China in the Middle



The American Interest

Appeared in: Volume 10, Number 4

Published on: February 2, 2015

China's Game of Thrones

China in the Middle

Wang Jisi

China’s growth enables it to be truly, for the first time, a Eurasian power between East Asia and the West. A pan-peripheral grand strategy would suit it best.


The term “geostrategy” refers to a nation’s international strategies that derive from its geography and from its geopolitical and geo-economic status. A nation’s geostrategy should meet its own development needs and must be adjusted to reflect changes in the international environment. But geostrategy rests on more than that. It takes its shape from less tangible factors, too, notably how a people sees itself and its surroundings, which is often expressed in names.


Ancient Chinese, just like every other people at that time, believed they lived at the center of the world. Beginning from the Han dynasty, the word Zhong-guo (literally “Middle Kingdom” or “Middle State”, the modern name for China) came to mean “country of orthodoxy”, “the center of all under heaven”, “the ruler of all that is.” Each successive Chinese dynasty used a different name for the country after the name of the dynasty. Zhong-guo/China did not become the nation’s official name until after the Republic of China was founded in 1911 following the overthrow of the Manchu Qing dynasty. Only then did the phrase “The Chinese Nation” (Zhonghua Minzu) come into common usage.


After the Western powers and Japan invaded China, China’s sense of itself as the nation at the center of the world dissolved. It was replaced by imported status-markers like “the East”, “the Far East”, and “East Asian nation”, all of them of Eurocentric origin. During the Japanese invasion, the notion that China was part of a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” was widely promulgated, though not many educated Chinese took that made-in-Tokyo premise seriously. Since the end of World War II, the diplomatic and national security agencies of the United States, major European countries, and Russia have managed their interactions with China within the framework of “East Asian relations.”


In the early years after the founding of the People’s Republic, China was part of the “Eastern” socialist camp. In 1957, Mao Zedong declared that “the East wind prevails over the West wind”, meaning that socialism had gained an absolute advantage over capitalism. “The East” had become a geostrategic concept linked with socialism or the Soviet bloc.


In the 1970s, the Soviet Union became China’s primary security threat and Mao became an advocate of the “One Line” strategy.1 He later developed the “Three Worlds” theory, which superseded the bipolar division of the world into Eastern and Western camps that had predominated in China’s political thinking since the onset of the Cold War. In the mid-1980s, Deng Xiaoping said, “Peace is an issue between East and West. Development is an issue between North and South. We thus confront issues to the North, South, East, and West. The core issue is the North-South issue.” The East-West issue to which Deng referred was the struggle for hegemony between the United States and the Soviet Union. In his scheme, China inclined toward neither West nor East.


With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the “Eastern Camp” and “East-West relations” became meaningless concepts. But “East Asia” remained the primary geographic context of Chinese identity. Even today, the primary threats to China’s military security lie in East Asia and the Western Pacific. China’s three largest trading partners are the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Their combined bilateral trade volume with China far exceeds the sum of China’s trade with all other partners combined. Because China’s security concerns and foreign economic dealings are concentrated in “the East”, any deterioration in the security situation there also constitutes an economic and political threat.


Although East Asian economic cooperation has continued to develop rapidly over the past decade, momentum toward a unified economic system has clearly become congested. In East Asia, redundant organizational mechanisms are piled one on another without much coordination or direction, and efforts to develop effective multilateral security mechanisms have shown scant progress. When the United States, Russia, India, Australia, and New Zealand joined the East Asia Summit, the name of that body was rendered meaningless. Over the past few years, the world’s economic and political gravity has shifted to the Asian mainland and the regions where the Indian and Pacific Oceans merge, but not exactly to East Asia itself. Meanwhile, China has been strategically developing its far west region. Its demand for energy resources from Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa continues to expand. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation become more active by the day, and the Asia-Europe Meeting is expanding. These developments compel China to embrace a new geostrategic reality: It is time for China to reevaluate the “East Asian” framework and redefine itself with reference to all of its border areas, thereby drawing closer to the heartland of Eurasia.


As “the earth’s island”, the Eurasian continent forms the core of the world’s politics, economics, and human and natural resources. The European Union is a “one ocean, one continent” great power, and so is China. The United States is a “two oceans, one continent” power. China is a great power between Europe to the west and America to the east. China, Europe, and the United States are like the three legs of a bronze ceremonial vessel; each has geographic advantages and strategic depth. In comparison, Russia, India, Japan, and other major countries lack similar natural geostrategic advantages, although their potentials should not be ignored.


