Why Geography Does Not Favor China

For more than a decade various intellectuals, pundits, and statesmen have all predicted that China is on the path towards not only being the next superpower, but even surpassing the United States in power and influence. However, while there are certain indicators to suggest that China’s international importance will continue to rise, there are many reasons to be skeptical of China becoming the most dominant world power any time soon. For one thing geography is generally against her. While geography is only one factor it is arguably among the most important. Geography has the potential of seriously limiting China’s emergence as a superpower.

Looking at the history of great powers and superpowers there seems to be several geographic considerations that do much to determine which nations become powerful. Undoubtedly some of these, such as having a significant population, a decent sized country, and holding, or at least having access to, considerable resources, China undoubtedly has. However, these are but a few geographic considerations among many and they are not inherently decisive. China’s recent history of domination by Western imperial powers and having much of its country occupied during the 1930s and ’40s by Japan (a country much smaller, less populated, and having fewer resources than China) provides ample proof. Of course geographic considerations by themselves are only part of the story and several other factors including, but not limited to, political, economic, and military are often just as important, if not more so.

Yet, keeping these latter considerations aside, and wishing to find the foremost important geographic factors that lead to nations becoming superpowers, it is necessary to look at the few nations that have accomplished this feat. When defining superpowers it is necessary to mark key differences between major powers, and superpowers. These differences can be more subtle than one would think.

For example, while many scholars would argue that Germany was a stronger country in “World War 1” than Britain, the British Empire could be considered a superpower while Germany could not. While Germany had more military power in Europe and more industry than Britain, the British Empire was the foremost world power, had the ability to project power globally, was endowed with more economic power (which it used to prop up her allies financially), and thanks to the Royal Navy, could blockade Germany, starve her people and destroy its economic potential (which was a big factor in deciding the war). Some could argue that had Germany defeated France and Russia it could have theoretically built a navy to defeat England and become a superpower, but the point is that Germany despite all of its military prowess was at a heavy disadvantage in terms of numbers, resources and money, and never had time to emerge as one. The same principle applied during the “Napoleonic Wars” where Britain’s naval power limited French power to Europe and British economic influence propped up her European allies. Again the same principles influenced the “Cold War,” where NATO seapower and U.S. economic dominance mostly limited Soviet power projection and contained it until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In these three cases; Germany, France and Russia were strong on land, but weak (at least vs. their enemies) at sea and in economic terms. The enemy’s control of sea lines of communications which gave them the ability to amass superior economic and financial resources were in the end decisive. Of course some could argue that had Germany, France, or Russia been successful at quashing their enemies on land they would have had a much better chance of achieving superpower status, my argument is that much of the reason they failed was their inability to effectively challenge the naval and economic dominance of their enemies. While it may appear simple, these considerations are arguably among the most important in determining the emergence of superpowers.

The majority of potential or real superpowers throughout history have had significant naval capabilities. Persia, Rome, Spain, Netherlands, Japan, France, Germany, Britain and America all had significant or dominant naval capabilities. Alexander the Great’s first priority when conquering the Persian Empire was overrunning the Eastern Mediterranean to eradicate Persian naval power. Rome, despite the common perception of not being an important maritime state, only gained serious influence in the Mediterranean by beating the Carthaginians, themselves traditionally a maritime power, at their own game (a point Alfred Thayer Mahan makes in the intro of “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783). Spain used her navy to conquer a vast empire and project her power across much of the globe, though ultimately failed to subdue England by the “Spanish Armada” and never focused on the economic or financial practices or institutions needed to develop into a true superpower. The Netherlands become an economic titan by her control of the sea lanes, but her small population, having to defend itself on land against hostile neighbors, and being boxed in geographically by Britain across the English Channel, doomed her chances of becoming a superpower. Japan should have, in theory at least, had the same chance as Britain at becoming a superpower but her lack of focus on economics and protecting her sea commerce, and her decision to fight all the main powers in Asia and the Pacific (on land and at sea) with no real allies during the “Second World War” was foolhardy. From 1939 to 1945 Japan fought Russia, the world’s biggest country, China, the world’s most populous country, Britain, the world’s biggest empire, America, the world’s leading industrial and economic state, and countless other nations.

The situation of France and Germany, both of which developed significant maritime capabilities, has been described above. Which leaves Britain and America, arguably the world’s only true superpowers. Besides having dominant navies, as well as unrivaled economic and financial capabilities, they had geography on their side. Unlike the previous nations mentioned (excluding Japan) the U.S. and U.K. have had no significant land rivals for most of their histories and thus have generally not had to invest in large, expensive armies and have had little fear of been overrun by hostile nations. If you look at the history of the previous nations they are filled with numerous invasions and bloody wars, while the history of America and Britain is, at least in comparison, relatively mild. This has allowed them the stability to develop democratic institutions, economic prosperity, and significant naval power.

