China shares a border with 14 countries on the Eurasian continent, where it must contend with Europe, Russia and India. At the same time, China has a coastline that extends over 14,000 km and includes close to 7,000 islands. Here in the maritime region, China has had confrontations with the United States, Japan and India.
Considering that 11 of China’s provinces, special province-level municipalities and autonomous regions border the sea, it is fair to say that China is, in fact, two-thirds a continental state and one-third a maritime state.
Thus China must manage the geopolitical conflicts presented by both the continent and the sea. Over the long course of Chinese history, there is one consistent pattern. When China has been menaced from the continent (i.e., from the north), the south has preserved the peace. When China has faced a maritime threat (i.e., from the south), the north has used methods of pacification to stabilize the situation.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, China no longer had to worry about the threat from the north. This represented a huge security bonus for China, the strategic significance of which was five-fold:
1. Japan’s strategic value to China as a potentially useful partner in opposing any northern threat diminished.
2. The easing of tensions to the north allowed China to resolve almost all of its border disputes with neighboring countries.
3. China could concentrate on making strategic investments in maritime self-defense in the south.
4. With the fall of Soviet communism, China shifted course, introducing a market economy and transforming itself into an economic powerhouse.
5. As a result, China rapidly increased its imports of energy and natural resources. China also strengthened its resolve to step up defense of its sea lanes and to become a maritime power.
In 1995 and 1996, however, China sought to quell the rising “fever” in Taiwan surrounding pro-independence leader Lee Teng-hui and the first fully democratic 1996 presidential election by conducting a series of missile tests in the Taiwan Strait. In response, the Clinton administration deployed two U.S. aircraft carriers to the region and effectively deterred further threats by China. The trauma of this episode prompted China to build up its naval power even further.
Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the onset of a global war on terror, the potential maritime threats to China’s security became a secondary concern. China linked the various problems presented by the ethnic minorities and religions of its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to the greater war on terror, thereby demonstrating its ostensible “cooperation” with the U.S.
During this period a debate emerged within China as to whether the true threat to Chinese national interests lay to the south or the north.
Those who believed China would face a southern threat argued that American maritime hegemony and the Japan-U.S. alliance posed the greatest long-term threat to the Chinese system of government and geopolitical status. Others opposed this view, arguing that, as Islamic fundamentalism would inevitably fuel separatist and independence movements by the various Muslim ethnic minorities of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the greatest threat to China’s security lay in the north.
Viewed from a different perspective, this debate was equally about the merits of two different geopolitical theories.
Should China heed the “Heartland Theory” of British geographer Halford John Mackinder — which posited the primary strategic significance of the central Eurasian continent to geopolitics — and attempt to emerge as the great continental power of Eurasia?
Or should China adhere to the theory of American naval officer and geopolitical strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan — who argued that “sea power” was essential to the strength and influence of nation states — and seek to become a naval superpower?
Those in the Mackinder camp urged China to strategically develop its cooperative ties with Europe, Russia and India. In their view, China should avoid challenging the U.S. for hegemony in the Pacific Ocean, but rather continue its peaceful rise as a world power.
This strategy was refuted by those in the Mahan camp, who maintained that achieving maritime supremacy was the only path by which China could one day rank alongside the U.S. as a world power. Clashes between China and neighboring countries in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea between 2010 and 2012 served to bolster the position of the Mahan camp.
Since then, crises have developed in Ukraine and over the Islamic State. With regard to the Ukrainian crisis, China and Russia’s joint opposition to the Group of Seven have almost elevated their bilateral relations to entente status. Thus, at present, it would seem that the Russian threat to China is next to zero.
By contrast, there is real danger that the Islamic State crisis may set off a geopolitical “landslide” that could sweep across the Islamic countries of Eurasia, from the collapse of Iraq to the breakdown of Afghanistan and even Pakistan. In the event of such a landslide, the position of China, which shares a border with Afghanistan and Pakistan and faces the possibility of revolt by its own Muslim minority in Xinjiang Uyghur, would be alarming indeed.
Some American strategists have taken note of this and propose actively exacerbating the northern threat. Former Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Navy Seth Cropsey believes that the U.S. should provide behind-the-scenes support for Muslim forces in Xinjiang Uyghur and argues that acting to heighten China’s perception of the northern threat is also necessary for the improvement and expansion of U.S. naval power. (Seth Cropsey, “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy,” 2013).
I suspect, however, that this strategy would prove less straightforward in reality. To begin with, this type of “distraction strategy” risks further hardening Chinese leaders, who even under normal circumstances are enslaved to their paranoid obsession with the U.S., and may have an adverse effect of making China more aggressive.
Furthermore, even if the northern threat becomes a partial reality, China’s “strategic will to the sea” — in other words, the “southern threat” theory — will remain over the long-term. For, in modern times, China’s most humiliating losses, beginning with that of Taiwan, have come from the south — in other words, from the sea. China will not find this easy to forget.
Yoichi Funabashi is currently chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and formerly served as editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.