Relations between developed and developing countries are often called “North-South” relations. By virtue of its geography, China should be viewed as a “Northern” nation, but it has been a developing country by political, economic, and social development indices.


According to the Communist Party leadership, China’s strategic goal is to become a wealthy, powerful, democratic, civilized, and harmonious modern socialist nation by 2049, within a century of the founding of the People’s Republic. From an economic standpoint, reaching this goal would make China a developed country. China’s seventy-year march toward modernization reached its halfway point in 2014, having been restarted in 1979 after its leaders discarded Mao Zedong’s class struggle theory and set economic growth as the top priority. One can be confident that when China enters the ranks of developed countries, there will still be a gulf between North and South. China will then be a Northern country by all relevant measures.


To be sure, China today is still a developing country by most measures, but in many respects it has already pulled away from the vast majority of the countries of the Global South. First, China’s economic scale, growth rate, and development potentials vastly surpass those of any other developing country. China’s GDP today far exceeds those of the other four BRICS nations combined. China’s foreign-exchange reserves, the highest in the world, exceeded $3.89 trillion by September 2014, three times the combined level of the other BRICS. China’s greenhouse gas emissions are increasing dramatically as a result of its economic growth, and its environment is seriously polluted. China should shoulder international responsibility for these problems.


Second, there is a stark contrast between the structure of China’s population and the demographics of other developing countries. The populations of most areas of the Global South are getting younger, while the problem of China’s graying population grows more acute. China’s social welfare challenges are beginning to resemble those of developed countries ever more closely.


Third, the gap between the structure of China’s economy and the economies of most developing countries is widening. The bulk of emerging economies are highly dependent on natural resources. China, in contrast, is the world’s top manufacturer and so must import increasing amounts of energy and staple goods. Chinese manufacturers, moreover, are caught between developed countries, which dominate the most profitable ends of the supply chain, possess advanced technology, and are promoting recovery of their manufacturing sectors, and late-developing countries of the South, which are using their low production costs to catch up to their Chinese competitors.


For a long time, China’s political thinkers believed that the gap between North and South would shrink only when the ability of developed countries to control, plunder, and exploit developing countries was shattered and a “new international political and economic order” came into being. However, China’s own historical experience has demonstrated that this view is flawed. Under the existing international order, nations can achieve modernization by taking advantage of opportunities offered by economic globalization, relying on their own national efforts to reform and innovate, and adopting new patterns of economic development. With such an understanding, China has in recent years revised its customary call for “building a new international political and economic order.” The authoritative official white paper “China’s Peaceful Development”, issued in 2011, describes China’s new approach as “pushing the international political and economic order to a more just and rational direction.” That is a far cry from a global proletariat revolution, but it leaves room for selective opposition to the status quo.


China’s current geopolitical and geo-economic status can be defined as neither Eastern nor Western, neither Northern nor Southern; rather, it encompasses elements of East, West, North, and South. Having entered a special phase in its social development, and equipped with unique civilizational and cultural traditions, China can play an extraordinary role in human history, serving as both a bridge to the past and a herald of the future. It is today, far more than it ever was in antiquity, truly a “state in the middle”, a “central country”, or a “bridge nation” that connects East and West and narrows the divide between North and South. Compared with the “Middle Kingdom” of the ancient Chinese order, when Chinese leaders lacked a good sense of what exactly China was in the middle of, today’s China has a much broader vision and surveys the world from a more encompassing height. China’s grand strategic chessboard can be conceived on the foundation of China’s newly gained global status and identity.


In his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that “Eurasia is America’s most important geopolitical arena.” The Eurasian landmass is also the stage upon which China’s long-term competition and cooperation with the United States, Europe, Japan, Russia, India, and other countries play out. China should make full use of its unusual status as a “state in the middle”, relying on Asia—not merely East Asia—as its geostrategic foundation, to become a bridge between East and West, North and South, maneuvering between them, playing on a larger chessboard in Eurasia and throughout the world.


The United States has deep-laid designs to master the politics, economics, resources, rules of engagement, and international discourse of the Eurasian continent. This can be seen clearly in the strategic adjustment represented by its calls for a “Return to Asia” and in its plans for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). As China is embroiled in territorial disputes with some neighboring countries in the East and South China Seas and the Korean peninsula faces more uncertainties, the United States is coordinating its policies with Japan and other Asian countries in an effort to constrain China’s strategic space. The formation of a genuine “East Asian Community”, or any such inclusive security architecture design, is thus even further from reality.