The geography of America and the British isles is advantageous from a global standpoint. Besides the previously mentioned points both countries have great topography to construct good ports, long coastlines that are not boxed in by other powers, and are located in good positions that they can project power abroad as well as control/bloke other nation’s sea lines of communication. This along with Britain securing colonies and ports along vital maritime choke points (such as Gibraltar, Suez, Hormuz and Malacca, etc.) and America making alliances or stationing forces in proximity to these locations has allowed these two nations to dominate the world’s sea lines of communication and project power across the globe virtually unimpeded.

Thus a key component of Superpower status is maintaining the world’s sea lines of communication for trade and power projection. China is at a geographic disadvantage regarding this. While China certainly has a long coastline and excellent ports they are both considerably boxed in, or surrounded by, potentially hostile nations. South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and especially Taiwan (all American allies) would put a serious brake on Chinese naval ambitions in the event of heightened international relations or war. Even Vietnam, with its considerable coastline, is becoming weary of Chinese influence and has grown closer to America. The prospect of Sino-Vietnamese conflict is not far-fetched, for most of Vietnam’s history China has been seen as its gravest threat and the two nations fought a brief war in 1979. The same goes for India (also a likely U.S. ally against Sino expansion), while it does not border Chinese waters, its growth is destined to match that of China’s and it could also place naval forces astride the sea lanes China needs (especially the Strait of Malacca) to get many vital resources and minerals from Africa and the Middle East.

China’s only potential remedies to this situation would depend upon either building a navy that could dominate Asia and hope that America would eventually withdraw into relative isolation, and thus allow China hegemonic power in East Asia, or build such a fleet and convince enough of her neighbors to align themselves more with her instead of the United States and thus eliminate her geographic isolation. Both of these considerations depend upon the relative balance of strength (military, diplomatic and economic) between America and China. The key question is whether America is able and willing to commit to defend its paramount position in the region and prop up her allies in the long run, or whether China can gain such a dominant position in the region that her neighbors decide to reorient their interests towards Beijing. Neither of these are inevitable. America could easily one day conclude that a more isolationist policy would better suit her interests (especially given the excessive costs of trying to be strong in countless areas of the globe) whereas on the other hand a strong alliance between even a weakened America and her Asian allies (especially if backed by strong nations like India, Japan, and potentially even Russia) would probably be enough to maintain the balance of power in Asia.

China could also seek hegemony on land, as historically France, Germany, and Russia have. However, just as at sea China does not have an advantageous position on land either. Much like Germany throughout her history China has to deal with several land powers. India and Russia are obvious significant competitors, while Vietnam (especially if it grows closer to America’s orbit) would be a moderate threat. North Korea is an ally and provides a buffer zone from South Korea, but a unified Korea (especially a pro-American one) could present a potential threat as Manchuria and China’s industrial and economic heartland are close to the Yalu river (a key reason the Chinese intervened in the “Korean War”). Anyone who thinks that conflict is impossible between these nations should remember that China has gone to war with all of them in modern times: India in 1962, Russia in 1929 and 1969, Vietnam in 1979 and South Korea and America during the “Korean War” (1950-53).

While just as at sea there is little chance of there being a major land war in Asia, it does however force China to spend significant money and resources to be the dominant land power in Asia if it wants to be the regional hegemon. However, as dominating the sea lanes is also a prerequisite of being a hegemon as well, China would also be forced to build a fleet to secure these as well as having to maintain the ability to project power abroad. In other words China would need to have the best army, as well as the best navy (and even air force as the former two depend much upon Airpower) in Asia and the Pacific to be the foremost power in the region, let alone a superpower. Even if America withdrew from the region into isolationism, regional powers could theoretically pull together and strain China’s effort.

The cost it would take China to be the dominant military power in East Asia and the Pacific would be astronomical if not impossible. If one looks at world defense expenditures things do not look promising for Chinese hegemony. According to SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) in 2012 China spent 143 billion (USD) on their armed forces vs. 711 billion by the United States. While one could argue, disingenuously, that the Americans have to spread their resources globally, China’s real or potential rivals also have significant defense budgets. Japan spent 60 billion, India spent 49 billion, and Russia 72, while other nations like South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan spend smaller but still respectable amounts of money. Thus, even if Chinese spending somehow one day overtook that of the Americans, or even if America withdrew into isolation, China would still be surrounded by a ring of other powerful countries with significant military power.

