The geography of chinese power

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The Geography of Chinese Power

Robert D. Kaplan

May/June 2010


Thanks to the country’s favorable location on the map, China 's influence is expanding on land and at sea, from Central Asia to the South China Sea and from the Russian Far East to the Indian Ocean .

ROBERT D. KAPLAN is a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a correspondent for TheAtlantic. His book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power will be published in the fall.

How Far Can Beijing Reach on Land and at Sea?

The english geographer Sir Halford Mackinder ended his famous 1904 article, "The Geographical Pivot of History," with a disturbing reference to China . After explaining why Eurasia was the geostrategic fulcrum of world power, he posited thatthe Chinese, should they expand their power well beyond their borders, "might constitute the yellow peril to the world's freedom just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent, an advantage as yet denied to the Russian tenant of the pivot region." Leaving aside the sentiment's racism, which was common for the era, as well as the hysterics sparked by therise of a non-Western power at any time, Mackinder had a point: whereas Russia , that other Eurasian giant, basically was, and is still, a land power with an oceanic front blocked by ice, China , owing to a 9,000-mile temperate coastline with many good natural harbors, is both a land power and a sea power. (Mackinder actually feared that China might one day conquer Russia .) China 's virtual reachextends from Central Asia, with all its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, to the main shipping lanes of the Pacific Ocean . Later, in Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder predicted that along with the United States and the United Kingdom, China would eventually guide the world by "building for a quarter of humanity a new civilization, neither quite Eastern nor quite Western."

China's blessedgeography is so obvious a point that it tends to get overlooked in discussions of the country's economic dynamism and national assertiveness. Yet it is essential: it means that China will stand at the hub of geopolitics even if the country's path toward global power is not necessarily linear. ( China has routinely had GDP growth rates of more than ten percent annually over the past 30 years, butthey almost certainly cannot last another 30.) China combines an extreme, Western-style modernity with a "hydraulic civilization" (a term coined by the historian Karl Wittfogel to describe societies that exercise centralized control over irrigation) that is reminiscent of the ancient Orient: thanks to central control, the regime can, for example, enlist the labor of millions to build majorinfrastructure. This makes China relentlessly dynamic in ways that democracies, with all of their temporizing, cannot be. As China 's nominally Communist rulers--the scions of some 25 dynasties going back 4,000 years--are absorbing Western technology and Western practices, they are integrating them into a disciplined and elaborate cultural system with a unique experience in, among other things, formingtributary relationships with other states. "The Chinese," a Singaporean official told me early this year, "charm you when they want to charm you, and squeeze you when they want to squeeze you, and they do it quite systematically."

China's internal dynamism creates external ambitions. Empires rarely come about by design; they grow organically. As states become stronger, they cultivate new needsand--this may seem counterintuitive--apprehensions that force them to expand in various forms. Even under the stewardship of some of the most forgettable presidents--Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison--the United States ? economy grew steadily and quietly in the late nineteenth century. As the country traded more with the outside world, it developed complex economic...
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