The geopolitics of the regions beyond China’s western borders is vastly unlike that of East Asia. While most security threats in East Asia emerge from contradictions between sovereign states as well as strategic competition among great powers, especially the United States and China, instability in Central, South, and Western Asia and in North Africa derives primarily from tensions within various countries, from their domestic ethnic and religious conflicts, and from transnational issues like extremist movements, terrorism, and drug trafficking. The likelihood of conflict between major powers in these regions is low. These regions have abundant energy resources and large markets, however. In recent years, China’s economic cooperation with countries to its west as a whole has been developing more rapidly than its cooperation with East Asian countries. Therefore, China may decide to reduce contention with the United States and Japan in East Asia while casting an eye westward. One phrase that captures this concept is “stabilize the East, march to the West”, and it could become the basic core of a “Pan-Peripheral Strategy” for China.


The “Greater Middle East” is the heartland of Eurasia. It will most likely remain unstable for another decade and possibly beyond, and it could descend into even fiercer turmoil and conflict. If chaos in the region is not controlled, China will be drawn into or suffer from undesirable situations. China’s energy supplies and economic interests might be disrupted, and ethnic unity in China’s western regions—especially Xinjiang and Tibet—could be threatened, resulting in domestic instability. China therefore cannot stand idly by and passively watch what is happening beyond its western borders. It must use various means necessary to expand its discursive power in regional hotspots, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian nuclear issue, and domestic tensions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and possibly other countries, in particular the ISIS problem. China’s security cooperation and military exchanges with relevant countries in the region should be strengthened. China should make preparations for the day when it may have to take or approve of forceful actions to protect its own interests or to guarantee the personal security of Chinese citizens.


China should actively develop and construct a series of “continental bridges” from China’s eastern ports across the Eurasian landmass, all the way to the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic coast. At the same time, in developing its maritime strategy, China should move beyond its traditional view of itself as a land power having only to police its territorial waters. A sound and far-sighted Chinese vision should not be limited to China’s near seas. Rather, as a stronger maritime power China should strengthen and contribute to international cooperation to maintain open sea-lanes and maritime security in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. In the Bay of Bengal, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and on the African coast, China may unapologetically establish naval and cargo supply bases (but not permanent military bases) in what some international observers refer to as a “String of Pearls.” The rim of the Indian Ocean should become an important component of China’s geostrategic chessboard.


Based on its “central status” in North-South relations, China should attempt to cooperate with developed countries, employing their industrial and financial capital, research and development resources, and even their political resources and human networks to facilitate China’s “going out” economic strategy. Through such an effort, Chinese enterprises will be enriched with more capital, technological knowhow, and management skills, and will move toward the higher ends of the supply chain and be able to invest on a larger scale in developing countries. When extracting energy resources and investing in basic construction and other projects, China should consider the relative advantages of each region and country—geography, infrastructure, labor costs, technical capacity, and political and social stability—in order to gradually form a more complete global geo-economic strategy.


The accurate assessment and full exploitation of the international balance of power in the service of the national interest is the essence of great power diplomacy. Possessing considerable strength and status, China is now in a better position than ever to vigorously maneuver among global and regional powers. It should draw closer to, rather than alienate itself from, the United States, Japan, Russia, India, and other countries. China should place relations with these powers on a larger game board. Its policymakers should devise separate plans for its regional strategies toward other parts of the world, treat traditional and non-traditional security issues and development issues as interrelated, and coordinate international and domestic policies more closely. China should thus cultivate a geostrategic outlook that comprises geopolitical, geo-economic, and geo-technical factors to build a “grand strategy for peaceful development.”


While achieving this, political elites and citizens of China must maintain an attitude of prudence and modesty, guard against excessive nationalism, and avoid being intoxicated by the progress they have painstakingly made in the past three decades. Put metaphorically, China should sate its growing appetite, as is its right as a growing entity, but it need be neither gluttonous nor rude in the process. To do that it must have a clear view of the table, and so earn its name as the “middle state.”


1:By “One Line”, Mao referred to a latitude line linking Japan, China, Iran, Turkey, Western Europe, and the United States, as well as the countries close to this line, which could be coordinated to forge an informal alliance to deter Soviet expansion.


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