Historically it is difficult, if not impossible, to be dominant on land and at sea. Germany and Russia tried to and failed, Spain during the 16th century came close to but failed at the “Spanish Armada,” and Napoleon overextended himself trying to hurt Britain from invading Egypt and Spain, building a big fleet, as well as trying to subdue Russia. Britain and America both succeeded as superpowers because they could concentrate on naval power and prop up allies to fight their enemies while expending limited forces on land. However, China’s geographic position resembles Germany between 1914-45. While she is destined to be the most powerful country in the region, her coast is boxed in by a coalition of strong naval power, and has multiple rivals on land. While China has obvious advantages vs. Germans as in a massive population, more resources and strategic depth, she also has some of the same shortcomings such as a considerable dependence on imported resources.

Indeed, China is dependent upon imports for 55% of its oil, and an ever growing percentage of its coal (from 114 million tons in 2009 to over 250 million tons in 2012). These are both necessary to fuel its economic growth, let alone run its country and heat its people. Additionally, China is even more dependent upon seaborne trade than Germany and thus prolonged hostilities (which would also be detrimental to America and other powers) would arguably be more crippling to China. Thus an argument could be made that no matter how strong and efficient China can be, just like Germany she is doomed to be held back from superpower status via geography. On the other hand, many histories suggest Germany could have won the “World Wars” and nations have succeeded in overcoming geographic conditions throughout history.

Thus to in order to dominate Asia, let alone the world, China faces considerable obstacles on land and at sea. On land India will always be a rival, the Korean Peninsula will likely be a source of anxiety for some time, Vietnam is drifting more into the American orbit, and even Russia could eventually turn against her (considering the massive Chinese emigration patterns into the Russian Far East where a mere 6 million Russians are up against 100 million Chinese in Manchuria). As the Russian Far East is rich in resources and materials that China needs, this is not an academic factor.

At sea the odds are even more lopsided against China. South Korea, and Vietnam box in China’s coast from the South and North. Additionally, all the countries in the “First Island Chain” including Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore all fear Chinese expansion and are U.S allies. India is also a U.S. ally and many of these nations already have naval agreements with the Americans. Meanwhile the U.S. has bases in these countries, as well as in the “Second Island Chain” of the various island groups in the mid-pacific. In the event of war or international crisis the U.S. and her allies could use their superior naval power and geographic control of the various sea routes and choke points to box in China’s naval power to her coast, limit her power projection abroad, as well as effectively neutralizing her seaborne trade.

China also faces issues regarding her political geography. While globalization and trade have indeed lifted countless millions of Chinese out of poverty, the results have been uneven. Just as in old China the urban and coastal areas have reaped much of the benefits whereas inner and rural China is still relatively backwards and poor. Unsurprisingly the people in these region are often bitter with the unequal distribution of wealth and dissidence will arguably continuously mount. Ironically, even among the emerging Middle Class in the coastal and urban regions, the gaining of more wealth, education and exposure to the outside world via traveling, social media, and the Internet, will also lead to rising level of dissidence.

In fact such levels have risen significantly since 1989 (the year of the “Tiananmen Square massacre”) from roughly 8700 mass group incidents in 1993 to 87000 in 2005 to 180000 in 2010. Many have pointed out that most of these protests have focuses on smaller issues rather than advocating systematic chance in China. However, anyone who thinks that the repressive Chinese state can cow the masses indefinitely should keep in mind that a steady growth in dissidence increases the chances of spontaneous revolutionary movements such as the unexpected “Arab Spring” as well as the “Tiananmen Square Protests” in 1989 of occurring.

While less of a problem due to their relatively small populations and remote locations, the Tibetans and Turkish Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as other minorities with separatist aspirations also present significant sources of domestic tension. The Communist Party of China has 3 course open to it to deal with such mounting levels of dissidence. They could try mass repression (as in even more severe then now, perhaps imitating the doomed Assad regime in Syria), appease disenfranchised Chinese with financial or political incentives, or a controlled move towards more democratization as Taiwan and South Korea have done.

The first option would probably fail in the long run due to world media, international pressure, the rising levels of Chinese dissidence in spite of existing high levels of repression, and the fact that such repression would undermine all the economic progress China has made in the last few decades. The second option would also probably fail in the long term due to the current slow down in the global economy, the prevalence of corruption in Chinese society (according to the Corruption Perception Index of 2012 China ranked 80 out of 176 countries while its main rivals, the U.S, Japan and Taiwan scored much better at 19, 17, and 34 respectively), the sheer numbers of people that need to be appeased, and the fact that even if it worked the better off people would probably want political change eventually anyway. The third option, perhaps the one most likely to succeed, and most beneficial to peace (as democracies do not fight each other) is arguably not likely due to the lack of democracy in Chinese history, the monopoly of power and perks enjoyed by the Communist Party of China, and the tempting prospect of eventually emerging as the most powerful country in the world by the regime’s leadership.

