China cannot be large and average: Strategic positioning of the PRC

Being a country of 1.4 billion people and forming a sizeable part of Asia all on its own, China is inherently positioned to play a significant role in the world. As it finds its place on the world stage, it has to consider other countries - its immediate neighbours, as well as the US. Pang Ruizhi makes one point clear: China is too large to be average.
China is too big to be average. (AFP)
China is too big to be average. (AFP)

 

Only by defining its own strategic positioning can a nation construct a good strategic plan, map out strategic inputs that are meticulous and targeted, prevent waste of limited national resources, and maximise its output. 

As a large country and a major power on the international scene, China needs to have a clear national strategic positioning if it is to ensure its national security and its due position in the international arena, and avoid overstretching its abilities and waste of strategic resources.

An important basis for defining the strategic position of a country is its geopolitical environment. The geostrategic environment of a country involves territorial properties, resource and energy reserves, ethnic composition, geography, and the strength and geography of its neighbouring countries. 

The realities of China’s geopolitical environment 

China’s basic geopolitical environment could be described as follows.

First, China is an expansive country with a large population and abundant natural resources. However, its western regions encompass vast expanses of barren land, a fragile ecological environment, and a complex ethnic composition, creating a huge disparity between the eastern and western regions in terms of ethnic composition, economic development, and population density. This poses a great challenge to large-scale development and puts intense pressure on China’s national policy. 

Second, despite its huge reserve of resources and energy, China has failed to attain self-sufficiency in its major resources and energy, due mainly to its large population, elevated consumption level, rapid pace of modernisation, and low efficiency of resource and energy utilisation. 

Of the world’s nine nations with nuclear weapons capabilities, four border China, and eight of the world’s top 20 military powers are in close proximity to the Chinese mainland......

The third characteristic of its geopolitical environment is the severe problems China faces, such as food safety and energy security. In addition, China is a vast land with a long coastline, unlike most modern powers with more homogenous geological features, such as Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, Japan, Germany, and Russia (including the Soviet Union, it is a continental-maritime power). It is also strikingly different in size from Spain, France, and other major powers with both continental and maritime features. Robert Kaplan thus believes that China will pose a greater geopolitical challenge to the United States than the former Soviet Union did.

The fourth factor is that, despite its overall national strength, China is surrounded by strong neighbours, with North and South Korea and Japan to the east, Russia to the north, India to the west, and Vietnam, Indonesia, and Australia to the south. China has historical issues with Japan, India, and Vietnam, resulting in somewhat unfriendly bilateral ties. Making matters worse, China is surrounded by American allies and partners. Of the world’s nine nations with nuclear weapons capabilities, four border China, and eight of the world’s top 20 military powers are in close proximity to the Chinese mainland, according to statistics from Global Firepower, which results in a harsh geopolitical environment for China.

Finally, it is noteworthy that, of China’s major neighbouring powers, Japan is a maritime power, Russia a land power, and India, Vietnam, and South Korea are both land and maritime powers.

 

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South Korea and Japan marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties on 19 August 2019. China has to navigate relations with its neighbours in order to play a significant role on the world stage. (Toru Hanai/REUTERS)

 

This geopolitical environment predetermines that China will not become a world hegemon, a fact made further evident when it is contrasted to the United States. As a dominant world power, the capital of the US comes from its abundant reserves of resources and energy, which has basically guaranteed its energy self-sufficiency, despite the large amount of energy that remains untapped there. The major strategic resources required by the US are provided within its own borders and by the “quarter sphere” of Latin America that remains within the sphere of American influence. As a country of immigrants, the US  currently has no serious ethnic problems that could stem from the uneven distribution of racial groups across the country. Further, its neighbouring countries are relatively weak: Canada, which boasts the greatest military strength of those neighbours, ranks just 21st in global firepower.

China does not have any of these advantages. Most of China’s national effort will be channelled into dealing with relations with neighbouring countries, resolving territorial disputes, addressing domestic ethnic conflicts, and ensuring energy, resource, and food safety. Under these circumstances, China is unlikely to have sufficient vitality for building world hegemony. Rather, its neighbouring countries will look to other nations or world powers to check and balance China’s influence in East Asia.

Managing East Asia influence crucial

That said, China’s huge size and national strength, along with its geostrategic situation on both land and sea, mean that it is virtually impossible for China to remain an average country, or even an average major power, a strategic positioning that is not only unpopular and unacceptable among the domestic public, but equally impossible due to external conditions.

China’s geostrategic situation also means that, since ancient times, the most serious national security threats in China have basically come from the powerful countries or tribes that surround it.

According to World Bank statistics, China’s military expenditure in 2018 accounted for 1.9% of its GDP, roughly the same as the UK and Australia, but lower than major countries such as Russia, the US, India, France, as well as the world average (2.1%). But because China is so huge and covers both land and sea, the US continues to see China as its major rival, and adopted policies to contain China’s regional influence. China’s neighbouring countries also attempt to balance China’s regional influence with the help of American power. China must formulate a strong strategic policy in response to this sort of strategic pressure.

