Manchuria in the northeast through Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet, into Yunnan and along the mountains in the south. These territories provide strategic depth but bring their own challenges in the form of internal ethnic policies and cohesion.
Protect the coastline: For much of China's history, the country was largely self-sufficient in natural resources. What additional resources or luxuries it needed could be supplied along the Silk Road routes to the west. The coast was often plagued by piracy and suffered occasional international raids, but given its massive interior and its ethnic diversity, China rarely focused on naval power, concentrating instead on coastal defense or even alternatives to coastal travel, such as its Grand Canal system. The much-touted "treasure fleets" of Zheng He were more frivolities than a true assertion of military might. Traders and fishermen plied the seas but with minimal protection from the central government. Even modern China's naval development policies are designed primarily to fill a coastal defense role.
An Emerging Imperative
These three imperatives long remained the core of China's national and international strategy. But imperatives are not static, and at times the pressures on a state can add an imperative. China's economic growth created a new imperative, one that shifted China out of what had been a near self-reliant capability and into one that left China vulnerable to international involvement. Although we didn't formally recognize this new imperative in our 2008 monograph, we did allude to it as a manifestation of the coastal protection imperative.
This new, fourth imperative builds from that imperative but is not simply a matter of coastal defense. Namely, it is: Protect China's strategic trade routes, resources and markets from foreign interdiction.
China's economic success has broken its national independence. China imports at least as much of its key commodities as it produces. Foreign trade is a vital piece of China's economic activity, even as the country attempts to drive its economy toward a domestic consumption model. Outbound investments provide access not only to markets and resources but also to technology and skills. This has impelled China to seek ways to secure its vulnerable supply lines, expand its maritime presence, and extend its international financial and political presence.