Of course the Chinese Communist Party could very well hold onto power without repression, appeasement, or reform, and if one looks at their calamitous history of beating the odds against the Chinese Nationalists, the Japanese, the Americans and later Russians during the “Cold War” and even civil dissent (as seen by the “Tiananmen Square Massacre”) it would be a mistake to underestimate it. Yet historically such regimes usually end sooner or later and the odds are against the CCP being an exception. The important questions are whether or not such a collapse will occur before China becomes too powerful to easily contain, launches an aggressive foreign policy that could lead to serous strife (such as an attempt to annex Taiwan by force), and whether or not the succeeding government in Beijing is less threatening to Asian, or Western interests.

However, even if CCP surpassed all these challenges there is the added prospect that despite what all the pseudo-economists and pundits say China is not destined to enjoy indefinitely the impressive economic growth she has had thus far. As Ruchir Sharma noted in an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Broken BRICs” very few nations historically enjoy such growth levels (over decades) for so long. Indeed, despite enjoying double digit growth rates for the past few decades China’s rate has slowed in recent years to 7% or less just as other growing economic titans have before. For example, during the ’80s the economic growth rate of Japan led many to believe she would eventually overtake the American economy, only to eventually level out and then to grow in a more limited fashion. While there are reason to suggest that China could outdo Japan in this respect the history of economics suggests that China is much farther from gaining equality, let alone superiority, vs. the U.S. economy than is usually imagined.

Certainly regarding GDP (PPP) per capita China and other developing nations may never reach parity with the U.S. or her allies. For example, when the International Monetary Fund ranked countries regarding GDP (PPP per capita) in 2011 the U.S. Taiwan, and Japan stood at 6, 20, and 25 respectively while China ranked at a distant 93. Put another way the U.S. figure was 48,000 vs. 8000 for China (in other words America’s GDP per capita was 6 times that of the Chinese). The political-geographic consequences of this should not be ignored. A higher GDP per capita generally represents a more educated, professional, and innovative population and workforce (though not always considering some of the higher ranking countries qualify almost exclusively due to their excessive oil wealth as seen by many of the Gulf countries). Such a population is generally more loyal to the state, is economically more efficient, and produces more technological and innovative solutions to the various problems presented to the nation. While they also usually demand more economic and political incentives than less developed populations, they undoubtedly make the nation stronger.

Put simply nations with a higher GDP per capita produce a more loyal, educated and innovative populace that facilitates their nations becoming stronger (militarily, politically and economically) than nations with lowers levels of GDP per capita. For example while Egypt and her traditional Arab allies have had much more economic potential (especially in workforce, industry and resources) than Israel, the Jewish state has been more politically cohesive, and willing to channel the abilities of her population, while Egypt and her allies have less stable governments and often stifle the abilities of their peoples to maintain control. This has enabled Israel to produce a superior military (which contrary to popular perception was not always more technologically advanced thanks to American support) and an electronic and commercial based economy that has allowed her to defeat Arab armies that have enjoyed superior strength as well as Arab economies with considerable oil wealth. Likewise, despite having a bigger population, and more resources than the U.S, the Soviet Union, thanks to her backwards policies, repression, and bureaucracy, was clearly defeated in the Cold War by American innovation and technological superiority. The ease in which the U.S. won the “Gulf War” where an strongly equipped Soviet style Iraqi army was defeated by a technologically and better motivated Western army is perhaps the best example of how matched the two sides really were in the long run.

China admittedly has a better chance vs. the Soviet Union as she has adopted free market reforms and is less dogmatic when it comes to ideology, yet China’s police state which stifles innovation and open exchanges of ideas more so than liberal democracies, and her much lower GDP per capita vs. the U.S. suggests that in the long run she is at a disadvantage in winning the battle of history.

Frankly having such a massive population is probably a disadvantage given the logistical difficulties of feeding and supporting such a number of people, trying to appease so many of them via economic rewards, and the astounding environmental and health costs China’s industrial and economic progress have created. For example, according to the Environmental Performance Index (basically a ranking of nations according to how well they manage environmental issues) in 2012 China scored poorly at 116 out of 132, while the U.S. Japan and Taiwan ranked 49, 23, and 29 respectively. Likewise according to the World Bank in 2007 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities were in China. Air pollution is among China’s worse health issues; last month in Beijing it reached a record level at 30-45 times the recommended safety level according to an index which measures particles of matter in the air. In economic terms MIT estimated “that lost labour and health care costs associated with pollution cost the Chinese economy $112 billion in 2005.” There is no reason to believe this has not gotten worse in the last 7 years.