China’s geostrategic situation also means that, since ancient times, the most serious national security threats in China have basically come from the powerful countries or tribes that surround it. Historically, any time China was caught in domestic or international difficulties, neighbouring powers or tribes took the opportunity to gain from China’s struggles. This is illustrated by events in ancient times, including during the Spring and Autumn Period when the central region was in conflict, the administration of five nomad tribes during the Western Jin Period (AD 316 - 439), the chaos in the reign of Jingkang (in 1127, leading to the end of the Northern Song Dynasty), and the colonisation of the Mongolian Empire. 

The trend continued in modern times with Russia’s massive occupation of China’s territory, the instigation of independence for Xinjiang and Outer Mongolia, and Japan’s invasion of China. The threats from modern Britain, France, and even the US are dwarfed by these historical events that prove the basic historical rule.

In light of all this, to ensure its overall, long-term security, China must concentrate its efforts on managing its influence in East Asia, avoid excessive and unjustifiable strategic resource investment in other regions, and avoid the struggle for world hegemony.

At the same time, it should steadily enhance its competence to lead the regional structure of strategy and security in East and Central Asia, check the presence of the US in East Asia, and establish a China-led regional strategy and security cooperation mechanism in East and Central Asia. If it fails to achieve this goal, China will be a large country in nothing more than name and size, making the idea of China becoming a true world power nothing more than an airy fantasy, no matter how much influence it exerts in other regions. 

The advantages of China’s geopolitical environment 

Geopolitically speaking, China has numerous advantages that should allow it to achieve these strategic goals, provided there are no major changes in its domestic affairs.

First, China faces no major threat on its northern, western and southwestern borders. To the north, there is no serious strategic pressure, due to China’s close cooperation with Russia and Russia’s greater strategic need for China than vice versa. To the northwest of China, there is no powerful country, making even serious ethnic problems in Xinjiang and Tibet manageable. Although India to the southwest is on the rise and has plans to move eastward, with its severe domestic problems and the constraint that Pakistan presents, India has no intention of challenging China’s strategic position east of Myanmar. It is similarly half-hearted about the “Asian Arc of Democracy”, or Quad advocated by Japan and the United States as a counterbalance to China, making the strategic pressure it exerts on China relatively limited.

The main barriers to the establishment of a China-led strategic security cooperation mechanism in East Asia come from the west bank of the Pacific Ocean and from the existing US military alliance system in East Asia.

Second, though China’s neighbouring countries are strong, their overall national strength does not match that of China, and with their different strategic objectives and directions, they are unable to form the necessary synergy to counter China. Despite the varying degrees of conflict in China’s relations with Japan, Vietnam, and India, these conflicts have not intensified acutely. 

Third, in terms of national strength, provided there is no serious turbulence internally, no country in the world would dare engage in large-scale military conflict with China. This allows China to withstand greater pressure, crisis, and even brinkmanship, if necessary, without fear of blackmail by external forces. On the other hand, though China should continue to do all it can to avoid military conflicts with its neighbouring countries, military force remains one of the options that China can afford to pick from its strategic toolbox.

As a result, China does not have the “nightmare of neighbouring countries’ alliance,” as Germany did in the late 19th century, nor is it confronted with any imminent threat to its national security. This allows it to maintain its strategic strength and adopt the more contained strategy of 'salami-slicing', steadily improving its relations with its neighbours over a long period of time, checking America’s influence in East Asia, and ultimately building a China-led security strategy and security cooperation mechanism in the region. 

Currently, because it faces less strategic pressure in the north, west, and southwest, China is relatively safe along its land border. Through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, China can already lead the strategic security framework in Central Asia. The main barriers to the establishment of a China-led strategic security cooperation mechanism in East Asia come from the west bank of the Pacific Ocean and from the existing US military alliance system in East Asia.

us china seesaw
China has to consider how to counterbalance America’s military presence in East Asia. (SPH)

Under the so-called “two-track” mechanism, many countries on the west bank of the Pacific rely primarily on the US for security but maintain close economic and trade ties with China. How to counterbalance America’s military presence in this area is a major issue which China must address if it is to achieve the desired strategy.

The greatest advantage China may enjoy over the US in East Asia is that China, as a resident power, can focus on the region, placing great emphasis on strategy and diplomacy, while the US must take into account its presence in other parts of the world at the same time. If China fails to focus on East Asia in its diplomacy and strategy, its advantage over the US in East Asia will be quite limited.

Admittedly, the key in this process is Sino-Japan relations. This will be the most important issue in China’s diplomacy and the most rigorous test of the China-led strategic security mechanism in East Asia.

America’s national strength and diversity in its strategic objectives are unmatched, or at least still far beyond China’s reach. Even in the case of US provocation against China, China should avoid direct confrontation. China can only check and neutralise the influence of the US in East Asia by consolidating cooperation with its neighbouring countries. To this end, China needs to weigh the relationship between territorial claims and the construction of East Asia’s strategic security system, then make decisions accordingly. In addition, China needs to turn to political, economic, military, cultural, and other means to become the central state in East Asia, managing and guiding the regional strategic and security pattern through these mechanisms.

Admittedly, the key in this process is Sino-Japan relations. This will be the most important issue in China’s diplomacy and the most rigorous test of the China-led strategic security mechanism in East Asia and its ability to build mutual political trust and settle historical issues, territorial disputes, and maritime demarcations. These should be pursued with the ultimate goal of establishing a mechanism of security, strategic cooperation, and coordination between the two nations that will neutralise the US-Japan alliance and reforge the East Asian community on the basis of Sino-Japan cooperation.