Yet despite all the seemingly unfavorable geographic disadvantages China has there is no guarantee her rise to superpower status can be blocked. Many of the same disadvantages effected Russia yet the Soviet Union became a superpower (at least in name) and if could be argued that her economic backwardness (something China does not suffer from) was the primary reason it ultimately collapsed. Additionally many of the geographic disadvantages China have are political and could change over time. For example, it is possible that China’s ever increasing economic dominance of Taiwan, South Korea, and many of her neighbors could eventually swing them into its orbit and away from America’s sphere of influence.

Indeed, a unification of China and Taiwan, and even the unification of Korea under Seoul’s control would arguably eliminate the need for the latter’s military resistance to Beijing (South Korea is more scared of North Korea and China is already her main trade partner). Likewise other nations such as India, Vietnam, the countries in the “first Island Chain” and even Russia could eventually conclude that it is better to accommodate rather than resist Chinese hegemony in Asia, especially in the case of a weakening, or potentially isolationist, America. However economic interdependence has not always stopped war as the relative globalization that occurred before 1914 did not prevent the world from plunging into war. If something relatively minor like an assassination of a third rate power’s monarch could propel the world into war as it did in 1914 who is to say that something absurd like the saber rattling between China and Taiwan, or China and Japan could not someday lead to war.

This is why American steadfastly and commitment to her allies in the Pacific and East Asia is crucial. Just as British control of the seas, and economic and military support of her European allies was necessary in deterring, and ultimately defeating Germany, American support of her Asian allies is necessary to contain Chinese dominance (militarily, economically, demographically, etc.). Even if China becomes more powerful than America an alliance of U.S. and Asian allies could contain her. Germany was easily more powerful than Britain in both World Wars, but thanks to her naval dominance, and Germany having to fight multiple allies on land and sea, Britain was victorious regardless. No matter how powerful China gets, the Unites States and other powerful countries like India, Japan, and other nations can deter her (especially if they control the vital trade routes on land and at sea).

China is not blessed by geography, despite the size of its country, the length of her coast, her massive population and considerable resources. China faces multiple rivals on land and sea, forcing her to dilute her military strength to combat countless potential scenarios. China likely does not have the potential to address these multiple threats and achieve superpower status as long as the Americans maintain its commitments to her Asian allies or China’s neighbors do not feel as though they have no choice but to accommodate Chinese hegemony. While China certainly has a lot of resources and population, she depends a lot upon imports (such as oil and coal) that can easily be cut off by sea via American and her allies naval power. Additionally, China’s political geography, including a significant rural and urban split, potentially separatist minorities, and the ever increasing desire of her masses for economic prosperity and political reform threaten the Communist regime’s very survival. Finally uncertain economic, environmental and health considerations pose many hurdles to Chinese ambitions. A powerful China is not necessarily a grave threat to world peace or stability, but America and her Asian allies would be wise to contain her influence and deter her from excessive expansion (economic, demographic or military) to maintain the balance of power in Asia, if not the world.

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Article from “The Atlantic”: Dependence on Middle Eastern Oil: Now It’s China’s Problem, Too by Damien Ma, July 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/07/dependence-on-middle-eastern-oil-now-its-chinas-problem-too/259947/
Article from “China Daily”: China’s coal imports to maintain growth in 2013 by Xinhua, December 2012. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2012-12/24/content_16056988.htm

Article from “Foreign Affairs”: Broken BRICs by Ruchir Sharma, December 2012.

Article from “Green House”: MIT: China’s pollution costs $112B in annual health care by Wendy Koch, 2012. http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2012/02/chinas-growth-worsens-air-pollution-hikes-health-costs/1#.URALzhG9KSP

Article from “Huffington Post”: Beijing’s Air Pollution Steps Get Poor Reception Among Some In China’s Capital by Reuters, January 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/22/beijings-new-air-pollution-china_n_2523742.html

Article from “Insight”: Innovation score and GDP per capita – 2011, May 2012. http://stats.areppim.com/archives/insight_innovxgdp_correl_2011.pdf

Corruption Perception Index 2012.

Environmental Performance Index 2012.

Wikipedia article on “Coal in China”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_in_China [February, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “List of countries by GDP (PPP) per capita”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita [February, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “List of countries by military expenditures”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures [January, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “Pollution in China”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollution_in_China [February, 2013]

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